How Do Combined vs. Single-Sex NCAA Programs Affect Collegiate Performance?

I remember enjoying my tour of the one single-sex collegiate program I visited during my recruitment process in the fall of 2019. But in the end, even a generous financial aid deal didn’t change the fact that the New York weather was too cold, the air too smoggy, and the single-sex athletic environment too daunting to me. I was one of two women in my club training group for years and I thrived off of racing the men and the energy they brought to practice. I took pride in doing their mid-distance butterfly sets. When looking at colleges, it felt natural to assume I’d find the most success at a co-ed program. 

Teams that have recently combined their two genders includ Cal (2022), Florida (2021), and Ohio State (2017). Teams that have recently split include Georgia (2022).

I was a lot like some of UCLA swim and dive’s prospective recruits, according to senior swimmer Katrina Sommer, who competed for Indiana University’s co-ed program for one year before transferring to UCLA’s single-sex women’s team. 

“They say ‘I really would miss having a men’s team,’” she told SwimSwam. Sommer understands their mindset firsthand; she initially believed a co-ed team would give her a competitive edge since she’d be training with men. 

“What I’ve learned over my years in colleges, especially since transferring, is that the girls in the pool are gonna push you so much harder than the guys,” Sommer said. “I’ve found that I feel more greatness competitively on my female team than a [co-ed] team.” 

Sommer, an economics major, ultimately transferred from Indiana to UCLA to be closer to home and pursue her academic goals. She grew up competing on Irvine Novaquatics and missed the community she created in Southern California. 

I also really wanted to be surrounded by a supportive group of women,” she said. “I felt like I had more ability to choose a college and team that really aligned with my values of supporting women’s empowerment and women in athletics. I wanted to contribute to a team of amazing and hard-working females, with a female coaching staff; and for me, that was really empowering.” 

Sommer found success at UCLA last season, becoming a three-time Pac-12 Championship finalist by blasting lifetime bests in the 200 back, 200 IM, and 400 IM. She credits the fierce motivation she found with her teammates during some of the three-hour long course IM sets that got her to that point. 

“The amazing thing about a female-only program [is] you always know the girls in the lanes next to you will continue to fight to the very last second,” she said. “There’s almost a service aspect to it: I will push myself, not just for my own success but because I want to see my teammate make NCAAs, or achieve her goal this season. I have felt that more with being on an only-female team. Maybe it’s seeing a part of yourself in the freshmen… but there’s something really special about training with a bunch of hardworking and talented women.

“With more experience and perspective under my belt,” Sommer reflected on her initial decision to go co-ed, “my want to have male teammates stemmed from the idea that if I wanted to be fast, I had to train with men.” While keeping up with her male teammates was empowering in its own way, she said “that comes from a place where we value men’s sports more than female sports.

“I felt like I was never really told or taught that women’s sports were just as important as men’s. Of course, men’s times are faster than most women’s times, but I feel like sometimes, in our current culture, that might overshadow the athleticism it requires to be a female collegiate athlete.”

There doesn’t appear to be one right answer to the question of whether combined or single-sex programs are better for collegiate performance. Take the Michigan women, for example, whose trajectory over the past decade supports the idea that co-ed programs can be more beneficial for women. They have significantly improved since the team combined the men and women’s programs under head coach Mike Bottom in 2012. The Wolverine women have seen an average annual improvement of 6.6% based on their placement and point totals at the Big Ten Championships since combining under Bottom. The men, on the other hand, have seen mixed results from the combined arrangement. 

Michigan Big Ten Finishes and Point Totals Pre- and Post-Combination 

*In 2016, the Big Ten expanded scoring to 24th place

Pre-Combination Post-Combination
Michigan Men Women Michigan Men Women
2010 2nd (715.5) 3rd (462.5) 2013 1st (899; 21.7%) 6th (309; 28.2%)
2011 1st (678: -5.2%) 6th (367: -21%) 2014 1st (889; -1.1%) 5th (361; 16.8%)
2012 1st (738.5: 8.9%) 8th (241: -34%) 2015 1st (760; -14.5%) 3rd (478.5; 32.5%)
2016 1st (1475.5)*  1st (1361)*
2017 2nd (1382; -6.3%) 1st (1287; -5.4%)
2018 2nd (1617.5; 17.0%) 1st (1465; 13.8%)
2019 2nd (1464; -9.5%) 2nd (1302.5; -11.1%)
2020 1st (1548; 5.7%) 2nd (1306.5; 0.3%)
2021 1st (1401; -9.5%) 2nd (1326.5; 1.5%)
2022 3rd (1056.5; -24.6%) 2nd (1185; -10.7%)
Average Improvement -2.1% 6.6%

In 2017, SwimSwam did the math on how beneficial combined co-ed programs were for Miami (Ohio), Michigan, Tennessee, and Minnesota during a five to six-year period. The results varied for each gender, and between NCAAs and conference championships. Overall, though, there seemed to be net positive outcomes of combining co-ed teams.

