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Different but equal: Why understanding the female mind is a must for male coaches

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Women in Sport Conference

Professor Guylaine Demers, left, with Women in Sports Conference North host Tanya Arnold

Men and women are not the same. But just because females may differ from males physically, psychologically, emotionally and socially, does this mean they should be treated differently? Professor Guylaine Demers explodes some behavioural myths and blasts some social stereotypes to help male coaches become more gender aware.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. This has nothing to do with the fact mince pies decorated with festive trimmings are monopolising shelf space in supermarkets, or that Home Alone is suddenly being repeated on our television screens ad nauseam, and everything to do with my excitement levels after just ordering a present online.

Not for my kids, I hasten to add, but as a treat for myself. The book in question is more professional development tool than early Christmas present but I am impatient for its arrival as it promises to be every bit as informative as other books of its ilk: ‘Men are from Mars Women are from Venus’ and Steve Biddulph’s ‘Raising Boys’ and ‘Raising Girls’.

These texts acknowledge and deconstruct the psychological differences between the sexes, in the context of relationships and parenting respectively.

What drew my interest to the publication currently winging its way to the Richardson household – ‘Gender and Competition: How Men and Women Approach Work and Play Differently – is its pertinence to the world of sport, performance and coaching.

More about the book later, but for now suffice to say it was recommended by the esteemed Guylaine Demers, Professor of Physical and Sport Education at Laval University, Quebec during her Question and Answer session at the Women in Sports Conference North at Headingley Stadium.

In front of a 200-strong audience representing higher education institutions, schools, governing bodies and other health and fitness organisations, she gave her respected opinion on a number of burning issues related to the involvement, retention and treatment of women and girls in sport. And her candid thoughts left a lasting impression.

No competition: Meeting friends beats everything

Professor Demers first responded to questions concerning the differences that exist between the sexes, with her observations containing some vitally important messages for male coaches to consider.

Many would do well to heed her advice on the need to better understand the psychology and motivations of their female participants, relating some examples of the mishaps that can befall coaches who either struggle to discern or choose to ignore these differences and fail to modify their approach accordingly.

‘With my work as Chair of Égale-Action [Quebec’s Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport and Physical Activity] I understand what measures we need to put in place so girls are encouraged to join a club, first of all, and then not drop out,’ says Professor Demers, explaining that the high dropout rate in Canada, traditionally around the ages of 14 and 15, is now commonplace in girls as young as 10 and 11.

‘I think the message which has to come out to get more girls involved in sport is to embrace diversity and make sure every single girl can relate to sport – and that it doesn’t have to be competitive sport, it can be with your friends.

‘Male coaches, for example, will come to our workshops because they really want to do a good job but just not get why their female participants have acted in a certain way. They will say, “I just explained something and she started to cry”, or, “we walked into the gym and they just carried on talking, talking and talking.”

‘So we explain that the main reason they joined was probably because their friend is there as well, or a group of friends. Social bonding is super important for girls. If you try to fight that, you’ve really had it!’

Professor Demers – who also sits on the editorial board of the Canadian Journal for Women in Coaching, which seeks to create a positive environment for women coaches – says there are a few basic rules that coaches can incorporate to guard against such elementary pitfalls.

‘Tell them they can talk when they come into the gym, no problem, but that they must do the warm-up at the same time.

‘Just by acknowledging that, some coaches were like, ‘Ahh! It’s working now. Amazing”.

Don’t think best, think of the rest

The process involved in becoming accepted as part of the team – which is totally different for a male than it is for a female – is a key psycho-social element coaches must fully comprehend if they want to engage and retain their participants long-term.

Cast your mind back to when you were in the school playground and you had to pick two teams.

You have a male captain and a female captain. ‘Who’, Guylaine asks audience members, ‘is the first person the male captain will pick?’

The answer comes back instantaneously: ‘The best player in the group.’

‘And the female captain?’ asks Guylaine. ‘Their best friend’, comes the response, equally as swift.

