At age 13 at a Babe Ruth tournament I vividly recall being hit by the same pitcher 4 times in one game. The opposing team’s leadership was humored by this and allowed it to happen but I paid it no mind each time and took my free base.

The buzz of the tournament was that I was “tough”, and I could “hang with the boys” based off nothing more than shrugging off being thrown at intentionally. I look back on it now and wish they had actually thrown pitches to me so I could prove I could hit. Even so, anytime I heard the word tough I took it as a compliment. However, as I grew older I learned that my kind of tough wasn’t nearly as appreciated. Eventually, my physical, emotional and vocal nature prompted its fair share of double takes and apprehension.

It seems a bit ironic that as a young child my “fire” and “sassiness” was viewed as leadership potential where as a professional adult coach I have heard the words to “loud”, “aggressive” and “unapproachable” far too often when I or my female friends in coaching are being described. At one point I recall the admirable traits other parents used to describe my youth male coaches who yelled consistently and berated us regularly. However, these men were regarded as spirited, passionate, driven and revered for molding young men and women.

I recall watching a men’s college basketball practice about 6 years ago from an empty set of bleachers as I finished a run inside the arena. The coach attempted to berate one of his players but stopped in order to dismiss his female athletic trainer because it wasn’t appropriate for her to hear. She walked out and the phrases, “playing like a bi***”, and “stop being a p****y,” emerged from the coach’s mouth. The player nodded and apologized to the coach and practice continued on as usual.

This kind of leadership is not entirely uncommon in sports where males are coaching males and even some coaching females. However,  we see far less reporting on these coaches, why? Very simply, the “tough” male coach is perceived as being in his natural realm of behavior and those moments of aggression are shown toward players or officials are widely more tolerated and to some degree, acceptable. If Pat Summit had acted the way Bobby Knight did, how much shorter would her career have been?

From my perspective in college athletics, not much has changed where men are respected for being tough and women work in a system designed to encourage them to get in line, wait our turn, accept disparity, raise our hands to be called upon and speak softly.  As a college coach, I find it perplexing that so much of this messaging is prevalent yet,  at the same time our intercollegiate athletic system perpetuates this false image that strong women are appreciated in the profession. If NCAA schools truly desired to have more strong female leaders within their institutions and national office, why do we have so few women in leadership at the NCAA? Furthermore, why is it that our numbers in female coaches continues to spiral? The statement that strong women are an asset is accurate but evidence demonstrating that entities like the NCAA and their membership institutions actually want us in their departments, has yet to be proven.

Additionally, college athletics claims it desires to produces strong student athletes to enter into the workforce yet simultaneously finds these institutions ignoring disparaging treatment, unequal pay, homophobia, sexism and discrimination. Even more preposterous is the assumption that all of the aforementioned are not somehow having a hugely negative impact on the next generation of our female and male leaders. This is right about that moment in this essay where opponents of equity say, “Hey now, it’s not about gender, it’s about qualifications”.

I couldn’t agree more as qualifications should always prevail but research shows us this is not the world we live in. Men are the front-runners at the NCAA headquarters, athletic department positions and regardless of opinion, it is an overwhelming that fact most people tend to hire people who look like them. White males hires white males so we must examine why methods of extra effort to be inclusive and mindful of minority hiring are accepted yet, specifically seeking to hire the underrepresented gender in the college coaching space, is up for debate. 

College coaching can be both a joyous and stressful space. To this day, the majority of my acquaintances still assume that when my 2.5 hour practice is over, my job is done for the day. However we know as coaches that not only are we managing our programs, but we are now silently expected to manage student-athletes’ lives for them. When things become stressful for our student-athletes, by extension we are expected to fix it, map out their plan or make it better in an instant on or off the playing field.

The moment we ask our athletes to fight the adversity that everyone in their lives up to the point of their entry into our programs has helped them avoid, we become the villains. The need for immediate satisfaction and results or success comes in many forms. Whether your athlete is frustrated because they are not cracking the starting lineup, feels they aren’t getting enough attention, has issues with a teammate or the entire team, is too stressed with the rigors of academics and athletics, or is negotiating personal/family relationships, these are central issues that lead to chatter and dissatisfaction amongst our student-athletes.

The reality is, when the ship starts to sink, some athletes may not hesitate to take us down with them because as luck of the profession has it, we are the closest most eligible figure within their radius that can absorb their misfortune and be accountable for the failure when they choose not to be. In the event we are unsuccessful in negotiating the endless nuances of their conflicts, we risk being branded as unsupportive, unwilling to listen, or insensitive.

Perhaps this sounds presumptuous? Try googling Robin Lamott Sparks, Shannon Miller, Jamie Wohlbach, Connie Yori, Tracey Griesbaum and many more on the long list of coaches, majority female, who have lost their livelihood based on discrimination, sexism, Title IX whistleblowing and in some cases were forced to resign due to institutional media spin on one or two unsatisfied athletes.

