Toni Zimmerman is a marriage and family studies professor at Colorado State University. She formerly was a sport psychology consultant to athletic teams using family therapy techniques to build team unity. Excerpted from the book "Winning the Athletic Mental Game" edited by John Sikes Jr.
Address the motivational differences between men and women athletes and what a coach should be aware of.
Women don't tend to respond as well in a rigid hierarchy as they do in a flat hierarchy. So obviously the coach is at the top of the hierarchy. Management guru Pat Himes talks about how boys from the time they are very young, are socialized to always have somebody in charge. A team player, a coach - even their play is very much coordinated with somebody who is in charge.
Whereas girls traditional kind of play that we grew up with is a circle. There is not somebody in charge, in fact, it is just the opposite. So they don't tend to respond really well to a real rigid hierarchy.
An attitude of 'I am in charge and you are not' - women don't respond really well to that. They respond a lot better to an approach that says, 'These are the ideas that I have, what are your ideas? 'This is what I'm thinking about doing, what do you think about that?'
Women, in general, will respect the hierarchy and let the coach be in charge, but far more if they feel like they have a say that they are important, they are on the team. Women need positive reinforcement, and choices - they need to feel like they are a part of what is going on.
They don't respond well to an approach of, 'just shut up and listen to what I am saying, don't ask questions.' They just have not been socialized that way. Women respond better to dialogue, communication, getting some choices, and having some say. So any way in which you can flatten the hierarchy while still being the bottom line is very helpful.
How can male coaches build rapport with female athletes?
They should be upfront about gender differences, sex roles, and sexism. There are two kinds of differences that exist in our world between males and females. One is simply gender differences. That is to say, "Men are more like this and women are more like that." For instance, women may tend to be more nurturing. Males tend to be more instrumental and narrowly focused.
But the male coach should talk honestly with females about the sexism that exists within society. It has certainly changed over the years, but there is still a long way to go. Women still hold fewer power positions or important positions in our society.
If a male coach can just demonstrate that he understands that situation, he will improve his relationship with team members.
Let's say the team gets into a situation where they have fewer fans of the game than their male counterparts, many times women athletes will internalize that in a negative way. They will think they are not good enough rather than realizing that society heavily promotes male sports. It is going to take a long time for people to be as interested in the average female team as they are in the average male team.
It is very frustrating for female athletes to get up in the morning and read all about male teams who may be winning far fewer games, but get twice the media coverage.
If females can feel like a male coach understands their situation, then when you deal with issues like lack of media coverage or low attendance, you can really talk about that through the lens of sexism in society versus a team internalizing that into how good, popular, or entertaining they are.