It’s Beyond Time We Stepped Up For Women Coaches

The most qualified women’s swimming coach in the world wasn’t in Rio for the Olympics. Instead she was somewhere far away, probably watching on the television like a common fan. While Women’s head coach David Marsh helmed the United States women to an excellent performance. McKeever’s absence was conspicuous.

Teri McKeever had coached American swimmers to multiple medals in the last three Olympics. Her absence did little to alter the perception that the swim coaching ranks is still an “old boys club”. The combined Olympic coaching staff was entirely men. The recently released “National Team Coaches” list has three women out of sixty one total names.

Much has been made about the progress in women’s athletics in the forty years since the passage of Title IX. There is no question that women and girls have been participating in swimming in even greater numbers than men for quite some time. This 2014 demographics report listed roughly 55,000 more female members than male in USA Swimming.

That participation has bolstered great performance at the Olympic level. The American women’s swimmers would have won the medal table even if the men had come up with nothing.

When you turn to the coaching ranks, there is nowhere near the same level of participation. McKeever remains the first and only woman selected as head coach of an Olympic team. Women coaching women’s Division 1 programs are rarer than men, and women coaching men are even rarer.

In the ACC, there is just one female head coach of a men’s team, Courtney Hart at Georgia Tech. The SEC has no women head coaches at all. The PAC-12 has McKeever (Women) and Cyndi Gallagher (UCLA Women) and the freshly hired Jennifer Buffin at Oregon St (Women).

In club coaching ranks, female head coaches are just as far and few between, and it’s a problem that goes way beyond US borders. In Denmark, where I’ve lived the last three years, there have been as few as one female head coach out of 50+ full time swimming head coaches in the entire country.

There have been token efforts to address the issue in college athletic departments. It is an unwritten rule that a male head coach who presides over a women’s or combined team must have at least one female coach on his staff. For an alarming number of programs, that is exactly what happens.

This can also cause plenty of harm to female coaches. For one, they are aware that they can be perceived as getting their job because of their gender, and not their ability. I have also had female coaches tell me many times of various programs they actively avoid applying to despite qualifications because of their reputation for being a bad environment for women to work in.

All too frequent female coaches can be judged as harsh or overbearing for leadership qualities that are admired in male coaches. In this space and others I’ve seen McKeever subject to a whisper campaign, while male coaches who have actually done something unethical are defended.

Another unwritten rule of coaching hires is that more often than not hiring is not done through official channels. There’s the official job posting, of course, but more often than not coaches hire someone they already know or are “connected to”. Women coaches can often feel left out of informal chatter that takes place at meets or conferences, the places where such relationships start.

But perhaps the most troubling fact is that women’s participation in college coaching is getting worse, not improving. The sport suffers every day without a huge pool of talented, amazing coaches because of this inequality. It’s beyond time for the male coaches who hold so much power in the sport to get interested.

Chris DeSantis is a personal swim coach and consultant. He has an advanced degree in research backed methods for mental preparation. Like his facebook page and email him at [email protected] to book a consultation.

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Coachandy
4 years ago

Or…maybe they aren’t that good. Meritocracy is the direction we should be looking towards. Hire women just because they are women? Sounds a wee bit sexist. A stud coach is a stud coach.

GoldenB
Reply to  Coachandy
4 years ago

So let me get this right. There are far more female swimmers than male swimmers, which clearly translates into lived experience and expertise. And women are generally thought of as being excellent communicators and teachers, which is what coaching is at it’s core. And yet, you feel these two facts equal: no qualified women? And you coach? Awesome!

Alec
Reply to  GoldenB
4 years ago

Please point to me where OP said there were no qualified women.

The point of the above post was: the most qualified coaches should coach. Their gender is irrelevant.

GoldenB
Reply to  Alec
4 years ago

“Or maybe they aren’t that good”. First sentence, Alec. First sentence.

Anon
Reply to  GoldenB
4 years ago

Does that say “there are no qualified women” ?

That says we shouldn’t hand things people they don’t deserve based on their gender–male or female. Which a sentiment no rational person would disagree with.

Joel Lin
4 years ago

Chris, I appreciate that you are exposing a thorn in the coaching profession. You have a valid point to make and a reasonable amount of data supporting it. There are too few women coaches at the fully funded, major conference NCAA programs. At the club swimming level, I’m not sold that anyone who wants to be a coach wouldn’t be able to at some roots level and then grow a program and a reputation: those barriers don’t seem material. Any Joe or Jane could start s club program. To the extent more women aren’t club coaches might better be explained by fewer wanting to be, unless data suggests prejudice (which I don’t see presented). We know that the path to… Read more »

coacherik
Reply to  Joel Lin
4 years ago

Well said.