Let the most recent resignation of Nebraska Women’s Basketball, Coach Connie Yori sink in as you try to imagine yourself being let go from your position due to the specific perspective of a few 18-22 year olds whom you brought to the university to get a degree. Even more alarming than the list above is the list that will never be published of those women coaches who remain silent in their dismissals. Bear in mind, I am by no means asking anyone to dismiss the cases where coaches both male and female have failed to deliver a fair, safe and positive experience for their teams. However, let’s re-examine what coaching truly means.

If someone were to ask me which words I would include when describing coaching I would say teaching, leadership, standards , commitment, growth, and development. All of these in my opinion are components of coaching on top of our crucial, daily decision-making. Coaching involves having to lead but also to listen. Today our athletes struggle to listen because attention time spans are rapidly dropping.  Student-athlete enthusiasm or disgust can hinge on whether or not their deep need for information is satiated. Unfortunately when they are not provided all the answers they immediately desire, the response of “it’s coach’s decision” is no longer acceptable. Courtesy of knee-jerk response, our athletes will do their best to fill the information gaps on their own by replacing the truth with their perception or even the team’s perception. These are typically based on repeated over-dissection of a topic in the locker room or other social team areas.

This being said, when we can find ourselves caught off guard by these team concerns, in many cases, it may be too late for your perspective as the coach to be viewed as anything more than defense of your position of power. When we do not give our athletes enough information, regardless of the reason, you may very well find yourself in your AD’s office with HR.

As a female coach I have learned that even though I have no desire to coach precisely like the male coaches who coached me, I would never be free to coach as a carbon copy given the system and its lack of acceptance for “tough” female coaches. Instead of finding comfort in my accomplishments and being able to enjoy them for a moment, I am consistently looking over my shoulder when I know that I fail to meet the pre-existing expectations of me as a female leader.

Teaching hard lessons to your athletes with consequences makes all parties involved uncomfortable. No one likes having to suspend a player, reduce or eliminate their scholarship. However, we must be adamant that our administrators support both genders of coaches equally in these processes. If as a female coach your administration uses language that indicates you are expected to be “motherly”, “more patient and supportive” while your male colleagues are permitted to use physical or verbal intimidation to get results without consequences, this is where we must highlight these issues and confront them.

When our athletes fail it is our job as coaches to then continue to present them with challenges and opportunities to be successful. Some of these challenges require having the athlete exposed to goal setting, limits, tough conversations about potential, and motivation.

Being tough on today’s athlete is never without risk so what are the solutions?

While I have previously outlined many of the proactive solutions in my last piece on Fearless Coaching, here are some additional points that we must address with our administrations and colleagues if we want to stop the mechanism of madness and ensure empowerment on both sides of the table.


As a college coach, chances are you are evaluated at some point. Annual performance evaluations are not uncommon so this is your opportunity to clarify and document all past performance reviews and future expectations. You must identify the top expectations of your program by your employer and be crystal clear in confirming whether those expectations are realistic in a sense that they match your resources and support levels provided by your institution. Ex. If your administration expects you to attract high numbers of talent and retain a large roster but your budget is inadequate and your facility has been void of an upgrade or attention, these goals do not align with your resources.

Is your AD expecting a flawless record, playoff berths, conference championships, a perfectly balanced budget, high recruiting numbers or strict roster management? Regardless whether it is one or all of those, be specific and diligent in your pursuit of expectations. Document everything from any meeting to ensure that the expectations match the institutional mission and that the requirements are not an ever-changing landscape of guesswork.


For female coaches, it is inevitable, given the ratios of males to females in the coaching space, that many of you were coached or mentored by a male or all males in your athletic career. This means along the way we have successfully gathered bits and pieces from these experiences and coupled them with our own individuality and unique style that works for us. However, it never ceases to amaze me when we as women, who were coached by men, suddenly implement the same “tough” or even basic standards our male coaches put on us, how differently the message is received when female coaches are the ones implementing them to female athletes.

The challenges are vast in coaching regardless of gender but let’s not be dismissive of the challenges for our female coaches. If we do not acknowledge the wide range of perceptions and expectations of our athletes, we are at risk.

Ask yourself: Have I found myself refusing to let my athlete give up? Have I ever become frustrated with a talented player with a bad attitude? Have I pushed an athlete to not shy away from adversity or struggle? If you have done all of these, congratulations, you are coaching. However, if you have done even one of these, you are now eligible to be labeled a bully. Open up dialogue with both your administrators and your teams on their perceptions of “tough” and “over the top” by giving scenarios. Asking more questions and challenging this topic is a vehicle to offering both of these entities a gut-check in any existing prejudices and one-dimensional hardwired responses.