‘So that means, as a coach I need to understand that difference,’ she adds. ‘If I am coaching a female team and want my athletes to perform, the first thing I need to make sure is that they all feel accepted within the team; that they belong. Then I know they will work hard.’

A male team, in sharp contrast, will not need to be accepted in order to perform, rather they will perform in order to be accepted.

Going round in circles

Which neatly links back to my soon-to-be-delivered parcel examining ‘how men and women can communicate, understand, and ultimately overcome their non-physical differences.’

Guylaine tells the story (which I paraphrase below) of when the author of ‘Gender and Competition’, former volleyball coach Kathleen DeBoer, first got the idea for her book.

She was taken aback when, talking with a male coaching colleague, he told her that in his experience as a volleyball coach female athletes were not as competitive as their male counterparts.

His supporting evidence went something like this:

It was the make-or-break last game of the season. He called a time-out before the last play with the result hanging in the balance. He delivered some rousing words to the effect of, ‘Right, Jim, this is your moment. You’re on fire tonight. We must feed Jim the ball and then, Jim, you make sure you smash it hard and, you know what, we can win this game!’ There was a loud rallying cry amongst the tight huddle and, minutes later, they were celebrating turning the match on its head, and a memorable victory.

Then a few years later when he was coaching a female team, he was faced with a near identical scenario, and so repeated his mantra. ‘Right, Kate, this is your moment. You’re on fire tonight. We must feed Kate the ball and then, Kate, you make sure you smash it hard and, you know what, we can win this game!’ The team promptly fell apart!

The team dynamics that were at play can be explained in simple geometric terms.

‘Women work in more of a circle environment, men in a triangle,’ says Guylaine.

‘Each gender operates very differently within the team structure. The men are aware of the hierarchy of players, with the captain invariably the best player – who sits at the top of this triangle. They know exactly what is needed to get to the top.

‘On the female side, the links forming the circle are super important and everyone must feel as if they belong equally in the team. They don’t want to feel as if they are outside that circle. They want to win as a team. Put a player on the spot she will not feel comfortable and probably she will not perform as well.’

Male coaches who refuse to buy in to the triangle concept are destined to go round in circles with their female team, which is likely to fall short of reaching its potential.

Social stereotyping is everywhere

These differences are hardwired into males and females.

There will of course be exceptions, but the innate characteristics and idiosyncrasies of individuals within the group will only be revealed to those coaches who endeavour to forge strong coach-athlete relationships with their participants.

Guylaine has used this knowledge of the different psychological nature of female athletes to great effect in her own career as a coach, explaining: ‘I was the captain of my university basketball team for five years and played maybe one minute per game. Would you see that on the male team? Why was I captain? Because I was super strong in making sure everyone felt as if they were part of that team.’

Learning to adapt your communication skills and read body language and emotions will help you create an environment whereby your female participants savour rather than shun competition.

But to truly understand the differences between the sexes, male coaches must have the self-awareness to strip away their own subconscious gender prejudices.

Does that sound harsh? Judgemental? Consider the wider context. There is a compulsion to conform to black and white gender stereotypes due to their reinforcement in advertising and in the media, a relentless bombardment that has been perpetuated over many lifetimes, and propagated to new levels since the advent of the internet and social media platforms.

These skewed messages, both subliminal and manifest, are impossible to escape and such cultural prejudices can have far-reaching consequences in the domain of sport and coaching. For champions of equality and diversity bent on driving home the fundamental message that women can be equal but different they are an ever-present and disheartening interference.

Little wonder young girls are put off taking part in physical activity, when every communication medium is awash with the sexualisation of female sports stars; traditional representations of the female body as an object of beauty (‘I’ll never match up to her, why bother!’); and the stereotyped connotations associated with ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ sports.

‘Go onto Google Images and type “female athlete” and you will see images that fit the stereotype,’ says Professor Demers.

