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The great divide: Are single-sex training sessions the way forward for sports coaches? | Inclusive Coaching | ConnectedCoaches

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The great divide: Are single-sex training sessions the way forward for sports coaches?

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single-sex training sessions

  • Research has shown women are put off discussing and disclosing information in mixed sessions.
  • It is a trainer’s responsibility to make sure the environment and climate they set are conducive to learning.
  • A collaborative and relaxing environment means you are more able to concentrate on the task in hand.
  • There is no hard and fast rule. Certain circumstances may call for mixed, women-only or male-only sessions. 

There is a train of thought, snowballing in popularity in the world of behavioural profiling, that says women get far more benefit out of some education sessions if they are in a room devoid of men. 

This theory has entertained academics for some years in the spheres of business and education, but it can just as easily be transferred to the sports coaching environment. 

Dividing workshops into women-only sessions brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘separate but equal’. 

And talk about a gender gap, this is taking things literally. 

On the surface, it seems an incendiary topic but the idea of this article isn’t to stir up a hornets’ nest in order to get a few extra website hits. Exploring this idea could really make a difference to the way educators teach coaches. 

Dividing training seminars according to sex (as you can turn the whole question on its head and ask if there would be benefits to having men-only coaching sessions in certain circumstances) may well divide opinion, but reserve yours for a while longer. 

Diamond model 

Catherine Baker is passionate about helping people become better at what they do. 

A former corporate lawyer in the City of London, she set up Sport and Beyond – a behavioural profiling, training and performance company – in January 2015. 

She has carried out a lot of research into which environments are most conducive to learning as she strives to help more women become leaders in the world of sport. 

And she is a firm believer that there are significant benefits to having women-only coaching sessions. 

She also understands that the question might provoke an initial negative knee-jerk reaction but explains: ‘Nobody would ever argue that having female-only training or development sessions for coaches across the board would be a sensible thing. Actually, men and women can learn off each other brilliantly and most mixed training sessions are a good thing.

'But are there circumstances where it would be more beneficial to just have a group of women in the room? They would get more out of the training; they would discuss and disclose more. 

‘You have to be very careful about this demarcation though because often it comes down to individuals rather than gender.’ 

The theory has already been put into practice in some schools, which operate what is called the ‘diamond model’. 

‘In terms of children, from an educational point of view, there has been a lot of research into the best environments for children to learn, and as a result, a lot of schools now follow this model, where you have mixed classes from 4 to 11, single sex from 11 to 16 and mixed again from 16 to 18,’ Catherine explains.

The Apprentice

She has her own experiences to draw on, adding: ‘We’ve been working with a sports charity recently which organised programmes for young people, and I went to observe a session – the first one that was being run female-only. It was for people between the ages of 16 and 23 who have maybe fallen between the cracks a little bit and want to understand what their opportunities are and how they might get back into the system. 

‘I had a chat to the lady who ran the session afterwards, and the words that seem to come again and again with female-only sessions are more supportive, more open, more willing to disclose information and less jostling.’ 

There is a big responsibility on every trainer to make sure the environment and climate they set are conducive to learning. However, no matter how good they are at their job, they can be swimming against the tide when it comes to fully engaging women in mixed sessions. 

‘I have presented the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) safeguarding course to coaches in Yorkshire over the last few years,’ says Catherine. ‘Every couple of months, I’ll do a three-hour course that the LTA have written on safeguarding for coaches, and it’s always very interesting to see the vibe in the room. 

‘In tennis, there are many more male coaches than female, to the extent where women aren’t prepared to contribute as much. I’ll often ask them how they found the environment, how willing they were to talk, and the feedback is always the same.’ 

I ask her if it would work the other way round, hosting male-only sessions. 

‘I think that’s a point of interest and worth looking into,’ she begins, before using an analogy of The Apprentice to show how important it is to have the optimum environment in which to learn – and how having men and women in the same room can be a fly in the ointment. 

‘The men and women are all sat together; they are all jostling for position and not really focusing on the task. 

