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There are no ‘golden rules’ to coaching women | Inclusive Coaching | ConnectedCoaches

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Separating fact from fiction: There are no ‘golden rules’ to coaching women

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Liam McCarthy

Before becoming a coach developer, Liam McCarthy coached at different ages and stages, in this country and abroad

  • For effective future talent development to take place, a national coaching workforce needs tools with which to make sense of their coaching practice while recognising the open system within which coaching occurs.
  • Coaches must be wary of gender stereotypes while also recognising the biological, psychological and social differences that do exist between the sexes.
  • Experiment to discover which strategies work for you and which don’t. And don’t be put off by failure; in fact, embrace it!
  • There is no one-size-fits-all model for coaching women footballers, women in general or any other sporting group. The silver bullet is a fallacy. 

It was a pivotal moment in the coaching education of Liam McCarthy: the day he reduced a female footballer to tears. 

Guilty of nothing more than perhaps a little naivety, Liam – now a Lecturer in Physical and Sport Education, then a women’s football coach at Manchester University – says the experience instilled in him a desire to learn more about the subtleties of coaching women in sport. 

He was taking a pre-season training session with the first team when things took an unexpected turn for the worse. 

‘There was certainly no malice there,’ says the ConnectedCoaches member. ‘I was coaching in the way I had always coached, and it had always worked. 

‘I wanted to hold some swimming sessions in pre-season, and one of the girls was refusing to swim. My stance was that it could harm your selection if you didn’t attend, like it would if you missed any other training session, and my approach upset some of them. I didn’t have that level of understanding at the time that there may have been good biological reasons behind the refusal.’ 

The encounter both shocked and inspired Liam; to such an extent that the biological, psychological and social differences that exist between post-pubescent boys and girls became the topic of his Sports Coaching Master’s degree research project, which he completed at Leeds Beckett University last year. 

‘I was racking my brain for ideas, and I came up with the idea based on the difficulties I had when I went into women’s coaching,’ he says. ‘Hopefully, my experience of making a girl cry will resonate with some coaches. I want to model vulnerability and that we should embrace the mistakes.’ 

The goal was to gauge similarities with previous research findings and to gain new insight that could help define best practice in coaching women footballers and offer strategies for coaches. 

The findings highlight the unique needs of female sports performers while also highlighting the need for coaches to root out the myriad gender stereotypes that also exist if they are to achieve optimum performance and see solid long-term development in their athletes. 

Add tools to your toolbox 

Liam – who is a full-time lecturer at St Mary’s University in Twickenham – read with interest last month’s ConnectedCoaches article on the differences between coaching boys and girls and wanted to pitch in to the debate by sharing the results of his Master’s research with members. 

It is his firmly held belief that there is no one-size-fits-all model for sports coaching, and that taking a set of coaching principles in a handbook as gospel is a short cut to failure. 

What he hopes coaches will hold dear is the motto that if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. It is important for coaches to grapple with the complexities of coaching and learn from a process of understanding what works and why.  

‘Governing bodies are really keen to put out information that suggests that this model or that model will work for all their coaches. I don’t share that view. Every coaching interaction is different based on the context, the person, even the coach themselves,’ he says. 

‘The top coaches in my research with elite level coaches were those who were happy to grapple with failure and conflicting ideas. Those who simply looked in a book for the silver bullet weren’t apparent at that level. 

‘Coaching strategies are just tools in a toolbox. You use one tool for one job, another for another job. You wouldn’t use a hammer to cut wood. The top coaches can pick the right tool at the right time. Spending time working with and learning from Bob Muir and felllow Leeds Beckett coaching academics opened my eyes to this idea.’ 

Shattering the stereotypes 

Liam – who also coached the women’s first team at Loughborough University and, as a teenager, played non-league football as a goalkeeper for Clitheroe Town in the UniBond League – conducted eight hour-long interviews with four coaches and four players (aged between 20 and 31) from the top three tiers of the women’s game.

‘I looked at what works for who (with the ‘who’ being the female footballer), in what context (the three contexts being the England national women’s team, Women’s Super League 1 and Super League 2) and why that worked (the evidence behind it). 

He ended up with 90,000 words, from which he extracted player and coach perspectives on what worked for them and why. 