Joel Lin
Reply to  Chris DeSantis
4 years ago

Olympic women’s and men’s team coaches are selected well in advance of Trials. There is no argument needed that Marsh did more this cycle than did McKeever. After all, if Phelps had only qualified as a relay swimmer Bowman would have still been the head men’s Olympic coach. The head coach criteria is quite different. That process reminds us a bit of the lifetime Oscar that goes to an actor who wasn’t necessarily in a really good movie this year, but was in lots and lots of really good movies in past years. By this standard Marsh had the volume and pile of endurance boxes covered from many prior Olympic cycles where he produced dozens of Olympians. McKeever was the… Read more »

Joel Lin
Reply to  Chris DeSantis
4 years ago

I can’t argue at all with your conclusion that the ani-McKeever matter would have been more if she were Missy’s primary coach going into Rio. That’s just a given. You make fair points that there is too much grey matter and too little transparency in the Olympic head coach selections. I’m old enough to remember all of the things John Collins has done in the sport, but he’s never been an Olympic coach or assistant. Was it the hair? Or should we blame Rick Carey’s hair? Yet his contemporary at Harvard rode the Bobby Hackett lightening to be appointed as a US Olympic assistant TWICE, with a due nod to Berkoff as well. Another Maryland based coaching contemporary we don’t… Read more »

Greg
Reply to  Joel Lin
4 years ago

As she is an incredibly modest woman, deserving of more credit then she is given, and someone I have had the honor and privilege of working with on a few occasions, Peggy is actually “Carol” Penny Taylor. Jager always speaks highly of her.

dmswim
Reply to  Joel Lin
4 years ago

Penny Taylor is a class act and should be given significant credit for Jager. Sadly, most people don’t know about her. She also was a phenomenal swimmer in her own right–a 1948 Olympian and American record holder. Sadly, she was only ever “team manager” or “team leader” for international meets–never a coach.

swimdoc
Reply to  Joel Lin
4 years ago

Well argued, as usual. And thanks for the article, Chris. Since you mentioned Bowman, it’s always struck me that no one has ever said boo about Bowman ruining Agnel’s career. Did he? Well, there’s about as much evidence for that as there is of McKeever ruining Missy’s career. Both Agnel and Missy won Olympic gold and were breakout stars in London 2012, both switched coaches to name brands, and both fell flat on their face in LCM ever since, even after changing coaches again. You can bet if Agnel had gone and trained with McKeever instead of Bowman (I realize she’s not known for training men, but bear with me for the sake of argument), she would have been pilloried… Read more »

Cheatinvlad
Reply to  swimdoc
4 years ago

Actually people blamed Agnels woes on Bowman for at least two years after he left, but since Agnel has never regained his form it’s just recently started to die down.

swimdoc
Reply to  Cheatinvlad
4 years ago

The ratio of Bowman hate re Agnel vs McKeever hate re Missy on these message boards has been about 1:1000. Perhaps in Europe it’s different.

Cynthia mae Curran
Reply to  Joel Lin
4 years ago

Franklin is not an underwater dolphin kick swimmer like Coughlin and Vollmer. Terri is great at coaching swimmers with underwater dolphin kicks like NCAA backstroke winner Cindy Tran.

PK boo I\'m sad my name is too short now
Reply to  Chris DeSantis
4 years ago

“Why do you think that is?” While you are probably not incorrect in the assertion that she has received more criticism than Schmitz in part because she’s a woman, you’re also leaving out the factor that the expectations set for her based on the massive recruiting classes she brought in were set exceptionally high. When you recruit a group of athletes who on paper have the potential to essentially be “the best college team, ever” and you don’t reach those heights, while it is unfair, that criticism will happen. Much could be written about the difference between coaching the bluest of blue chip athletes coming out of high school (who are more likely to be closer to finished products, with… Read more »

Emily White
Reply to  Chris DeSantis
4 years ago

Thanks for pointing out the sexism of criticism that is constantly lobbied towards Teri that doesn’t exist for other coaches. It’s hard to watch from the sidelines. I hope our younger sisters, daughters and sons enter into a more equal professional world that what currently exists across the board.