‘That’s because we all have so much mental energy in any given situation, and whether consciously or subconsciously, our first focus is on ourselves. We look after ourselves before we worry about everyone around us. 

‘So when you are in a situation that is very punishing or adversarial, you think about yourself and don’t have much time to think about the task. 

‘As you are in an environment that becomes more neutral, more supportive and more collaborative, you are less concerned worrying about yourself and therefore have more time to focus on the task and the output.’ 

This analogy will strike a chord with anyone who has seen The Apprentice, when a room full of supposedly intelligent businessmen and women struggle to make sensible group decisions as their conflict of egos and eager beaver exteriors cloud their judgement – and that’s before you even factor in the watching brief of Lord Sugar and new aide Claude ‘the Rottweiler’ Littner, who can transform hardened businessmen and women into quivering wrecks. 

With everyone scrambling to be project manager, worrying about making themselves look good and not actually focusing on how they are going to win the task, it’s no wonder they sometimes fluff their lines. 

‘The question we need to ask, then,’ says Catherine, ‘is “How do we make sure we create the right environment so that everybody is going to feel relaxed and able to focus on what it is we’re going to be doing, thereby getting the best out of the session?”’ 

Common sense coaching 

I plead with her not to shoot the messenger as I play devil’s advocate and ask if it’s not contradictory, even discriminatory, on the one hand to expect to be treated equally to men, but on the other ask to be treated differently in certain circumstances. 

‘Everybody is individual, and you should treat them accordingly,’ says Catherine as I don my tin hat. ‘As an example, my husband and I are completely the wrong way round. He has much more naturally feminine traits than me. He’s more empathetic, he’s more sensitive, and all our friends joke that I am the man in our relationship. 

‘You could look at it the other way and ask, “Are there some areas of development and learning where men would get more out of the session if there were only men in the room?” 

‘So it’s an area of interest, and I guess a lot more work needs to go into it to see what might be the right approach.’ 

So, in summary, while the topic might be contentious, if there are obvious benefits to coaches, it would be self-defeating not to delve a lot further into the subject. 

At the end of the day, any theory that meets the desired objective of improving learning and personal development, where everyone is a winner – male and female – has got to be worth extensive scrutiny. It has nothing to do with gender stereotyping and everything to do with common sense.

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Comments (4)

A really interesting article, thank you for sharing. My only concern, while coach education is void of nearly all context anyway, aren't we removing the learners even further from the context in which they're going to operate? Coaching isn't devoid of men, so coach education devoid of men might be a false development tool. Just some food for thought; as i was of the opinion it was a great thing, before reading a little deeper.
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Hi Liam, it's a really good point. The principle around the 'training ground' reflecting the real world is well established and of real relevance to this debate. I guess the point is whether there might be situations where the benefit obtained from a female-only session, in certain and specific circumstances, outweighs the 'real life' situation argument. Also of course there are situations where these female coaches are, at that particular point in their career, focusing solely on female athletes. Interesting that you pick up on the 'void of all context' issue - we do our best in workshops to make them as interactive as possible, and encourage debate and sharing amongst attendees, so that they are learning as much from each other, and their real life scenarios, as they are from us as the facilitators. When we get this right, we know we have done a good job.
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Thanks Catherine, sorry it's taken so long to get back - i've only just seen the response. I agree with you totally that their might be certain situations where it reaps reward, but i've not seen an example yet, sadly. If there is any though, i'd love to see it and learn from that. The context issue wasn't so related to affording opportunities to debate etc as you mentioned, it was more the lack of authentic assessment and evidence based practice. I'm only speaking from my experiences as a former head of coach education at an NGB, and certainly not for everyone at all. I think there is a lot out there, NGBs just need to embrace it.
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Taking the Next Step: Ways Forward for Coaching Science by Abraham and Colling (2011) is a good piece, as is Andy Abraham's vampires and wolves article here - http://www.researchgate.net/publication/265849928_On_Vampires_and_Wolves_-Exposing_and_Exploring_Reasons_for_the_Differential_Impact_of_Coach_Education
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