Since that analysis, Michigan’s results have peaked and then begun to slide over the last season (in part due to transfers). Interestingly, the last few years have seen better NCAA results from the women, even though Mike Bottom was the men’s coach before the programs combined.

Miami has thrived recently – the men won the MAC Championship last season and the women finished 3rd.

New Jersey Institute of Technology head coach Ron Farina agrees with the idea that men’s-only teams would benefit from having a women’s side. But he is also proud of the team culture NJIT has established as the only men’s single-sex swim and dive program in Division I.  In 2022, the 50th anniversary of Title IX’s passing, there are 65 women’s single-sex programs in the NCAA. 

Farina had his own collegiate swim experience at Rutgers (a co-ed team), coached for 17 years as the head coach of Seton Hall, another co-ed program, and now is entering his 5th season at the helm of NJIT. He told SwimSwam via email that he hasn’t seen a difference in the performances of his teams at the end of the year based on their being co-ed or single-sex. 

“Having a co-ed team at champs can create a very exciting environment because of increased numbers and hopefully more great swims,” he said. But at NJIT, he has seen that bringing a single-sex program to a co-ed meet gives him more time to focus on his athletes and interact with them during the women’s events.

I asked Farina if any of his swimmers had concerns about joining a single-sex college team, especially after most of their club experiences were co-ed. “Once they realize the type of program we are for the most part it is a non-issue,” he replied. “After a week or two, training is training and being able to train with a bunch of your best friends is a great way to get faster.”

Looking back on his own collegiate career, Farina said that the main problem with a co-ed program arises when one side is significantly better than the other. “This has a tendency to cause rifts in the team,” he said. “In today’s day in age with scholarship funding and or non-funded programs, that gap can be increased.”

Sommer took note of that divide the season before she arrived at Indiana, where the men’s program placed 3rd at the 2019 NCAA Championships while the women’s team finished in 9th place. During her freshman season, the men’s program had a meet where their female teammates showed up to cheer. When the women’s meet day came, one or two male teammates came out to support. Sommer said this highlighted the issue of women being seen as a supporter of or addition to the men’s team. 

Now at UCLA, without a men’s swim and dive team, Sommer has found that the Bruin men’s water polo team and the volleyball team have filled that male support role she once looked for in a co-ed collegiate team during her recruitment process.

The Big Ten uniquely displays the relationship between Division I co-ed and single-sex programs as one of the few conferences with a significant number of each (eight co-ed and four single-sex) and their conference championships are divided by gender. One successful Big Ten swimmer from Michigan told SwimSwam via email that the Wolverine men’s and women’s sides of the team are close, and that he appreciates how the team holds different types of workouts in two-hour blocks to cater to their needs. Michigan swims several practices a week as a combined, co-ed team, and several as men’s-only and women’s-only practices. For example, mid-distance and distance men and women train a threshold practice together a few days a week and can use the whole pool. Once they are done, the sprint men and women will get in and run a USRPT workout. 

The Michigan swimmer, who preferred to remain anonymous, grew up swimming on co-ed club and high school teams and was not focused on whether or not his future college team would be co-ed or single-sex. The main things on his checklist were a big program with a nice facility.

“I was more excited to train with more men who were at my level or better than me,” he said. “I guess you could say I definitely didn’t want a program where the entire men’s and women’s team always swims at the same time. Guys and girls require different things and I think it’s important to separate them at times in training and competition.”

Last year, he said that Michigan had too many combined practices which made the men’s team feel disconnected because they weren’t training together as a team. “I think it had a negative effect on our men’s team. The coaches couldn’t give 100% attention to the men or women.”