The results provided should help to drum home the message that there isn’t a golden rule for coaching women, regardless of ability level, and that you should not base your coaching philosophy around gender generalisations that are more old wives’ tales than evidence-based doctrine. 

‘I wanted to get away from these broad ideas of girls are like this, boys are like this,’ says Liam. ‘For example, one of the coaches used methods which, if we were to generalise, would typically be avoided for girls. Yet, on speaking to one of their players, that method worked for them in their context.’ 

This flies in the face of accepted practice, but as Liam explains, it comes down to understanding who you are working with, regardless of whether it’s young or old, male or female, disabled or non-disabled. 

‘My message would be to think about who you are working with and the context in which you are working. Align what and how you coach with who you are coaching.’ 

Dealing with the facts 

There are some social, psychological and biological differences between the sexes that are indisputable. 

The different physiological changes that girls go through during and after puberty affect how they perform in the sporting arena. 

Reduced aerobic capacity and ability to generate power, increased body mass and fat percentage, coupled with potential physical and psychological side effects that menstruation can have on athletic performance, are evidence enough of why the sexes should not be treated equally in a sports coaching context. 

‘These biological differences aren’t going away so, as coach educators, we need to support our coaches in understanding these differences and accounting for them in the way we coach,’ says Liam. 

If coaches do not address these differences, there is a risk of injury, and a danger that women could walk away from sport altogether. 

Liam with ball

At the highest level of the women’s game, one coach noted how they would explore biological issues in intricate detail to help guide their strategic thinking. 

They use a menstrual cycle chart as part of their training plan, on which is plotted the date of each player’s period. They adapt individual training goals depending on which day of their cycle they are on. 

They explained: ‘The player might be on her menstrual cycle so I might have to tailor her session because she might be feeling lethargic and might be feeling tired. It’s all taken into account. 

‘I remember a game in the Women’s Super League a few years ago. I think we lost to a last-minute goal. Someone had an absolute stinker. She said she had an awful game because it was that time of the month. But how’s the manager going to know that? How’s anyone else going to know that? 

‘I think the Dutch hockey team did a study about how menstrual cycles affect performance, and physiologically, it does affect performance. But I don’t think that’s ever taken into account, I don’t think the manager has ever said “Is that why?” It’s still a taboo.’ 

In his research, Liam also discovered that, socially, ‘women in the contexts explored placed a high importance on social bonds between peers; with females seeking out closer relationships than their male peers.’ 

A good coach, then, will get to know their players’ individual personalities, with the watchwords being approachability, compassion and support. 

This type of ‘investment coaching’ will breed trust and respect, and techniques such as one-to-one appraisals, filling out questionnaires or simply good communication can help coaches build up a valuable psychological profile of each player. 

The Women’s Super League 1 coach interviewed in his thesis said that, when emotions are running high, it can sometimes be better to talk to a player one-on-one rather than in front of a crowd. 

Knowing the personalities of his players enables him to make the judgement call with regard to when to do this, and with whom. 

Another coach’s advice on how to build trust and respect was to show a keen interest in your players outside of the work setting. 

He said: ‘I know all their partners’ names, I know where they live, I know what car they drive, I know some of their friends, where they like to go eat.’


The table demonstrates which coaching strategies bring about positive outcomes in three contexts within elite football 

Put it to the test 

Liam stresses that the conclusions he reaches in his research are meant as guidance. There are no hard and fast rules, and context is paramount. All they do is offer a narrative of what is happening in these contexts. 

Some of the coaching strategies may only have a positive effect on female footballers plying their trade at the highest level of the sport, while others could work well across the board. The findings aim to offer a richer and more contextualised account of what players and coaches deem to work for them. 

It is down to the individual coach to decipher what works for his or her group of players after putting the strategies into practice on a trial and error basis.

 ‘If they work, great. If they don’t, it doesn’t mean to say the research isn’t good. It just means your context differs. Use it at least as a platform to find something that does work in your situation,’ says Liam. 

‘The conclusion then is that it depends. That can be frustrating but it is the nature of coaching and what we are working with. 

‘It is a lot more effective to say ‘Go and try this’ than to give somebody something to use, tell them it will work and then it doesn’t. That sort of approach can result in disengagement. 