I followed her advice and the result speaks for itself…

Women in Sports Conference North

The message that sport and physical activity is good for us gets swallowed up then by the sea of stereotypes, symbolism and misconceptions that besiege our young people.

Guylaine explains: ‘During the onset of puberty you are first of all struggling with your body. Doing sport, young girls may be afraid of gaining too much muscle as then it will be seen as not being feminine. Even in 2017, girls are struggling with the fact they can have muscles.

‘The way boys and girls are socialised today is still very different. We are still very protective of the girls, who learn very early what it means to be a girl or a boy.

‘Unfortunately, the messages that they get from the media and advertising is there is a certain way you have to look and act so you fit into that box of what it is to be a girl.’

This creates a catch-22 situation in those sports where you need to be strong and aggressive. Women and girls ask themselves, ‘How can I be a great athlete and still be feminine?’. They find it difficult to reconcile the two.

‘You see female athletes fighting like crazy on the rugby field, but when they step out of the locker room they will have made sure they have done their hair and make-up so they look super feminine,’ says Professor Demers.

Stigmatising labels

The upshot is that girls are being dissuaded from playing ‘masculine’ sports because they are afraid of being labelled.

Professor Demers explains that one mother and father told her they didn’t want their little girl playing ice hockey because they didn’t want her to become a lesbian.

With that sort of homophobic attitude, is there any wonder LGBT athletes are so scared of coming out and why girls are so quick to trade sport out of their lives during adolescence?

‘They are so scared of being rejected, of being isolated, of being a victim of bullying,’ says Professor Demers.

‘When you see a man playing rugby, everyone assumes he is heterosexual because real men play rugby don’t they, strong and aggressive. That’s what a man is.

‘And if you see a woman figure skater, of course she is heterosexual. She is feminine and has everything that our society relates to being a woman. But if you see a male figure skater, well, he’s probably gay. It’s because what we assume is needed to be a great figure skater is to be gracious and aesthetic. We align those qualities with being a female.

‘I don’t know about here, but in Canada, if you are a female rugby player or ice hockey player, of course you must be a lesbian. Why, because they are strong, powerful and aggressive. It’s like you cannot be a strong woman and heterosexual.’

There were those in the audience who suggested times were changing.

But changing deeply ingrained cultural beliefs and attitudes towards gender roles, cultivated over generations, is like turning a supertanker around in a harbour… frustratingly slow and fraught with difficulties.

What are your thoughts regarding gender differences? How do you manage them? Has gender stereotyping impacted on participation at your club?

Further reading

Women in Sports Conference North

Leeds Rhinos Foundation hosted the free Women in Sports Conference North, which also included a keynote speech from British Olympic 1500m runner Laura Weightman, third from right, along with several other engaging speakers and panellists from the worlds of broadcasting, sport and physical activity. More details can be found here.

More related ConnectedCoaches blogs and conversations:


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Comments (4)


Excellent article, it's amazing how females are labelled when choosing a particular sport. When I was working in local schools coaching PE I was once asked from a years 6 boy, " Miss are you lesbian?". My reply "no!" It just goes to show that even young people without knowing can assume that all women in sports are Lesbian. Maybe its time to change the mindset the younger generation of coaches coming through to a more positive towards female in sports and as coaches.

On the female side, the links forming the circle are super important and everyone must feel as if they belong equally in the team. They don’t want to feel as if they are outside that circle. They want to win as a team. Put a player on the spot she will not feel comfortable and probably she will not perform as well.’

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As I coach a women's cricket team there are some really interesting and thought provoking points in this. Paricularly the example of how the volleyball teams reacted, as well as the circle and triangle comments. That's going to need a bit more reading into and thinking about.

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I also coach some female cricketers, but as this is mostly 1-to-1s I don’t get to see the team dynamic.

I wonder how the “circle” can be completed in individual sports (or sports like cricket that comprise 1-on-1 contests between bat and ball) that do expose the individual athlete at the point of the triangle.