Other downsides of co-ed practices, he explained, were that “sometimes you won’t be matched up with the fastest people since men will normally outpace women.” This is usually the case if male and female swimmers are matched up in the same stroke. However, experienced coaches know that male breaststrokers and female butterfliers pace well off each other and are a successful training combination. I, as a female butterflyer, often race male breaststrokers during stroke sets at my co-ed college practices and it is a battle to see who gets to the wall first every time.

“Men are most competitive racing other men in practice,” the Michigan swimmer said. “We can be loud, obnoxious, enthusiastic. Really we can just be men. I think when women are always there you may have to be a bit more reserved perhaps out of fear of embarrassment or just added social pressures.”

He added that he would not like exclusively practicing with the men, but did not specify why: “I think the combination is good for both sides in moderation.”

Being co-ed does not guarantee that both sides of the team will be ranked similarly on the national level. The Wolverine men’s and women’s sides of the team are currently at very different places nationally. Their women have had more consistent success on the national stage, placing top ten at NCAAs in the past five years while the men have ranged from 8th to 22nd place in that time frame. However, their men have won the Big Ten Championships twice over the past three years while the women last won in 2018. This gender divide is mirrored across the country at co-ed programs with more dominant women’s teams like UVA and Stanford as well as more dominant men’s programs like ASU, Cal, Indiana, and Florida. Arizona State might have the biggest gender divide across the NCAA right now; their men placed 6th at the 2022 NCAA Championships while their women placed 26th.

The Michigan swimmer said that men’s and women’s sides of the team “are two teams who are very different and should not be consistently compared. But they can make each other better.”

Sommer expanded on how that divide between the gendered sides of the team at Indiana was at the end of the season when they each competed at their own conference championship meets. “At the end of the day, there are two teams competing differently at Indiana,” Sommer said. “Like men [were] in third and women were eighth or 12th. And so [since] the rankings were different, everything was sort of like, valued differently. And so once communication sort of changed or shifted in that sense…these conversations become harder and harder.” She was referencing conversations and communication surrounding building a positive team culture.

One common concern for co-ed teams is the element of distraction or drama. On my club team, the drama took the form of boys commenting on my best friend’s body hair when she hadn’t shaved in two days. Female swimmers I knew on other club teams were being rated based on their bodies. Then there are the general team cohesion issues that occur within a co-ed roster numbering upwards of 70 swimmers.

Sommer touched on the potential elements of distraction in a co-ed team culture from “the men causing issues” to the “stereotype of female drama over men.”

“When it comes to co-ed, things people always look for as negative is the distractions that are like the men causing issues. And I think the female drama over men, right, I think that’s a big stereotype. And I think that doesn’t necessarily have to be true.”

“There’s going to be things that come up that are going to cause tension. And distractions are only able to form when there’s like a culture of it, so I feel like if there’s a team culture where distractions aren’t a thing, then it’s not going to be a team issue or a thing that’s really going to impede the team.”

“But I think like, once things start to go down that road, I feel like it might be hard to get out of it,” she added. She noted the importance of communication in creating a positive team culture.

The Michigan swimmer attributed those distractions to the presence of a specific side of the team. 

“There’s always room for drama when you add women,” he told SwimSwam, “and I think subconsciously it definitely exists.” 

He also suggested that the co-ed experience could detract from the men’s team bonding when they aren’t practicing together. 

“You lose the locker room time, the post-practice hot tub time, the little moments of interaction and post-practice or pre-practice messing around that is key for team bonding,” he said. “You just quite can’t do that with the women and have it positively benefit your team performance and team closeness.”

Overall, the Michigan swimmer argued that results are more important than the co-ed experience and focusing on a healthy co-ed culture. He said the men’s performances at championship meets is what will attract recruits and improve their program. 

“It doesn’t help us as a men’s team get recruits if we are amazing friends with the women’s team while they are getting 7th at NC’s and we are getting 22nd… Being co-ed is just a culture thing and can be nice for a varying scenery so you aren’t seeing the same 35 faces a day. It’s more like interchanging 70 faces with adding the women.”

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1 year ago

best part of this article, the guy complaining women ruin the hot tub experience. Most guys I know try to get women into hot tubs…and this dude is crying about them being there…odd

1 year ago

As a current D1 swimmer on a combined-gender team, I can say that there is drama coming from both genders. Nobody is immune. Nobody is exempt. Nobody is special.

