Do Women Runners Need Female Coaches?

Clockwise from top left: Molly Huddle and Kim Conley's coach, Ray Treacy, Jenny Simpson's and Emma Coburn's coach Mark Wetmore, Des Linden's coach, Keith Hanson, and Shalane Flanagan's, Amy Hasting's, Emily Infeld's and Shelby Houlihan's coach, Jerry Schumacher.
Clockwise from top left: Molly Huddle’s coach, Ray Treacy, Jenny Simpson’s and Emma Coburn’s coach Mark Wetmore, Des Linden’s coach, Keith Hanson, and Shalane Flanagan’s, Amy Hasting’s, Emily Infeld’s and Shelby Houlihan’s coach, Jerry Schumacher.

Picture a running coach: someone in command, respected by their team, competent and knowledgeable about the sport. Maybe this person is holding a clipboard and stopwatch, and wearing a cap bearing the team’s name. Are you picturing a man, maybe in his fifties or sixties? I am. (I probably ruined the effect of this experiment with the title of this article, but you get the point.)

I have that picture in my mind, not because I’m a sexist or believe men are better coaches than women. I have that picture in my mind because the vast majority of running coaches for collegiate and post-collegiate runners fit that profile.

While men are great and in general do a fine job of coaching women runners, I can’t help but feel like the running world is missing something because of the lack of women coaches in the sport. 

Where are all the women coaches?

Show up to any cross country or track meet and it’s pretty clear that men outnumber women in the coaching ranks. Based on my observations as a track and cross country athlete and coach, while certainly not in the same number as men, women make up a fair portion of high school coaches. Collegiate coaches tend to be older men with a few women mixed in. On the elite level, female coaches are virtually unheard of.

This discrepancy is certainly not for lack of women athletes. Thanks largely to Title IX, by the 2015 outdoor track season there were overall slightly more women than men competing in NCAA track and field: 28,797 women vs. 28,177 men. And women outpace men by a larger margin in road race participation. Yet, the top coaches across the sport are almost exclusively men. Since its creation in 1969, the award of U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Association Men’s Coach of the Year, which is awarded to one collegiate coach per season in each of the the three NCAA divisions, has never been presented to a woman in Division I. Fair enough; men are mostly coached by men.

But here I want to talk about women coaching women. The Women’s Coach of the Year award has existed since the mid-80s to early-90s, depending on season and division. Across all seasons and divisions the award has been given at least 180 times, but only 19 of those Women’s Head Coach of the Year titles, slightly over 10%, were awarded to a woman.

As someone who ran throughout college for a successful, respected male coach whose coaching helped me, I still wonder how things would be different if I had a female coach and why there aren’t more of them. Specifically, I wonder if there are situations a female coach would be better equipped to handle than a male coach and what the implications are that women coaches are so hard to come by.

Does experience make a woman coach better than a male coach for female athletes?

I was initially skeptical that a woman coach could handle any particular situation better than a male coach, but talking with some former teammates about this convinced me that there is tremendous value in having the coach be someone who has experienced much of what women runners go through, even if that experience doesn’t translate into words or actions in obvious ways. Also, if men pretty much always get to be coached by someone who can personally relate to their experience in the sport and in life as men, it seems unfair that women often don’t have the same opportunity. 

One point that is always brought up in discussions of coaching women is menstruation. Male coaches may be uncomfortable talking about periods. While, athletes don’t often need to discuss their period with their coach, the absence of one or big cycle changes can indicate health issues that may or may not be related to training. Of course, men can learn to discuss these things and all coaches of women athletes should be able to, but with a male coach athletes may be shy about bringing up the topic. If the issue is that the athletes need someone to complain to or commiserate with, it doesn’t need to be the coach, a female training partner or teammate can help with that. To me, periods themselves are a relatively minor factor, but they are symbolic of a more important issue: a coach who has gone through the same experience as her athletes can understand them better.

Another factor that women face differently than men is eating disorders. There is tremendous pressure on women from both inside and outside the sport to be thin, and having a female coach can create a safer space for women to air their concerns on this. A male coach may not understand how damaging it can be to a female athlete when he tells her she’d be faster if she lost weight. Eating disorders and body image are very complex issues: they exist not only on the individual level, but on the cultural level as well, in the culture of many teams and in the culture of running as a whole. Having very likely experienced this themselves, women coaches may have a deeper understanding of the problem.

There are other, more subtle differences too. Women are not just “slow men”: we are biologically and physiologically distinct, which can sometimes call for a different approach to training. A guy who is new to coaching women might be inclined to treat his athletes like men, only slower.