I did get to hear Paul Shaw, former coach of the England Women’s team, speak at the ECB CA conference (I think you were there, Roger?), and it was perhaps significant that he emphasised the importance of the team environment and building connections.

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‘Different but equal’ reminds me of the phrase, “I’m more equal than you.”

There is no cognitive neurological evidence that your experience of eating an orange is the same as anyone else’s and plenty of SPECT brain analysis that it IS different. This makes sense; eating is more than just chewing. We eat with our eyes, we taste with our emotions, we smell with our motivations, all these differences have an effect upon, our perception of, and interpretation of, that orange. The orange might be the same, but the person certainly isn’t.
Understanding the female mind? We barely understand ourselves let alone anyone else and arrogant to think we can. Can we really compare apples and oranges? They have a lot of similarities, yet recent DNA analysis finds women are fundamentally more different from men than we realised.
There are fundamental differences and men and women should be treated differently.
Menarche issues means girls need to be trained differently to boys.
Women are not ‘one of the lads’ and would be shocked at what the lads get up to; men are not one of the ladies and would be shocked at what the women get up to.
What balances men and women out, is each other!
‘Understanding’ is the wrong word and the wrong direction.

Lumping sexes into boxes, is an over simplification reductionist theory that has been largely disproved. Look where the article comes from; a University professor, their job is to categories, they are paid to look for social norms categorising humans into graphs and charts, thus ignoring individuality and the unique expression of the whole.
There are similes where we can get an approximation of what the other person is going through but never understanding, we would have to BE them, to understand them.
And I’m not up for a sex change just yet. Not a day goes by when I’m not glad I’m a guy, the terrible stuff women have to go through [mostly at the hands of insecure men]. Yet we also find a physical and mental strength in some women that some male athletes would never obtain. And as we should know, many men have used the ‘difference in women as an excuse to subjugate women.’ Just as the British Empire uses the divide and rule.

My point is; ‘we love to categorise’; because it makes it simple for idiots to think they ‘understand’, complexity. We separate the human skeleton into 6 types of bone; so ridiculous that the ones left over from long, short, flat, cubed, and round are called the innominate bones, they get put into their own category. Innominate means the bone with no name because their shape is irregular. In other words, they are unique and can’t be categorised. This is important for coaches because in asymmetrical sports, the left tibia is fundamentally different from the right, and so one can’t even train the left shin with the right shin in the same way. They are not equal; it’s not as simple as ‘different but equal.’
As soon as we generalise there are major problems, that’s why there is no such thing as normal, [you’ve all heard of the Burton suit that fits nobody? It should fit someone, it’s the average Man] in fact statistically if you find someone that by all measurements is the Norm, they by definition they are abnormal because the overwhelming majority of people are not exactly in the middle. “The median is not the message.” As Steven Jay Gould, would say.

It’s not about lumping everyone into two boxes. The article above is right, in that men and women can be different BUT it is wrong in that separating men and women into two boxes to understand them is the answer. Because some men and women are not that different and others are worlds apart. I’ve coached men fully in touch with their feminine side and women fully in touch with their masculine side. It’s called genetic variant and biodiversity or as David Attenborough calls it, ‘The mutant planet’ as most high level athletes are genetic freaks.

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus? New brain study says not. Brain scans show “we need to think beyond an individual’s sex as each brain has unique “mosaic” of sex-based features plus some common to both sexes.” Says Michael Bloomfield, a psychiatrist at University College London. So this Demer’s article is woefully out of date. The dropout rate for boys is also high; are women coaches to blame for not understanding boys?
It DOES have to be competitive otherwise it’s not sport, and the implication boys don’t need ‘friends and social bonding’ to avoid dropout, is ridiculous and sexist. Boys also will cry for inexplicable reasons and talk incessantly for no specific reason. It’s because they are all kids and will do stuff like that for EXACTLY this same reason…
Children do not have the vocabulary nor emotional intelligence yet to understand and express the emotions they are going through; and will either burst into tears or talk incessantly. I have witnessed boys pick their best mate over the best player and girls pick the strongest player over their best mate. Demer’s seems to not know, the best player may not be the best team mate. We coaches do!
Any decent coach will put the best leader as captain, irrelevant of whether they are the best player, and any decent coach will NOT encourage effective teams to think any player is better than any other. We win together and loose together. As Demer admits, she wasn’t the best player, and if she was only getting one minute per game, not that good either.

