The following is an open letter shared with SwimSwam by Kelsey Theriault, a coach with Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics. Theriault wrote to the heads of USA Swimming to express her disagreement with a coaching certification course called “Foundations of Coaching 201.” The Foundations of Coaching course included a section titled “Gender and the Young Athlete,” which Theriault found to reinforce harmful gender stereotypes. Her full letter to USA Swimming outlining her reasoning is below:
Dear Mr. Chuck Weilgus, Ms. Susan Woessner, and USA Swimming,
My name is Kelsey Theriault. I am a high school teacher and a swim coach. Working with and educating youth is my both my career and my passion. One reason why I am an educator is to help students and athletes recognize and effectively remove barriers on the road to success. As an educator and a coach, I feel that it is incredibly important to send the message to girls that they are capable of the same success and achievement of boys. One major barrier to success for females are the messages conveyed in our gendered culture. These messages, such as “females are less competitive” or “females value relationships more and need constant approval,” explicitly and implicitly tell female athletes that they should act, train, and compete differently than males.
Many psychological studies have been conducted that have disproven these theories and stereotypes commonly accepted by our society. Science has proven that the brains of males and females are essentially the same. For example, Dr. Lise Eliot, professor at The Chicago Medical School, has researched this topic in-depth and explains, “There are basic behavioral differences between the sexes, but we should note that these differences increase with age because our children’s intellectual biases are being exaggerated and intensified by our gendered culture. Children don’t inherit intellectual differences. They learn them. They are a result of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.” Boys and girls learn these gender stereotypes from a young age. They see these stereotypical gender expectations in school, at home, with friends, and reinforced in popular culture. It is my goal, as an educator, to not only stop perpetuating these stereotypes, but to explicitly combat these s exist gender expectations.
Recently, I was in the process of updating my USA Swimming coaching credential by taking the course “Foundations of Coaching 201.” I am seriously concerned by one section of this course: “Gender and the Young Athlete.” USA Swimming is an institution that is committed to promoting success for all, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., through the sport of swimming. I take issue with the way gender is presented to coaches in the way that they should coach young male and female athletes.
As the “Gender and the Young Athlete” section points out, and I agree that, biologically, there are differences between males and females. Females, on average, tend to hit puberty earlier than males. Because of this, females may have slightly different training needs between the ages of eleven and fourteen. It is my belief that these slight differences can be addressed within coed training groups.
I find serious issue, though, with the following examples of advice given to coaches in the way that they should go about treating male and female athletes differently:
1. On page 19 of 25 of the course “Gender and the Young Athlete,” it states: “[You can] help females bolster their perceived competence by recognizing and appreciating their skill development, training milestones and improvement. [You can] help males by allowing them to prove their competence by achieving success at practice and at meets.”
This seems to send the message that female athletes need consistent affirmation in their competence as an athlete, whereas male athletes need to assert their aggression and competence through competition. Some female athletes need affirmation of their skills and development to improve self-confidence and some female need to see their improvements through achieving success with an outcome goal. The same goes for male athletes. To make broad and stereotypical claims about girls and boys could lead coaches to perpetuate the harmful gendered expectations of our society.
2. On page 22 of 25 of “Gender and the Young Athlete,” it states: “Recognize that young females have greater needs for affiliation and are often motivated to participate for social reasons, while young males tend to be more motivated by competition. Girls are generally more team focused, so be sure to provide a team environment.”
By proposing that young female athletes need more support from peers and coaches than their male counterparts seems to spread the stereotype that females are more dependent and that they need constant approval from authority figures (coaches) and peers. In my experience as a coach, I have seen many athletes motivated to participate for social reasons and athletes who are motivated by competition. First, I do not believe that these are mutually exclusive. Many athletes who are motivated by social reasons also enjoy the sport for the competition. I have coached many female athletes who are fierce competitors and many male athletes who enjoy and are motivated by the social aspect of the sport.