I believe that for specific knowledge about women athletes, men can acquire some of it, but women know more of it from the get-go, experientially. The question is, then: how much does this matter? I first thought that the difference is negligible, provided male coaches take the time to fill those knowledge gaps. Hearing from my former teammates, though, convinced me that the gap in lived experience between male and female coaches, which men can’t acquire, is significant.

Coach Laura Caldwell and two of her athletes she coached to 2016 OTQs, Dylan Hassett (l) and Nicole DiMercurio (r).

Does our sport need women coaches?

Finally, I want to address the broader implications of having or not having female coaches in this sport. Even if some women do not prefer a female coach to a male one, there are more general reasons for which I believe having female coaches is very important. If we are always the runners, but never the authors of running books, never the outspoken LetsRun posters, never the coaches, what does that say about our role in this sport? To me, it implies we are women playing at a man’s game. For this sport to be truly ours, to have ownership of running, women need to fill all the roles more equally with men.

The coach is a figure of authority and expertise, and too often those qualities are ascribed to men only. Having women as coaches shows that women can be the ones commanding respect, the running experts, the leaders of our sport. For me this is perhaps the most powerful reason to have women coaches: for both women and men to see women as capable equals in the sport, in knowledge, in commitment, in determination, and grit, if not in actual speed.

A lot of my thoughts come from my experience as a college athlete. Do you think these things apply differently at the post-collegiate level? What have your experiences been with male and female coaches?

I am a runner based in Boston. I am also an AmeriCorps member and soon-to-be grad student. I like to write about gender disparities in running and the mental aspects of training and racing.

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  1. Great post, Chive! I think there are so many reasons why there are few top women coaches: relative recent wide-spread participation in the sport; general issues of women in leadership positions in historically male fields; the relative difficulty for women of being seen as an expert (how many men with very little background hold themselves out as experts, where women need to prove themselves with degrees and a long resumes and still have difficulty being taken seriously in running or other fields?); etc. But I believe whole-heartedly that more women in these leadership roles will elevate the sport all the way from athlete experience to the policies of governing bodies.

  2. There are a lot of female coaches out there in the world, but I would definitely like to see more in leadership roles, coaching pro athletes! What’s the best kick off to an approach, in your opinion? Do woman coaches need to pursue sponsorship deals for development teams, or do sponsored athletes need to pursue woman coaches, or … ? I confess, even as much as I have learned about the high levels of running over the last year, how all that stuff works is really fuzzy to me!

    1. How do we get more women coaching in the top levels? I think there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here because we need more women to be coaches before more women see that role as a viable option for them. One thing I think would help is for head coaches to deliberately train/mentor their female assistant coaches for head coaching positions. With male assistant coaches that expectation is probably there more–that he will go on to be a head coach. But women assistant coaches (as it talks about in the Runner’s World article linked in this post) are more often sidelined to “team mom” duties. A good start would be for head coaches to consciously give female assistants more responsibility and encourage them to go for head coaching positions.

  3. Really interesting post! I had a female assistant coach in college who I really clicked with, much more so than the male head coach. It would be great to see more women coaches at all levels. Maybe the fact that there are more at the high school level will start to trickle upwards to college and professionals.

    A quick note- Kim Conley’s coach is Drew Wartenburg (who also happens to be her husband)

  4. I have had a mix of coaches over the years, but the majority of my head coaches for running were male, with male and female assistants.. I talked to some coaches about some things, and other coaches about others. I think for ME personally though, the trust and confidence I have to talk about specific things have more to do with the person than their gender. I have a male coach now, and have no issues saying “that workout sucked, I have 6 pounds of water weight and there is not enough midol in the world for these cramps”. In high school I was far more likely to talk about things with my female assistant coach though admittedly. At the end of the day I don’t really care if my coach is male or female, I want a coach I can trust, respect and will help me reach my goals and one who knows when to push me and when to pull me back.

    That doesn’t mean though, that I wouldn’t like to see more female coaches. I think there are a lot of benefits that you can get from someone who has experience being a female. Menstruation, pregnancy, etc etc these are things that no matter how many daughters a guy has- cannot fully understand. But, I feel it’s also sexist to say that the only reason women could be good coaches are because of that experience. Many women need to think and process things differently than men…we are VERY different beings both physically and emotionally. I agree 100% that many of the ways things are in the sport right now, make women feel like they are playing in a mans sport- I want to change that just as much as you do and the next female does!

    I will admit though, that I would never choose a coach simply because of their gender. I wouldn’t pick a female over a male just because she is female. Just as I wouldn’t choose a presidential candidate simply because of her gender, how is that any better than NOT picking someone because of their gender. I Choose the people in my life based on values, how I feel around them, what they add to my life, what I can add to theirs- gender does not affect those things. I feel like there would be more female coaches, if more people set aside the fact that gender doesn’t NEED to be taken into account when picking something. That isn’t to say some women feel far more comfortable around women- see all women’s gyms etc. There is nothing wrong with that, do what is best for you- but pick a coach because he or she offers you what makes you comfortable, and make sure you are getting what you need. I would bet that if coaches were on a website, and you listed their certifications, accomplishments, and specialties but didn’t list their gender- more women would be chosen than current coaching numbers show.

