Since Title IX became a federal law in 1972, the data at the collegiate level depict a perplexing shift towards more male coaches of women’s sports teams. Specifically, the number of women’s teams coached by women for all collegiate sports has gone from 90% in 1971 to 43% in 2017, as cited by the Women in Sports Foundation. 

Yet, at the collegiate level, lacrosse is an outlier. For the 2016-17 season, 84% of the NCAA Division III women’s teams had a female head coach. For Division I, the number was 86%. This is almost double the national average for other sports. 

It is harder to provide a snapshot at the youth and high school level since there isn’t comprehensive data on the gender of youth coaches nationally. Anecdotally, many leagues and areas do lament the difficulty in retaining female coaches in their programs. 

In the US Lacrosse membership base, only 52% of the members who are youth coaches in the women’s game are female, while 65% of the certified coach trainers for the women’s game are female. 

Personally, in my own coaching world, I have experienced a preponderance of male coaches at the youth and club level in the mid-Atlantic area. Last spring, in our local Baltimore girls’ club league, I only faced two opponents in 12 games where the head coach was a woman. In a hotbed area of the sport, where presumably there is an abundance of women with experience in the sport, this seems striking and gives fuel to perceptions and concerns that women are less likely to step up to coach at the youth and high school level.  

What is appropriate? Is there an ideal gender makeup for a coaching staff? Do coaches who are the same gender as the kids they are coaching have a more natural affinity to understanding their athletes on and off the field?  Should we aspire to have female coaches only for female teams, and conversely male for male?  Many advocates of this position argue that a female coach provides a critical opportunity for a strong role model and mentorship to encourage young girls to embrace female leadership and envision themselves in comparable roles.  

As a female coach, I am 100% personally committed to that messaging and goal for young female athletes. I also would love to see more young women go into the coaching profession, and see more mothers commit to coaching their daughters and sons.

Addressing the concerns, obstacles, and opportunities for change, the Women in Sports Foundation and the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sports have done important work and have great resources on getting more women involved in coaching, and the various challenges that surround the biases and trends around gender and sports. 

US Lacrosse is hosting a panel at LaxCon this weekend to explore these issues in more detail: Saturday, at 12:45 p.m. in Rooms 321-323

We have some great collegiate coaches bringing their talents and experiences to our panel discussion: Jen Adams from Loyola University Maryland; Ricky Fried from the 2017 U.S. National Team and Georgetown University; and Regy Thorpe from Syracuse University. They will be joined by our subject expert, Maureen Monte, and they are all prepared to debate and dissect the pieces of this puzzle.

Specifically, our panelists will discuss perceptions and experiences around the gender issue and how it impacts the athletic experience and development of female players.  Women do not corner the market on good coaching, nor men on good or bad coaching, and the reality is that currently there are a lot of men coaching women’s teams. Given that reality, are there unique issues related to having male coaches of female teams?  (The reverse presumption would be that female coaches face comparable obstacles when coaching boys.)

It is arguable that a male coach may not relate in the same way to how a young girl acts in a team environment or competitive setting as a female coach. There is extensive literature that claims that female athletes have different needs and tendencies than male athletes, but can we uncover data on this? Is there a science behind this or is it nurture versus nature consequence? 

We know that all coaches can often misjudge or mishandle athletes and this may turn the player off from the sport. Coaches can also mistakenly slot a cerebral or late bloomer into an athletic non-starter. I do think that we as sports community should be intentional to educate all coaches that it is O.K. to understand that being a passionate athlete may look different for the different genders. 

We as coaches should not prejudge a player based on how our society has traditionally depicted an athlete. We should also be intentional to look at what male coaches bring to the table for a female athlete. Do they speak the same language? What does a successful male coach look like in our sport?  What strengths and weaknesses do they bring to the game? 

We hope to see you at Saturday’s panel discussion, and I invite anyone who wants to be part of this conversation, or would like additional resources on the topic, to reach out to me directly.

Caitlin Kelley serves as senior manager of the women’s game at US Lacrosse. She can be reached at [email protected]

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