In addition, this also brings to issue the belief that boys are more “competitive” and aggressive and should be treated as such in the pool. This suggestion that boys are more competitive could lead to coaches treating male athletes as though they need to be this way to be successful in the pool. The hyper-masculine society in which we live sends the message to boys that they need to exhibit these qualities to “be a man.” If young male athletes don’t exhibit these qualities, whether in the pool or outside of the pool, they are seen as “girly” and often called derogatory names for females. This impacts female athletes in a negative way as well, making it seem as though being a female is innately negative. It is not.
Despite what I am sure is an effort for coaches to acknowledge the needs of all swimmers, this message could easily lead to coaches perpetuating hyper-masculinity in boys and submission and need for approval in girls. What we need, instead, is to instill skills of independence and self-confidence. We need to teach girls to be strong and independent.
3. Again, on page 22 of 25 of “Gender and the Young Athlete,” it suggests: “Single gender training groups may help meet social affiliation needs. Alternately, single gender training lanes can accomplish the same objective.”
The social development that occurs during the age range suggested (9 to 13) is critical in the development of gender ideas in adolescents. To separate girls and boys during this critical time of development sends the message that girls and boys are different, that they have different needs, different skills, and different ways of acting. So much so, that they must be separated. This can only add to the messages they are receiving in school and from peers about the differences in gender.
4. Finally, on page 25 of 25, it states: “Never stereotype the training and development of female and male athletes.”
I completely agree. Yet, the way the information in this section was presented could easily be interpreted as suggesting that young female and male athletes think, act, and train in different ways and therefore have different needs based on gender. If a coach were to interpret the information this way, it would lead to stereotyping. This suggestion, to never stereotype based on gender, seems to be in conflict with the practices suggested in the section “Gender and the Young Athlete.”
It is really important that all swimmers have their needs recognized and addressed. Many of the recommendations that USA Swimming has made throughout this course are good practices for coaches. It is incredibly important, though, to recognize and change the recommendations based on gender. Some female athletes need what has been recommended for male athletes, and vice-versa. The make broad recommendations based on gender only strengthens stereotypical beliefs about males and females. It also implicitly encourages female athletes to take a more submissive, less competitive role. Instead of the current recommendations in the USA Swimming course “Foundations of Coaching 201,” let us acknowledge that every athlete, regardless of gender, has different needs. Instead of educating coaches on the different ways to treat male and female athletes, I propose that USA Swimming teach its coaches to recognize, assess, and respond to the needs of individual athletes. By taking this approach, coaches acknowledge that each swimmer has individual needs and approaches for success. This encourages self-motivation, confidence, and independence in all athletes.
As a certified USA Swimming coach, I have had the privilege of working with swimmers of different age ranges and skill abilities. Through coaching, I have been able to help develop skills in young athletes that will help them be successful in whatever they pursue in life. I believe that the messages that USA Swimming and the sport of swimming send to young swimmers have helped develop young athletes achieve success in swimming, school, and the “real world.”
That said, I propose that USA Swimming use its power as an authority in the swimming community to explicitly promote gender equality. I believe that this is already a goal of USA Swimming, but the way in which gender has been presented in the coaching course “Foundations of Coaching 201” will not help that cause. As an institution, USA Swimming needs to promote fair and equal treatment of male and female athletes. By educating coaches to recognize the needs of individual swimmers, rather than making coaching choices based on gender (as presented in this course), we can teach our athletes that girls and boys are both capable of achieving the same success. As I pointed out earlier, these perceptions of differences in the behavior of males and females are learned. As an institution that educates youth, let us be the be ones who break these stereotypes, the ones who teach girls to be confident and independent, and the ones who are actively and explicitly engaged in promoting equal ity of males and females.
I appreciate you taking the time to read this letter outlining my concerns and I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Kelsey E. Theriault
M.A. Education, Stanford University
Assistant Swim Coach – Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics