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.
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?