Murica
Reply to  Emily White
4 years ago

They won’t

Joe Bagodonuts
Reply to  Chris DeSantis
4 years ago

Why is it concerning to you “if women are not choosing coaching”? Isn’t personal choice what we all strive for? Instead of identity politics and counting colors, genders, nationalities, etc., as “proof” all is well in the world? I don’t see what ANYONE brings to the coaching table strictly as a function of their gender. Not all men are the same. Not all women are the same. Each person brings their own experiences, skills, strengths and weaknesses. As a result, people born on a Tuesday MAY be underrepresented in the coaching ranks, but that doesn’t mean it is as a result of something nefarious going on. Therein lies the danger in looking strictly at numbers for proof of a balanced… Read more »

W3T
Reply to  Joel Lin
4 years ago

I think that part of the reason that there are fewer female club coaches in the top ranks is because the pay is so low for most coaching positions. When it comes time to start a family, if your job doesn’t pay enough to cover the child care you need to cover your hours at work, it doesn’t make sense to work. There is also the fact that most clubs aren’t large enough to be covered by the FMLA. If a coach gets pregnant, and needs to take time off, the club does not need to guarantee that her job will be there when she’s ready to come back. Men in similar situations don’t typically find themselves in the same… Read more »

HypeTrain
Reply to  Chris DeSantis
4 years ago

Why stop at women? Why don’t we make it attractive to “everyone”? Token efforts, unwritten rules, and informal chatter are things that all minorites and/or underrepresented people in the sport of swimming go through. Sure in this case it’s easier to point to women as they’ve had more success than any other group but who’s to say it can’t be a win win for everyone.

Just Another Opinion
Reply to  Chris DeSantis
4 years ago

So you’re saying coaches need to become more expensive? It’s not win-win if it kills the industry.

Joe Bagodonuts
Reply to  W3T
4 years ago

Why is it that you think that women are dissuaded MORE by low pay to go into coaching than men? Your position is that, in order to explain why there are relatively fewer females in club coaching is because of the low pay. Are you actually making an argument that men are willing to accept the lower pay and women are holding out for more pay – thereby removing themselves from the marketplace? I’m surprised that your comment has not generated more responses since you seem to be comfortable with the assumption that women, more than men, value their coaching skills at a rate higher than the marketplace will bear.

Markster
Reply to  Joel Lin
4 years ago

Can you please write for this website

SWIMGUY12345
4 years ago

Alrighty, I realize there is a lack of women in coaching and that there were very few named to the national team. It’s unfortunate and something does need to change. However, let’s not bring up Teri Mckeever and why she should’ve been named to the team. I don’t recall any of her swimmers besides Dana Vollmer that were DIRECTLY under her making the team or having phenomenal performances. Kathleen Baker prepped at MAC, Abbey Weitzel was at Canyons, and Cierra Runge prepped at NBAC and is transferring. I believe you traditionally get recognition the more swimmers you put on the team. And from what I’ve heard from swimmers, I’m not particularly a fan of Mckeever. I’m not getting into details… Read more »

califanfun
Reply to  SWIMGUY12345
4 years ago

Unfortunately UCLA doesn’t do so well. Because of the school’s fame and the location they are pretty lucky with their recruits, but after the freshman year all that talent is gone. That team deserves better – it should be a contender for the top place in NCAA. Wake up Bruins!

Canadianproud
Reply to  SWIMGUY12345
4 years ago

I know it’s more Americans on this side of discussion but how many Canadian Female swimmers swim with her and what is there success?

Coaches
Reply to  SWIMGUY12345
4 years ago

From what is seen and heard, on deck, at meets, not a fan of Cal coach McKeever’s treatment of swimmers and injurious training. What this coach says to swimmers post-meet in locker rooms is cringworthy and destructive. Never hear it from male coaches. McKeever doesn’t know that she can be overheard? Her swimmers past and present will only speak in private and every year some very good, confident swimmers with strong self esteem leave Cal’s program. Otherwise, once on the team, almost impossible to transfer.

SWIMGUY12345
Reply to  Coaches
4 years ago

That’s exactly what I’ve heard as well regarding Mckeever. And CALIFANFUN, I suppose you’re right but I do think not having a coed program hurts. Not majorly, but I think it does.

About Chris DeSantis

Chris DeSantis

Chris DeSantis is a swim coach, writer and swimming enthusiast. Chris does private consulting and coaching with teams and individuals. You can find him at www.facebook.com/cdswimcoach. Chris is a 2009 Graduate from the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the first professional athletic coach …

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