    Great post Chive, definitely thought provoking!

    1. Thanks for the comments! I wouldn’t choose a coach based solely on gender either. I like what you’re saying at the end about hiring. Hiring practices need to be more equal in some way so that women have the option of choosing female coaches who are just as good/qualified as the men.

  5. Really, there aren’t that many professional female coaches in ANY sport. Bela Karolyi is one example I can think of in a sport that you would think would be dominated by female coaches.

    I only ran a couple of track seasons in high school, under a women who admitted she had no idea what she was doing and only did it so we could have a team. After that, I worked somewhat unofficially with two different coaches for one marathon season each. They were both men, both older than me (one about my dad’s age, the other probably 10 years older than me). Both had lots of experience coaching cross-country and track. Generally I felt both gave me the same type of training as if I was a high school boy. I wasn’t. I was a woman in my 20s who started running in her 20s and who qualified for Boston on her first attempt. My running background, my experience, my motivation isn’t like a 17-year-old’s.

    When I decided to hire a coach this year, I specifically looked for experience coaching female athletes similar to me — ones who found pretty high-level success without being collegiate standouts. I really didn’t even think about the gender of my coach, just that I wanted someone with a proven track record doing what I wanted to do.

    Regardless, I do think women could and should be as prolific in coaching professional runners. Considering some trials success this year, Lauren Fleshman might be one of the first to garner the type of attention it will take to inspire others.

    1. Great point! This is true even in the “women’s sports”.

      Did you end up with a male or female coach?

      Is Lauren the coach of Little Wing? I’ve seen some stuff about it, but couldn’t tell who was coaching. If she is, that should be shouted from the rooftops! Which maybe it has been and I just completely missed it. Totally possible!

      1. Yeah, I’m pretty sure she does. Maybe Lauren will be the next great coach of professional runners! (Now that she’s officially retired from racing…)

      2. Yes – Lauren coaches Little Wing. I actually heard her in an interview where she talked about journalists incorrectly saying her husband was the coach, while he has nothing to do with the team! Seems we’re just so hard wired to look for the male coaches.

        1. I thought that myself because I read an article that lead off saying the group was initiated by Jesse or something like that! And it disappointed me! I think the assumption that Jesse was the coach for some might be that we have preconceived notions, yes, but also that no one is saying LAUREN FLESHMAN IS COACHING TEAM LITTLE WING like that. But now we know and can say it so it’s clear to all 🙂

      3. I ended up with a male coach who, interestingly enough, has the exact same sense of humor as my female best friend. Had I been able to find more female coaches with the background I wanted, that might have ended up differently!

  6. Yes yes yes to all of this article! I’m a former collegiate athlete – in a non-running sport – who was lucky enough to have some amazing female coaches. My husband is a collegiate coach – of female athletes. He has really struggled to try and find good female coaches to bring on board, because he recognizes the value in having that perspective, and having coached men and women, recognizes there are HUGE differences in how they play, how they need to be coached.

    I coached myself (in this other sport) at a club and provincial level but pulled away once I had kids due to the time demands. I think this is a very common barrier for female coaches, and one we need to explore for sure. I think that especially at the high school and college levels, having female role models is even more important.

  7. Really interesting post! Stephanie Bruce coaches as well, correct? ( I think she coached Sarah Mac in the trials). I have a male coach (non-professional, non-collegiate) and while he’s great, I’ve often thought how great it would be to have a female, specifically for body image and period/hormone related issues like you said.

  8. I think it depends on the coach and the athlete and whether or not they “click” – and that usually has nothing to do with being male or female. I had one female coach (not in running – I didn’t start that until after college) and all of my other coaches through college, for the most part were male and it was never an issue.

    I have a coach now (for running) who is male. He has also coached several high level female athletes in the past, and I am completely comfortable talking about my period (I’m pretty blunt/straight-forward with everyone), eating, etc. I wouldn’t pick a coach based them being male or female, it doesn’t matter to me.

    That being said, I AM a coach (not running) – and since the girls I coach are younger (not adults) it is probably good that they have female and male coaches because they may not be comfortable talking to our male coach about certain things – he is also not good at fixing ponytails, which at this point is usually what the girls who work with him ask the other female coaches to help with 🙂

    So yes, it would be great to see more female coaches at the higher / elite / professional levels but I don’t think that it is necessary for a female athlete to have a female coach.