‘What ConnectedCoaches does so well is it puts out a lot of ideas that people can take and use.’ 

Liam aims to publish a paper from the research with Bob Muir in late 2016, and would like to thank Leeds Beckett University sports coaching academics for all of their support to date.

Do you agree with the findings of Liam’s research? Please leave a comment below. 

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Comments (7)

Excellent article. I think the growth of women's sport has thrown up a lot of situations described in the first part of this. However, as the author expands, it really is just good practice to have an open mind on how to to work with every athlete or group of athletes. I still believe that coaches who switch from male to female coaching are advised to do a bit of research, though. :-)
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Thank you Andrew, that's really kind. I agree with your last comments - as i found myself! You're right - as women's sport grows, a richer and more contextualised picture of what coaching looks like is needed. Something i hope this research adds to, even if just a small amount.
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A very Interesting article which I enjoyed. As a former Professional LET member competing in worldwide events absolutely agree with the effects of the menstrual cycle and appreciate how this can effect golfers both from a positive and damaging perspective, it is all about being aware of any potential changes with your young players which comes down to knowing your golfers. The scheduling of events can even be taken into account.
In my view coaching Women is all about creating the most suitable environment for either the individual or group situation. Some of my recreational players prefer 1-2-1 session to a group clinic and the other way round, of which the group will historically comprise of 6-8 players.
Again, the more welcoming, how well you understand the group or individual make up, character, confidence levels and closing of the session is a deciding factor of the potential success of the initial and any subsequent sessions. It is this vital "connection" and support which is absolutely key in my coaching experience and high on my agenda.
I also coach a high proportion of men in both a group and 1-2-1 from a young age to the vets at the club,the understanding of the players are no difference but my approach and introduction is definitely varied.
It is interesting to read everything at the moment about the drive to increase Participation for Women across all sports but each sport is uniquely different with the number of female coaches on the rise I believe this is hugely beneficial to provide Women with the choice to their selected sport and style of coach.
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Liam, this is fabulous and I'm sorry I've only just got round to reading it now. The essence of all you are saying: know the person before the player; and adapt your style and behaviour according to the situation and the purpose, fits so well with all we do and believe in at Sport and Beyond, and also my experience as a tennis coach. Really, really helpful and i hope your research gets the exposure it deserves.
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Thank you both Sarah, Catherine. Kind comments and i'd be happy to talk more about it - just get in touch (liam.mccarthy@stmarys.ac.uk).
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Liam very interesting article which I am sorry I have only just found! Within one of the disciplines I coach to international level (Tentpegging/Skill at Arms) I have found myself at both ends of the female cycle. As the riders I am dealing with are from 13 - 14 years old to 64 years old at international level. As a rider I am now at the other end of the emotional, physical and psychological and am finding everything changing again. I agree that you have to adapt to the person and work with what you have in front of you. I also find that the work I do with international teams also get mirrored in the grass routes riders I work with and the different aspects of their life in general.
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Excellent article.
I would say one of the benefits of the various stereotypes (e.g. girls take things personally, boys think you're talking about someone else), is that it reminds you that there are other ways of seeing the situation. I tend to take things personally and I tend to assume that everyone thinks the same as me, i.e. if I made a comment to the whole squad (e.g. "we need to concentrate more") that everyone would take it on board. Being aware of the stereotypes reminds me to check if the message has gotten through, or if individuals have assumed it refers to someone else.
Another benefit of the stereotypes is that it gives you a starting point - e.g. when coaching a boys' team, you can start off assuming that they will behave a certain way and you can finesse it as you get to know the individuals.
Regarding the effect of the menstrual cycle: there is a book "Hormones and Female Athletic Performance" by Day & Ely (I think). It has now gone out of print and I have lost my copy. Get hold of it, if you can. In short - there are differences in many physical attributes over the course of the menstrual cycle (e.g. strength, agility, etc). Get your athletes to keep a diary of how they feel (clumsy, strong) and compare it to their stage in the cycle. If there is a strong correlation between performance and day of the cycle, you could consider adjusting the cycle so they peak at the right time for important competition. Raelene Boyle (I think it was her), adjusted her cycle beginning two years out from the Comm Games (I think - it's all in the book that I've lost!) so she would be strong, fast and powerful on the day of the final.
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