8 Reasons Why Women Coaches Matter

by SwimSwam 68

September 01st, 2018 Industry, Lifestyle

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send them to [email protected]

Nicole M. LaVoi, PhD

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D., Co-Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. 

Recently, a piece sharing the data on lack of women head swimming and diving coaches at the collegiate level was posted here on swimswam.com. That data is part of my research at the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

The data shared was accurate: swimming and diving both get an F grade on our Women in College Coaching Report Card, at the NCAA D-I level and a D grade for both at the D-III level. What this means is that less than 1 in 4 collegiate female swimmers are coached by a same sex role model, and that fewer men get the benefit of a cross-sex role model. Let me contrast that by stating that nearly ALL (~96-98%) men’s collegiate teams are coached by men. Swimming and diving is unique in that it is a “co-ed” sport so we’d think we’d see more women coaches. Yet many college programs have a Director of Swimming that oversees both the men’s and women’s programs, and based on the data we know that person is rarely a woman.


I get this question a lot, so let me offer up some evidence-based reasons why women in sport leadership positions matter.

First, sport is one of the most visible and powerful social institutions in world. Who is seen and known in the world of sports, like head coaches, communicates who is important, relevant and valued (and who is not).

Second, girls and young women want and need female role models, like former female athletes who become coaches, who have experienced many of the same issues in their sport. Same sex role models provide emulation, aspiration, self-esteem, and valuation of abilities. Many girls grow up NEVER having had a female coach, whereas 100% of their male peers have had a male coach.

Third, when boys and men experience women as competent leaders in a context that matters greatly to them (i.e., sport), they are more likely to respect women, see females as equal colleagues, friends, and intimate partners, and are less likely to sexually objectify women.

Fourth, when girls and young women see females in coaching roles they will more likely think about coaching as a legitimate and viable career, and may aspire to become a coach. Women coached by women are more likely to go into and stay in coaching!

Fifth, sport organizations with more women coaches on staff will likely have different perspectives at the decision making table, which, according to the data, is positive for any workplace.

Sixth, women coaches need to see and interact with other women coaches for friendship, networking, support, career advice, mentorship, counseling and help in navigating a male-dominated workplace.

Seventh, when women are tokens in the workplace (<24%) it is often detrimental to mental and physical health outcomes. Female swimming & diving coaches often endure and experience alienation, feeling highly visible and subjected to scrutiny, having to overperform to gain credibility, feeling pressure to conform to organizational norms and endure increased risk for gender discrimination in the forms of sexual harassment, wage inequities, and limited opportunities for promotion; all caused by their minority status in the workplace. Over time, this takes its toll and many women coaches burnout and leave the profession.

Eighth, decades of data indicate 99% of sexual abusers and molesters of all athletes (female and male) at all levels of sport are male (see Brackenridge, 2001). With increased concerns of athlete health, wellbeing and safety, increasing the number of women coaches and gender diversity in the workplace might expedite advancement and achievement of these important goals.

In sum, women love to coach and are competent coaches. Women love to coach just as much as men, but due to the system and culture of swimming and diving they are often denied the opportunity afforded to male peers or face such an inhospitable workplace (and that means at the national, organizational, athletic department or club level) that they quit something they are passionate about and good at!

Women coaches matter, and swimming and diving has some work to do to make this a reality.

About Nicole M. La Voi, PhD

Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer in the area of social and behavioral sciences in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota where she is also the Co-Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. She received MA (’96) and doctoral degrees (’02) in Kinesiology with an emphasis in sport psychology/sociology from the University of Minnesota. After completing her graduate work, Dr. LaVoi was a Research & Program Associate in the Mendelson Center for Sport & Character at the University of Notre Dame (2002-‘05) where she helped launch the Play Like a Champion character education through sport series, and was also an instructor in the Psychology Department. LaVoi was an Assistant Professor of Physical Education and the Head Women’s Tennis Coach at Wellesley College (1994-’98), and the Assistant Women’s Tennis Coach at Carleton College (1991-’93).

Through her multidisciplinary research she answers critical questions that can make a difference in the lives of sport stakeholders—particularly girls and women. As a leading scholar on women coaches LaVoi has published numerous book chapters, research reports and peer reviewed articles across multiple disciplines. Her seminal research includes the annual Women in College Coaching Report Card which is aimed at retaining and increasing the number of women in the coaching profession, and a groundbreaking book Women in Sports Coaching (2016). She also collaborates with colleagues on media representations of females in sport, including co-producing an Emmy-winning best sports documentary titled Media Coverage & Female Athletes: Women Play Sports, Just Not in the Media (2013), and has a new documentary with tptMN coming out in November 2018 titled Game ON: Women Can Coach. As a public scholar she speaks frequently to sport stakeholders around the globe and serves on national advisory boards for the Sports Advocacy Netowrk of the Women’s Sport Foundation, espnW and WeCOACH (formerly the Alliance of Women Coaches). She is also the founder and director of the annual Women Coaches Symposium held on the U of MN campus which serves over 350+ women coaches of all sport and all levels. LaVoi focuses her research on the relational qualities of the coach-athlete relationship, the physical activity of underserved girls, the barriers and supports experienced by female coaches, and media representations of girls and women in sport.