Demer asks; “Would you see that in a male team?” Well actually YES, the one of many examples that come to mind is the GB male bobsleigh team, they picked the sixth best athlete over 4th and 5th because psychologically he bonded the team better than 4 and 5. So even men can do Demer’s circle. Demer wants to ignore the female pecking order in her friendship circle. So even women can do Demer’s triangle.

Talking of going round in circles; ‘Perform in order to be accepted or accepted in order to perform’; is a circular argument, just like chicken and egg. Which comes first is far more often down to gender parental stereotyping, than any innate hardwired genetic sex differences. By the time we get to coach them, children have been brain washed via indoctrination, into gender stereotyping and the Mum is the main protagonist. Tonnes of research shows this. The tanker doesn’t need turning around, it needs abandoning.
As every genetic scientist will tell us, DNA is NOT destiny, time to dump the hard wired notion and use Carol Dweck’s notion of the flexible changeable neuroplastic mind.

Demer’s wants us to ignore the 80/20 rule, stereotyping boys and girls by putting competitive girls into the ‘friends zone’ circle and socially intelligent boys into the alpha male triangle role. 20% is more than an exception. Boys are catching up fast with looking pretty post match and adverts are now sexualising male football stars.
Demer’s stereotyping is a stereotypical backward step. Demer is correct, social stereotyping is everywhere, including her own “subconscious gender prejudices” research. She is blissfully unaware of Garath Thomas, Kegan Hirst, Sam Stanley, Clyde Rathbone. Maybe her google searches don’t stretch to Gay Rugby stars?

Professor Demer forgets; ‘correlation is not necessarily causation.’ If you want to read a book by a professor that know what they are talking about with the human condition, I’d suggest, Prof Carol Dweck, Sir ken Robinson, Dan Kahneman or Dr Shefali.
Professor Demer forgets; anecdotal evidence is one of the weakest evidences there is. Yet offers us The Volleyball and her own Basketball anecdote. The supposed ‘near’ identical scenario. Really?
There is simple, complicated and complex. The K.I.S.S. model is wrong. Albert Einstein came up with the advice; “Make things Simpler but not simple.”
There is NOTHING more complex we know of, than the human Brain; more synapse connections than the observable stars in the universe. Our best academics have no idea at all what consciousness is. And within complex systems, by definition, there will be unknowable unknowns. This is why, really bright people get the principle that, ‘the more we understand, the more we realise how little we understand. Humans aren’t ultimately understandable, yet.

It’s not about men trying to understand women, that is clearly impossible, it’s empathy we need, it’s listening skills we need. We don’t need to divide boys and girls into their differences, we need them together, to balance each other. Humans will only marry two types of people, the opposite or the same. The opposite for balance or the same for conformational bias.

If you’re a professional coach, you are equally professional to your female students as to your male students. As the famous phrase goes, “be kind because nearly everyone is fighting their own personal battle.” No one can walk a mile in someone shoes, even if they could it will always be coloured by our own perceptions and past assumptions.
Everyone should be treated as a separate individual because that’s exactly what they are.
As Noel Coward once quipped, ‘be yourself, because everyone else is taken’ or the millennials mantra; ‘I want to be unique, just like everybody else’.

Male or female, they require the same mental toughness, hard work, honesty and integrity, each individuals journey is unique and complex to them regardless of the red-herring our children get sold about gender stereotyping.

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