Faulty Touch Pad
1 year ago

I think, when training, it can be a good thing to have gender-separate practices. This allows everyone to compete against people of their level, and not be discouraged by comparing themselves to the other genders achievements (EX: a woman getting lapped by a guy in practice may be discouraged, or a male getting beat by a female may discourage them, as well). Not to mention that there is a greater chance for distracting variables when you have a larger group of individuals together, especially when it is men and women. However, I do think that having a combined program for meets and competition is a huge benefit. Everyone has more voices cheering for them, and the pool deck environment can… Read more »

Swim dad
1 year ago

Both my daughters swam in college. One went to a school with a co-ed team the other a female only team. From my perspective the co-ed team was filled with male driven drama. Ranging from, rating teammates bodies to dick pics. The female only team is surprisingly less dramatic.

Reply to  Swim dad
1 year ago

Odd to be on a team then go home and tell your dad about Dick pics.

So that’s how it is in their family

Reply to  Meathead
1 year ago

Their daughter felt extremely uncomfortable being shown/sent dick pics?

You ever think of it that way instead of “that’s how it is in their family”?

Reply to  Maybe
1 year ago

Ferris beuller quote. Sorry if u didn’t get ref

Reply to  Swim dad
1 year ago

Nothing different from Co-Ed club swimming to college. Amazing support from both males and females for each other!

1 year ago

I would be interested to see a breakdown of the top 20 teams in each division and see which are single gender of those….

Lady Ledecky
1 year ago

I think people are being a little sensitive about the Michigan swimmer’s comments. He’s basically saying the same thing as the UCLA swimmer, right? There are different distractions and different cultures and different behaviors in co-ed environments than there are in single-gender environments. I don’t think that’s either a particularly innovative statement, nor a particularly offensive statement, do you? It’s more important today than ever before for men and women to learn to work together and coexist, but that doesn’t mean there’s no space for different segments of the population to have moments to themselves.

And can we drop this whole fairytale where we pretend like collegiate athletics are a reasonable analogy for a professional workplace? They’re not structured the… Read more »

Reply to  Lady Ledecky
1 year ago

It’s quite funny you hear the same thing because that is completely false.

Women take into account a Men’s program when being recruited, while Men (as stated) have zero thought towards if there is a woman’s team.

Women take into account being able to train with Men, while Men (as stated) would rather not train with the women and are more excited to train with just men.

Men believe women are the drama, when it’s being shown and said that women’s only programs feel they have less drama.

Here it sounds like Sommer feels empowered with herself and her women teammates, while the anonymous male athlete is complaining about the women and how women are “detracting from men’s bonding” and… Read more »

Reply to  Swordle
1 year ago

As an anecdote to sort of back this up, I swam on a co-ed team at a D1 school. Both programs were pretty equal in rank. The women tended to fare better in our conference, but the men did marginally better at nationals.

There were sometimes issues with the men running over the women in practice or blocking the lane so that the women couldn’t finish to the wall. More seriously, there were a few male swimmers that harassed some of the women or would “rate” us, etc. The women would bring the issues up with the team captains and/or the coaches to which the coaches and/or captains would speak to the men. Many of the men would complain that… Read more »

Cortisone Injections
Reply to  Sophie
1 year ago

I’ve never met anyone, ever, male or female, who took responsibility for being the drama when they were the drama. Part of being the drama is not knowing when you’re the drama.

K chilly
1 year ago

Culturally a men’s program will look different than a women’s program which will look different than a combined program. Each culture could be good, each could be bad, but I don’t think one is inherently better than the other. The emphasis on Michigan is not a fair representation of a combined program, I think it is a case study from one team with poor culture.

For training I see a huge boost to a combined program if pool space allows for it. More coaching staff. More training partners. For top tier women’s teams in particular I see a major boost coming from training against their male counterparts. I can’t imagine that Katie Ledecky would be as successful training in… Read more »

1 year ago

Generally it’s held true that it’s hard to get combined programs to excel equally at the same time. NC State and Louisville have been the recent gold standards for being able to have men and women in the top 5 in the same year. It happens much more frequently at schools with single gender programs.

Reply to  oxyswim
1 year ago

Never mind. I missed the point

Last edited 1 year ago by Jimbo
Bootsie tickle
Reply to  oxyswim
1 year ago


About Annika Johnson

Annika Johnson

Annika came into the sport competitively at age eight, following in the footsteps of her twin sister and older brother. The sibling rivalry was further fueled when all three began focusing on distance freestyle, forcing the family to buy two lap counters. Annika is a three-time Futures finalist in the 200 …

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