LaVoi played four years of intercollegiate tennis at Gustavus Adolphus College where her team placed 4th (’89), 2nd (’91) and won the NCAA-III National Championships in 1990. She is a two-time NCAA Academic All-American.

Leave a Reply

17 Comment threads
51 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
35 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted

I enjoyed reading this and agree with a lot what you’ve said. I think swimming would be better off with more female coaches. However, I’m curious about the part at the end that says “women love coaching just as much as men.” Is this based on any kind of data? It seems at least plausible that something about coaching as a profession tends to appeal to men more than women. But, if there’s research behind this statement, I’d love to hear about it.

25 free champ

How are so many people down voting an honest question?


I would assume it is being reacted to less positively because it was obviously an opinion expressed by the author of the article and the reply questioned the expression of an opinion and asked for facts.


Sure that research will appear the same time you produce the data that a coaching career appeals to more men than women.


The extremely high percentage of coaches that are male is itself evidence that a lot of men are interested in coaching. When there are very few people from a group doing something, it’s logical to wonder if maybe they just aren’t that interested. I don’t see a ton of female garbage collectors or male preschool teachers, and neither of those jobs are especially hard to get.
I wouldn’t go so far as to assume lack of female interest explains the whole gap in college swim coaching, but it’s reasonable to wonder if it’s part of it.

Dr. Nicole M. LaVoi

I will address your question in a future blog. Stay tuned….a teaser however is that “interest” is shaped by the system one exists within.


Ok thanks. Enjoyed this one and it definitely got me thinking about my own experience, which didn’t involve much female coaching, at least not in high school or college. I did have some great female coaches as a 10 and under, then another great one in masters.


I think that is overly simplistic since other factors may be at play including wanting the opportunity to raise a family which is quite difficult in the swim coaching world. So, there is a major choice issue at play and not necessarily an unfair system which I think you are implying. A work schedule with more regular hours can be easier for a working Mom to manage; not the long weekends, late nights, and early mornings that swim coaching requires. Hence choices are made that further limit the pool of available female coaches.

George Brown Swim School

As a Head Swim Coach for 35+ years, I have frequently found it difficult to employ female coaches; due to 1) Family concerns, mums wanting to be available for their children 2) Split shifts – early morning coaching and late evening coaching doesn’t fit into the pattern that many women want. 3) female coaches are more plentiful at Junior squad level, where it is a part time University student job or post High school; but not for a full time coaching job.


Isn’t everyones enjoyment of something, subjective to them alone?

Dr. Nicole M. LaVoi

Dear Patrick, To address your question about interest in the coaching profession of women vs. men, I would invite you to read this piece I wrote in March 2018. Stating women aren’t as interested is a form of blaming women for the lack of women, that is very unproductive to increasing the number of women. Please read more here. Dr. LaVoi


Swim Mom

I read your article and don’t doubt your points, but there is still a legitimate question as to whether there is a difference in interest level in the swim coaching profession between men and women. It’s possible that this actually does account for some of the difference in the number of women in the profession. Perhaps pointing this out is “unproductive” but it’s also pertinent to the discussion. Are there other studies or articles, written by others, that you can recommend?


I am thoroughly enjoying these posts! I am woman who LOVES coaching. But honestly, I am much happier coaching when I am the assistant coach or a co coach. I don’t think that I am unique in this. I often wonder if others notice that teams with female coaches tend to have a LOT of them or they have none. I suspect there is a huge biological component to this. It may not be a interest level as an environment of competition. Not to “blame women” but there is something to the lack of interest.


Excellent article! Thank you to Dr. LaVoi for this much needed work. The only missing piece is research about why so many women coaches have been chased out of their head coaching jobs in D1: at least 5 and counting in the past year alone. I don’t know if there’s a grade lower than an F, but I think these losses would take NCAA swimming there.

25 free champ

IMO gender is a social construct. I am gender blind.


Glad you are, the rest of humanity certainly isn’t.


Look for another piece on barriers womem coaches face. Couldn’t fit it in this one.


Barriers women coaches face, that is one sure to get the lurkers out once published, saying it isn’t so. I’ll be in touch with some anecdotes, purely experiential in nature.


A list please and discussion of their success or lack thereof. Then a similar list of those men chased out of their jobs and their performance. I expect performance is the issue not sex.


why no data on DII swimming?


Resources! We dont have unlimited research asst.s! We do have data on some D2 conferences and schools online…but not for all D2. Can access report online under research tab on tuckercenter.org.

Dr. Nicole M. LaVoi

The data is few years old, but here is the D-II data.
LaVoi, N. M., & Heffernan, C. (2016, September). Head coaches of women’s collegiate teams: A report on select NCAA Division-II institutions, 2016-17. Minneapolis: Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.