UTURNS: The Joy of Coaching Girls Sports

By Randy Uens

One guy’s Perspective to help other coaches.

Sports in general are going through a real retrospective period as it relates to female sports and their status compared to male sports. I am optimistic that recent negative events such as the postponement of the Women’s World Hockey Championships act as a catalyst for governing bodies to recognize that more needs to be done to level the playing fields between the genders. 

As much as many of us want the men’s and women’s games to be more  balanced, the reality is that they are very different. The appreciation of the sport, no matter if it’s male or female is the same, but the actual approaches to the games are different. There are certain nuances and tendencies that make the female version of these sports very intriguing. 

Brute force gives way to finesse and teamwork in the women’s game in many instances, taking the sports to a very pure state to be appreciated differently than the male version. 

The same discussion holds true from a coaching perspective. I personally have been limited to coaching girls youth hockey and soccer. I have no experience coaching other female sports, but many  coaches I talk to, especially in team oriented settings have had similar experiences. 

Very important:  Please realize that these musings are meant to help youth coaches with how they interact with young female players. As female players develop and mature most of these development nuances I talk about disappear. 

I know some of what I speak of  here are generalizations and there are many athletes that are not represented in some of my observations, but in general these were my experiences. 

Coaching the girls was one of the great joys I have had in my sporting life. The enthusiasm, the commitment and the desire to get better everyday was on display at every game practice and workout. 

When dealing with young male athletes, scouts will talk about intangibles such as “work ethic” and “learning to be a pro” which is all code for having the ability to bring a consistent effort to every game and practice in order to get better. 

My experience was that the girls (in general) brought that element more consistently than the boys. More focus, more discipline  and definitely listened better in practice. 

I’ve had female coaches tell me that their relationship with their players is quite different in general. Often in youth settings a male coach may dance around the direct tones that a female coach is able to take. I think most of that relates to the ability  and experience of a female coach being able to “read” the dressing room better and understand the emotional  tides with female athletes better as a whole. 

I personally feel that female athletes benefit greatly from having male coaches as well as female coaches. They become more well rounded as well as learning those interpersonal skills of communication that become invaluable outside of sports. 

Male sports miss out on that by having a male dominated staff on the teams. Female perspectives in the male sports setting will create more complete human beings  in the long run. Coaches, don’t be afraid to add someone of your opposite gender to the coaching staff to be that different voice. It will pay dividends immediately and in the long term.

As a male coach you are obviously limited to how you interact with the girls in the dressing room. You obviously can’t be loitering around and building that dressing room camaraderie. You need to change up your coaching routine and be more proactive on building those interpersonal relationships and trust. 

It is always good practice to get your assistant coaches more involved by giving them responsibilities and having them run practice once in a while, or at least run a part of practice. That allows you, as the coach, to circulate and talk to your players. Build that rapport and help understand the players personalities  better as well as what makes them tick. 

Female athletes really want to know the” why”.  With male athletes you can often get away with just telling them that this is the way we need to do things. This is generally not the right approach but for some reason you can often get away with it. The tougher job is getting the complete buy in but often that has to do with other aspects of their game.

Female athletes on the other hand really want to know why you are suggesting a concept. They want to know the nuances of it and to fully understand the concept before they agree with you that this concept makes sense. Not in a challenging way generally but more inquisitively.

Once the girls accept it, they will run with it, almost to a fault.  Boys tend to just accept that this is the way and move on with very few questions. As a coach you assume the boys  will implement it because they have accepted it, which is not the case. Quite often with the boys they may realize that the desired path will work better for them, but it would often take them a few instances of failure before they buy into the new philosophy.

This is why I found video is so important with youth boys sports. They really need to see the failure to implement new concepts. Package the video with positive clips along with the negative to deliver the message. And keep the video sessions to less than 10 minutes. 

Before games, I found it helpful to meet with the team as soon as they arrived for the game , ahead of getting their gear on. Set the stage, get them thinking of the game and then leave them to it. I would have line meetings or small groups of positional meetings once they were dressed, and then have one last Rah Rah session before we took the ice or field. 

The one area that I found so different between the boys and the girls was in how I communicated tactical concepts. This is not scientific and is only my experience but many other coaches of youth female sports have echoed this. 

One of the great attributes of female youth sports is also one of its determinants. Female youth athletes tend to be very literal. Meaning that if I said we need to use the middle of the ice more to get out of our zone, guaranteed we would be sending pucks up the middle consistently , even if the other team was standing there waiting.

Some of this comes from a desire to please and a desire to conform. Young female athletes in general do not want to be centered out either for something good or bad. They may get shy about too much praise and they definitely do not want to let their teammates down. 

I learned quickly that I needed to teach and foster that decision making to help the girls trust their own instincts .I would use the analogy that each player needs to think like a football quarterback and be thinking about each option in front of them .Run each option through their head and make the decision of which option makes the most sense. 

For an example scenario: 

As a defenceman in hockey, the player is skating around the net to retrieve a puck. Quick shoulder check, Then start evaluating what your options are. Option 1. Up the Middle for a  stretch pass, Option 2. Short pass Up The middle to the Center. Option 3. Up the boards to the winger. Option 4. Skate it out, Option 5. No options available than it may be a hard off the glass and out  or a puck placed into space to get us out of our zone. 

As the players started to understand their options they could effectively learn to trust their instinct and make the right decision.  Youth male players will instinctively make decisions and not rely on the options provided by the coach as readily.

Ultimately as a coach you are teaching the boys the reverse, trust your gut, but at the same time take the time to make the right decision. Boys tend to rely on habits rather than decision making when they are young or try to do too much on their own and not trust  their teammates. How many Toe drags at the blue line do you see instead of chips behind defencemen or short passes  to an open teammate in boys hockey. 

Teaching skills to female athletes was a dream because of the attention to detail and focus. In the end I would see a greater amount of my female athletes become graceful and fluid in their motions than their male counterparts. You see this phenomenon in golf.  Female golfers in general have amazingly perfect textbook swings, where the male golfers swings vary dramatically from player to player. 

Other aspects of team dynamics varied as well as the way the girls interacted with each other outside of the rink. The differences between the genders here will be no surprise to anyone.  As a whole my experiences were so rewarding. I truly believe that coaching the girls made me a better coach and a better communicator. I highly encourage young aspiring coaches to look hard at helping out your local girls programs to get that experience. 

Alternatively, I also recommend that male programs  create more diversity and add female coaches to these boys youth teams. It will make these teams better as well as bring a completely different approach and dynamic that will only help the boys as they mature  both in hockey and life. 

Tip of the WEEK:

Young athletes need to fit in yoga or flexibility training to their fitness regime. Maintaining flexibility as you mature will not only make you a better athlete but prevent injuries as you get older.