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Why are female coaches still a rarity in women’s soccer?

Denise Reddy is an assistant with the Washington Spirit, but only about 3 in 10 NWSL coaches are female.

Denise Reddy is an assistant with the Washington Spirit, but only about 3 in 10 NWSL coaches are female.

A longtime coach at the highest level of women’s soccer in the United States, second-year Washington Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra said he’s always believed in the importance of offering opportunities for women and girls to work in the game—and serve as good role models for younger generations. But when crafting a National Women’s Soccer League coaching staff, the No. 1 priority isn’t to hire females solely for the sake of employing women; they have to be coaches, first, Gabarra said.

“If you have opportunities, you want to offer them to women, but you have to find women who want to get in to coaching and that can be difficult,” Gabarra said. “You don’t get the opportunity to coach at the professional level because you’re a woman. You get it because you’re invested and have applied your trade and worked at being a coach. It’s not so much a number like, ‘Oh, it’s great to have a lot of females on staff,’ but it’s more, the ones you have working for you, can they be role models for young girls, or even the players on the pro team who might be interested in coaching?”

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Out of 10 teams in the NWSL, which just kicked off its fifth season, only one—Seattle Reign FC—is led by a female head coach: Laura Harvey. And, including assistant coaches, women only comprise about 30 percent of the league’s total number of coaches. Portland Thorns FC and the Washington Spirit lead the way with four and three women on their coaching staffs, respectively.

This trend, which trickles all the way down to the youth level, is not unique to women’s soccer. Much has changed—and improved—for women in sports over the last 50 years. The passing of Title IX—a law that requires gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding—has completely altered the landscape of women’s sports in this country. But while female participation in sports has sky-rocketed in the 45 years since the ruling, the percentage of women coaching women, has plummeted.

In 1974, more than 90 percent of women’s teams at the collegiate level were coached by women, according to studies published by the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sports. Per the center’s most recent release, which included information on coaches at 86 universities and colleges that compete in big-time NCAA Division I conferences, only 41.2 percent of women’s teams during the 2016-17 school year are being coached by females. Men were also hired for 53.6 percent of the 73 head coaching positions that turned over this academic year.

According to the Tucker Center’s research, women’s soccer has one of the lowest percentages of female coaches: 26.2 percent. Field hockey (100 percent), lacrosse (86 %), golf (81.3 %), equestrian (75%) and softball (72.9 %) had the highest.

So, where are all the female coaches?

It starts from the top

More women in leadership roles would be a major step in the right direction.

“One thing has to come before the other; I think once we get more women into leadership roles, it will filter through,” said Washington Spirit assistance coach Denise Reddy. “More women need to step up into leadership roles. The opportunities, equal opportunities, need to be there. It also depends on what you do and how you coach. There are definitely stereotypes that need to be broken down, but it’s not just about, ‘Oh, she’s a female.’ You have to bring something to the table.”

A recent report released by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida revealed that 91.8 percent of athletic directors at NCAA Division I member institutions are men. Now that there is more credibility—and money—in coaching women, men are flocking to these positions, most of them with more experience than their female counterparts. So, hiring officials are faced with a tough decision: Do you take a chance on a female with less experience and proven success or go with the man who has a longer track record in coaching?

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Many times, this reason alone can discourage females from even applying. That inadvertently perceived “glass ceiling” is why longtime Washington, D.C. area high school and elite level club girls soccer coach Haroot Hakopian, who always surrounds himself with female assistant coaches, also volunteers in a program to serve as the assistant to a female head coach.

“It’s important for the girls to see that because they’re so used to seeing the men be the head coaches and the female being the assistant,” Hakopian said. “It’s important for established coaches to surround themselves with qualified female coaches, help them build their cadre.”

Women must support women

Women need to support each other and push each other forward, Reddy said.

“That’s my No. 1 thing and I don’t think you find that [with women] as prevalent as you find it with men,” she continued. “If women want to be in leadership roles, they need to have a support base.”

It’s important for women to advocate for women and pick each other up rather than compete and knock each other down. It is estimated that only 10 percent of youth sports coaches are female. Youngsters are impressionable—they absorb those stereotypes that women can’t make leaders or aren’t competitive enough to win championships—and change can be difficult. It’s important that more girls are exposed to female coaching early on and shape their own opinions. Because, to be honest, what greater role model for girls and women of all ages, than someone who has literally traveled the exact roads that lie ahead for them?

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In college and professional soccer you have to get the results or you’re on the chopping block, but at all levels, especially in the youth game, you have to be in it to help players develop as players, but even more so, as people,” said Washington Spirit assistant coach Kati Jo Spisak, who also coaches high school soccer in the area. “For coaches who have played at a higher level, there is that connection. I can relate to [my players who want to play in college or professionally], because I’ve lived through it. I can show them the steps it takes to get there.”

Family matters

There is no doubt this is a factor, for both female coaches and those hiring them.

“At the end of the day, [women] are the ones who are physically having the child,” Reddy said. “You need to have time. Especially at the pro level, you can’t be like, ‘Oh, I need to pick the kids up at daycare. The higher level of coaching requires more dedication, I’m not saying it can’t be women, but maybe that’s one reason.”

Times are certainly changing, and more men are taking on bigger roles in the home. According to recent information released by the Pew Research Center, looking at social and demographic trends, the number of stay-at-home fathers doubled between 1989-2012, up to 2 million. Still, only 16 percent of stay-at-home parents are male.

Women of course had families—that they were expected to care for—in the 1970s, too, but with so few opportunities for women to even play sports competitively, those jobs were much less demanding and time consuming.

The more examples that are set, indicating that it is possible to balance coaching with family when someone wants it enough, women will likely be more inclined to follow suit—and their passion.

Those darn stereotypes

Gender has nothing to do with one’s ability to coach. But in our society, good coaching is still generally associated with aggression. And while we are light years ahead of where we were 30-40 years ago, even in this day and age, many continue tobelieve women are too emotional, or not demanding enough on their players—therefore rendering them incapable of drawing the best out of their athletes.

But, what really makes a good coach, is someone who can adapt his or her style to each individual. Everyone responds differently to various approaches; if a top athlete shuts down completely when being loudly reprimanded in front of his or her teammates, there’s no sense in continuing to communicate in that manner.

Women are perfectly capable of sternness and carrying high expectations for their charges. And there are men whose success is rooted in a gentler approach.

“I feel like in coaching and in all of life, we’re so gender specific,” said Spisak. “It’s like, ‘Oh, wow, there’s a female coaching in the NBA. How shocking that this woman has just as much knowledge as the men.’ We need to think of every coach as a human being who knows the game and has the knowledge and ability to teach and coach. Unfortunately, we are still at a place of inequality.”

Editor’s note: On April 27, the Spirit announced the coaching staff for their Development Academy program in Maryland. Bonnie Young was named coach of the U-18/19 side. Danny Skelton will coach the U-15 team with assistance from Santino Quaranta. Spisak will be the goalkeeper coach for all levels. Reddy is the academy’s Technical Director.


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