When businesses want to be successful, management should allow their hardest workers to thrive by offering raises, recognition or promotions. This is widely accepted and understood in the corporate world. In athletics, when we recognize that certain athletes are going above and beyond, it should be our choice as coaches to recognize those players with something as basic as a conversation to let them know personally about how grateful you are for their hard work and that you see their progress.

This doesn’t mean that you are putting the rest of your athletes down but we must be prepared for the player or team perception that we are singling out “favorites”. This is commonly referred to in coach abuse allegations as “dividing the team”. Again, present this scenario to your administration and to your team in the context of the bigger picture. Suddenly, this becomes a means of understanding by your athletes that hard work is rewarded for those who go the extra mile and meant to push the ones who need to catch up. On the same note, with this communication, in the eyes of your athletic department you will be seen as using this method to preparing your athletes for the job market.

As a coach, you have every right to view the survey template that is distributed by your athletic departments to your student-athletes. Inspire other coaches in your department to form a group or committee that annually reviews the survey content with your admin. More recently, our own surveys at my institution were completely revamped when it was brought to the attention of the administrators that the survey was decades old and not only lacked many relevant areas of solicited feedback from the student athlete, but was also void of any area for submission of positive feedback for coach performance.


Each question was suggestive and some encouraging only criticism where the coach, regardless of performance was already at disadvantage from question one. Be diligent in your review and take active interest in pursuing new methods of data collection if your department’s survey is outdated or unbalanced.

While we assume that every university takes a hard look at these surveys many may even disregard them altogether. Be sure you have a firm understanding of this process and be aware of whether or not these reviews are distributed fairly. Ex. Are your administrators going through surveys with a fine toothed comb on the women’s ice hockey coach yet overlooking student-athlete feedback on the men’s ice hockey side? These are important and relevant questions.


If you coach a fall sport and your surveys are distributed and collected in December, inquire as to when you will be reviewed on those results.

Many athletic departments meet with their coaches annually prior to the turnover of the fiscal year in July. However, if you are a fall sport and a few of your own athletes have expressed their disagreement with your methods through the survey in December, you risk not being informed until months later. This is far too long of a stretch and eliminates any opportunity for you to address the problem in the spring semester. Basically, how will we know where we need to improve if we aren’t given the information?

Additionally, if you are a spring sport, pick a time soon after your athletes submit their surveys to review your results with your admin. Allowing months to pass before the data can be reviewed is ammunition for your university to compile or seek out additional information they may want in their favor, in the event they choose to ultimately place your employment in the hands of a few college students’ surveys.


As graduate assistant, I was told that no one would truly take me seriously until I was in my 30s and even then, I would have to win and be in the game as long as 30 more years to gain any respect. Well, here I am 34…and I win, a lot.

Yet, it’s still a mystery to me how success as a female coach has yet to brandish my position with any additional trust to run my program in a manner that preserves positive culture and results. In the world of men coaching men, when you win, you have opportunities to move up and your resume grows right along with your salary. As a woman, if you make a healthy salary you are already close to pricing yourself out of new opportunities. Think this is just speculation? When was the last time you read or heard about a bidding war for a D-I women’s basketball coach in the same way we do when a D-I men’s position is open?

Yes, every opponent of this metaphor will undoubtedly begin to troll around and justify injustice by using the argument that men’s sports make more than women’s sports so bidding wars for female coaches are not seen often or ever. However, money is not an excuse for disparity. One of the biggest set backs to this movement continues to be a lack of acknowledgment and a variety of methods of distraction from the problem where many tend to justify injustice.


In contrast to my 10 years of coaching, more veteran coaches like Nebraska’s Coach Yori are just one example of female coaches that have been in the business and are recognizable names in their sport. In the 14 years of Yori’s tenure, undoubtedly the Husker staff had developed mechanisms for their program that simply run like clockwork. Unfortunately, even experience can be a drawback and long careers can distance administrations from keeping up on how coaches operate and more importantly the new challenges we face.

No matter how long any of us have been coaching, our years of experience can do nothing to change the evolution of the athletes we are recruiting. We must consistently be upgrading communication to our administrations to protect ourselves because research shows that the people in charge of us are being drawn increasingly more from the business world rather than the athletic sector.

Explaining to a former CEO of a marketing or finance company turned athletic director, that as coaches we must allow our constituency to face their challenges, may not compute to them in the same way it would a former coach. Our new business oriented leaders look at student-athletes as paying customers now rather than young adults who need structure and guidance.  Needless to say it becomes problematic when “the customer” in athletics is always right.

As coaches we must be proactive and aware of these issues and solutions. Otherwise, the next time you hear a student-athlete complaint accompanied by an impromptu meeting with HR and your AD, it may be too late.

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