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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117 Comments on "It’s Beyond Time We Stepped Up For Women Coaches"

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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.

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!

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.

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

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.

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 »

Well said.

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 »
Joe Bagodonuts

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.

Can you please write for this website

MIKE IN DALLAS
I cannot speak directly to the issue of female coaches at the elite college level and beyond. My university coach was a male — and he did a wonderful job, even if we were only NAIA-level swimmers. HOWEVER, my high school coach was a woman — who dedicated her entire life to swimming and to us! I shall NEVER forget her telling me poolside, after a grueling set, that MY problem was that I could still stand, talk, and get out of the pool afterwards: to her, that was a sure sign I was only giving 98%! What a blow to the high school male ego. She was right — and I changed my attitude — and went to regionals… Read more »
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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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