Girls and boys are different (duh!)

Karen CoffinCoaching girls: It’s different than coaching boys. I’ve waited a long time to write about this because male coaches (and some female) tend to be skeptical about my observations. I will plunge ahead anyway, because during 21 years of coaching girls at the high school level, I experienced the same unique issues, year after year. Please understand that not every girl reacts the same way to all situations, but the patterns are pretty common. My goal in letting myself in for all the protests I will receive, is to get parents and coaches to realize girls and boys are different (duh) and need to be coached with the differences in mind.

My first piece of advice when addressing coaches of girls’ teams is that they should “Stock up on antacids.” That’s when I begin to get the puzzled looks from the new coaches in my audience. The experienced coaches, however, begin to chuckle and nod. They know what I’m talking about. One fellow, who had a lot of coaching experience with both boys and girls teams, complained that, “someone is always crying.”
Yep. Girls may cry when they’re happy, when they're sad, when they lose or when they win. Neither yelling at them nor being nice to them will do much to stem the tide of tears. Handling the emotional swings of young female athletes is a very real part of a coach’s job; and it’s not an easy one. Most of us know a lot about the sport itself but not so much about how to channel emotions into helping a player succeed.
I’ll give just a few examples in how girls react differently to competition and coaching than boys do. Girls will overreact to criticism and may believe everything you tell them to do differently is criticism. They’re very afraid of making mistakes. Hearing cheers from fans may make them nervous rather than determined. Coaches must spend a lot of time teaching girls that mistakes are OK and how to handle adversity.
Competition is hard for many girls. Girls want to be liked and popular. Aggressively trying to beat someone goes against the “rules” for becoming popular, and that especially makes competing against a teammate very uncomfortable. Be careful about arranging challenge matches of any kind. The fallout of hard feelings can show up and affect teamwork for the rest of the season. Coaches must pay attention to helping girls understand they can still be liked and respected while competing well.
Girls need to be taught what it means to be a team player. Gossip and cliques are big problems. Girls will often ostracize the stars. Team dynamics can be wrecked if dissension breaks out between players. Generally, it is not as important to girls to win as it is to be liked and popular. You have a big problem if one of your players gets dumped by her boyfriend at lunch. She will bring all those emotions to practice or the game. Heaven help you if that boy starts dating someone else on your team!
The main priority of most female athletes is to not be embarrassed! That priority helps them be receptive to trying to improve. They will listen to advice (as long as it doesn’t sound like criticism) and try really hard in practice. Unfortunately, embarrassment is also gets in the way of winning, as they may be more afraid of looking bad than losing. Fear can mess with their effort during competition. A bad hair day, an ugly uniform or a big error can all divert her attention from competing well. Be sensitive to this.
Yes, there emotional issues to deal with in coaching girls. Hang in there. It can be the most rewarding job you’ve ever had. You just have to use what you know about differences to help your players. My biggest thrill in coaching was to watch emotional, nervous, tentative freshmen girls grow into strong, confident, resilient young women as graduates. Girls who play for the love of the sport are so much fun. They need understanding and caring coaches. Be one.

Karen Coffin, retired coach, is a member of the P.C.H.S. Athletic Hall of Fame. She’s a writer and a facilitator for Ohio Coaching Education classes. Contact her at coachcoffin

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