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Different Strokes

BY BILL MANNING
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

Coaching men and coaching women are both different and the same. Most writing on the topic discusses how women differ from men as if men are normal and women are the exception. Female athletes are generally perceived as valuing relationships, social cohesion, and open communication. Connecting with their peers and coach on a personal, more emotional level is desired. Feeling accepted provides confidence, and consensus is preferred over conflict. Athletic men are more often portrayed as inherently aggressive, individualistic, and hierarchal. They respect coaches because of their achievements and are acutely aware of their own status within the team. They can be highly motivated working antagonistically. 

Coaches should recognize that differences exist but also beware of harmful stereotyping. Anyone coaching women would do well to prioritize healthy, inclusive relationships and open communication. But so too should anyone coaching men. The stereotypes about men do not mean they don’t care about what women do. To assume otherwise, to think that the coaching that benefits women isn’t necessarily helpful for men, is to miss a great opportunity to coach men better.

Two-way communication between coaches and athletes benefits everyone. The belief that women want to feel heard and appreciated and do better when included in decision-making is true. A male may “just get on with it,” but all athletes, male or female, will invest more and do better if they understand the reasoning behind the coaching decision. This is empowering athletes. Listen to the men. Give them the same opportunity to voice their input as the women, and they will respond equally well.

Team dynamics and sociability are hugely important to most women. Many row as much to belong to a team as for the competition. This social connection needs regular reinforcement both at and away from practice. It may not create an immediate problem telling a male to go out on his own in the single while the coach works with the remainder of the team in big boats. Do this repeatedly to a young woman and predictably she may feel left out and quit. Less recognized is that a young male is just as likely to feel undervalued and check out. Too often, we tolerate guys isolating and “teasing” someone when women would characterize the same behavior as unacceptable “bullying.” It’s problematic regardless. Everyone wants to feel included.

Women and men supposedly view competition differently. Men regularly portray it as a battle with an opponent and cite war analogies. They frame the challenge as “beating” someone.  Women may experience it more as a struggle that unifies the team or boat. Women excel when challenged to support the boat/team, to pull together, and do their best for one another. Relate the struggle to caring for one’s “brothers,” and the guys will also rise to the occasion. It’s far harder giving up on your teammates than on yourself.

Gender can shape how a coach approaches individual athletes, and different approaches can succeed because of differences between males and females. There is nothing wrong—and much that is beneficial—with coaching men and women somewhat differently, but perhaps it’s best to coach all athletes as one “should” coach women.

Regardless, the differences among individuals are more significant than the differences between the sexes. Good coaching coaches the individual first and foremost. Athletes respond best to coaching that appreciates and treats them as the unique person they are. Effective coaching identifies how each individual athlete responds, regardless of gender, and uses this to propel them to greater success and happiness.  

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