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Coaching female athletes (Part 2) – Put the athlete first!

As described in my previous post on the carnegieXchange blog, I have recently moved into a role where, for the first time, I am providing S&C coaching to a group of high-performance female athletes. Part 1 of this reported information on the differences between male and female athletes, gathered to inform my practice in this role. This post is a reflection on how I modified my practice both in response to the research I’ve done and through what I have learnt through coaching the all-female group.

Coaching Female Athletes Part 2

I’ve learned that female athletes are no less able, or less competitive than their male counterparts. The group regularly impresses me with their work ethic and hunger for success. They are all busy people who balance careers, studies, relationships, motherhood among other things, and still turn up like clockwork, motivated and enthusiastic for every session. They work exceptionally hard in training; there is no difference in effort levels from similar male groups I’ve coached.

Despite this, I do things slightly differently with these female athletes in my attempt to tailor my coaching to better suit their needs; my research certainly suggested important, different social needs. I treat these women as athletes first, setting high expectations and standards of performance, but modulate my coaching behaviour to make the coaching relationship as effective as possible.

Most female athletes appreciate social connection more than their male counterparts. The team represents a social circle to which they dedicate a significant amount of time. As such, there is a spirit of cooperation and empathy among players that I haven’t always see in male teams. In this context, the old adage “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care” holds true. Few female athletes seem to need their coach (or other players) to be their friend, but they do appreciate coaches (and other players) getting to know them, their personality and what motivates them.

With this greater social need in mind, I’ve deliberately adopted two behaviours. First, wherever possible I arrive early for practice, and linger for a few minutes once training is over, to create opportunities for incidental conversations to strengthen our knowledge of one another Second, when considering motivation tools, I focus on group goal-setting. This collaborative approach intentionally leverages the social capital within the group; this has driven powerful performance improvements.

A second important consideration for me is that female athletes have a more ‘whole-brained’ way of thinking11; they prioritise ‘meaning’, the “big picture” and relationships. The net result of this is that more female athletes ask “Why?” more often than males. In the beginning, I was regularly asked “Why am I in this group, not in that group?” or “Why are we doing these exercises, and not those?”. This has been quite refreshing for me!

A final important consideration for me is to address their powerful desire to be more collaborative in determining their training program. Often males are quite happy to be told what to do, whereas many female athletes have clear mental maps of their strengths and weaknesses. They haven’t respond well to any of my ‘one size fits all’ approaches. I learnt quickly that asking for something too far out of their comfort zone either lead to disengagement, or reduced intensity of effort while they were finding their feet again. I rationalized this using the comfort-stretch-panic model (Figure 1).

{ Fig 1 Blog 2

Figure 1 – Comfort-Stretch-Panic Model

Given the wide range of training experience in my group, I struggled to regularly pitch my sessions at a level that kept everyone in the desirable “stretch zone”. Occasionally I modify training on the basis of the athletes’ feedback, but this requires one-on-one discussions that aren’t always possible in a team setting. What has been effective is to provide a number of choices within the training session. By providing a range of exercises suited to athletes of different experience and proficiency levels, athletes self-select what they feel is most appropriate for them. This has massively improved engagement and training outputs.

Reading back over this account, planning my conclusion, I realise that many of the coaching behaviours I’ve adopted feature in most lists of positive coaching behaviours. These include;

  • Care for your players.
  • Get to know them.
  • Provide reasons for training decisions.
  • Collaborate in planning the training program.
  • Pitch training at the appropriate level.

This is not coaching rocket science, nor would any of these behaviours be inappropriate in all-male settings. One of the central tenets of coaching is to align it with the needs of the individual2. It’s simply good practice to be continually asking about these needs, and then doing what meets those needs more effectively.

References

  1. Brizendine, L., 2006. The female brain. Broadway Books
  2. Abraham, A., Saiz, S. L. J., Mckeown, S., Morgan, G., Muir, B., North, J., & Till, K. (2014). Planning your coaching: A focus on youth participant development. In C. Nash (Ed.), Practical Sport Coaching (pp. 16– 53). Abingdon: Routledge.

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Dr Jason Tee

Jason Tee is a Coach, sport scientist and researcher specialising in rugby union and athlete development.

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