Nature vs. Nurture in Coaching

From Friday’s Chronicle of Higher Ed daily emailing:

Even though the number of women who participate in college athletics has risen dramatically since Title IX became law in 1972, the percentage of women’s teams that have women as head coaches has declined during that same period and in 2002 reached its lowest point, according to a report being released today.

The report, by researchers in the Coaching and Gender Equity Project at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, says that in 2002, 44 percent of women’s teams had women as head coaches, down from 52.4 percent in 1982. In 2004, the most recent year for which data are available, that number had increased only marginally, to 44.1 percent. The report also says that as of 2004, less than 2 percent of men’s teams have a woman at the helm, and that women are “nearly absent” from the position of athletics director.

The article primarily points to socialization reasons to explain the findings. But there is another very good reason that seems to come as an admission:

“This is one of the few professions where women’s participation has declined,” says Robert W. Drago, a professor of labor studies and women’s studies who is one of the report’s five authors. “What will make it difficult to turn around is the fact that so many women athletes seem to prefer male coaches.” (emphasis mine)

The report’s authors found that most of the 41 female athletes they interviewed in three different focus groups thought male coaches were better at commanding respect and that female coaches tended to create more “drama.” One woman said that “there’s just something more credible about male coaches.” The 41 women included participants from all three divisions in the National Collegiate Athletic Conference.

I’ve heard it said that collegiate athletic programs are old boys’ clubs. That may be true to an extent, but athletes want to win. Athletic program officials want to win. To win means that you hire the resources that you believe will help you win. If you don’t, your competition will and this competitive pressure directs you to hire the best resources available. Mistakes will be made – it’s part of the trial and error process that guides the market. But systematic and repeated mistakes will not be made industry-wide. The good old boys club, observed through the choices they’ve made, has effectively stated that male coaches generally do better at winning… and the female athletes in this study have concurred.

At the risk of becoming a poor man’s Larry Summers, how much of the difference between male and female coaches is due to nurture and how much of this is due to nature? I don’t have the answer to that question although I do believe that it deserves objective scholarly attention.

Of course, this does not mean that a particular female coach cannot be successful and it does not mean that a particular male coach will be successful. Pat Summit is a pretty darned good coach and Woody Widenhofer (former Missouri and Vanderbilt football coach) is, at best, pretty darned mediocre (but schools keep hiring him!). But the comment above that states “there’s just something more credible about male coaches” suggests that nature may play a bigger role than some might want to admit.

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Author: Phil Miller

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