Female Coaching Opportunities in Swimming

Take Home Points on Female Coaching Opportunities in Swimming

    1. Female head coaches are underrepresented in swimming at the major collegiate level
    2. Possible reasons for lack of coaching gender diversity include tradition and perceived notions of social roles
    3. Loss of female coaches or potential coaches is a major “brain drain” on the sport
    "New, young women assistant coaches get trapped in a niche--pack the backpack, braid the hair, and make T-shirts for the conference meet...How exactly does that train you to coach an athlete to run 4 minutes in the 1500m? As an assistant coach, your objective should be to learn how to coach. Athletes don't need another friend; they need someone who will help them succeed." -Maurica Powell, U of Oregon Track and Field Assistant Coach (see Where are the Elite Female Coaches?)

    This is hardly a new topic, but one that has garnered some attention with the recent statistic showing that only 13.8% of head coaches at the NCAA D-I Women’s Swim Championships are women.   A similar picture emerges in track and field, with approximately 22% of women’s teams coached by women and less than 3% of men’s teams coached by women.  Overall, less than half of women’s teams in all sports are coached by women (approximately 43% in a 2012 survey). (stats from Where are the Elite Female Coaches?)

    Many have weighed their opinion, both on and off the record (see Kim Brackin Interview, Swimming World). Anecdotal reasons for the lack of female coaches include childbirth, unwillingness of male athletes to swim for female coaches, and simply “the good ol’ boys network” in both swimming and collegiate sports as a whole.  Opinion is highly valuable in this very sensitive discussion, but what does the literature have to say about the issue? 


    In one fairly recent study, Magnusen (2009) polled male and female Division I athletes from multiple sports on their preferences for male versus female strength coaches. 


    “Female athletes did not have a gender preference, nor did they have any negative attitudes toward a strength coach. The women would be productive training with any qualified strength coach, whereas the men would prefer working with a male strength coach no matter how qualified the female coach might be.”

    Note that the men’s sample included football players, which may have unbalanced the study population, as there is no female football program counterpart.  And clearly, swimming is unique from sports like football, where female coaches are practically non-existent at all levels, unlike swimming where most kids have swum for female coach at some point in their career before getting to college.    

    In a study of certified athletic trainers at the collegiate level, Drummond (2005) found another gender divide, in which “women were more comfortable caring for female injuries and issues, whereas men were more comfortable caring for male injuries and issues. The most common underlying reason reported for discomfort in caring for female and male injuries and issues was experience level.”

    Again, athletic training is not a perfect correlate to swimming, but the study does speak to global issues, particularly regarding experience level.  For more female coaches to gain experience and become more adept at handling the challenging personal issues that confront every head coach, opportunities must be available to learn.  Lack of opportunity creates a self-fulfilling vicious cycle in which future generations are shut out.  Fortunately, success is not impossible, with Massey (2013) studying female strength coaches at the Division I level and noted an average age of 31.6, average experience of 8 years, and 83% holding masters degrees.  “Overall, the job satisfaction for the group was high.”


    Still, the work-life balance/sacrifice remains a challenge.  As Terri McKeever noted upon being named head coach for the 2012 Olympic team, "I married my job...I blew the kid thing, but I don't think it was conscious.  I just had such a competitive desire that I wanted to be good that this." (see, Now at Pinnacle, an Uneasy Pioneer) Indeed, many would argue that future female head coaches voluntarily opt out of the system in choosing to pursue family/childbirth while their male counterparts rise in the coaching ranks.   

    Kamphoff (2010) surveyed 121 former collegiate coaches (multiple sports) on reasons for leaving. The reasons included, “a) gender disparities in women's work, (b) technical demands of coaching, and (c) college coaching and normalized sexualities….In addition, some female coaches discussed perceptions of conflict between working as a coach and motherhood, or women with children as being "distracted" by motherhood.”

    Norman (2010) addressed this question in a survey of female coaches at the collegiate level (several sports, not only swimming) and found that “female coaches felt the need to continually prove themselves and often experienced coaching as a hostile and intimidating culture. Participants reported a gradual reduction in such unwelcoming behavior from men, seemingly because they had proved to be no threat to the existing patriarchal structure.”

    Practical implication

    Putting aside any issues of moral equality, a more practical reason for this to be concerning is the brain drain that occurs with many qualified coaches leaving the field early and many others not even considering the field due to a notion (whether real or perceived) that upward professional mobility is limited based on gender.  Swimming is unique to many other sports in that competitive opportunities for women are comparable to the men, and in some cases are better.  For the sake of advancing the sport, it is important that talent is not squandered as many future coaches leave the field prematurely.    

    References

      1. Magnusen MJ1, Rhea DJ. Division I athletes' attitudes toward and preferences for male and female strength and conditioning coaches. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jul;23(4):1084-90. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318199d8c4.
      2. Kamphoff CS. Bargaining with patriarchy: former female coaches' experiences and their decision to leave collegiate coaching. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2010 Sep;81(3):360-72.
      3. Norman L. Bearing the burden of doubt: female coaches' experiences of gender relations. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2010 Dec;81(4):506-17.
      4. Massey CD1, Vincent J. A job analysis of major college female strength and conditioning coaches. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jul;27(7):2000-12. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31827361a9.
        Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

        Should Female Swimmers Train Differently Than Males: Part III

        In Should Female Swimmers Train Differently Than Males: Part I of this series, we explored differences in exercise physiology between males and females. One hypothesis emerging from that discussion was that females might demonstrate greater fatigue resistance. Though it’s a tough hypothesis prove due to the myriad of training variables, it’s worth considering for interpreting individual adaptations. Last week we discussed differences among youth and adolescents in Should Female Swimmers Train Differently Than Males: Part II. In this post, we’ll cover multiple areas, but will mainly focus on stress. Folklore may suggest females would be stressed than males (“drama queens”), but you can find many examples of high stress and low stress athletes in both genders. In truth, many differences lie in the art of coaching more than the science.  

        Consider this interview excerpt with Coach Anson Dorrance of the University of North Carolina women’s soccer team, one of the most successful programs in all of college sports…

        Interviewer: Could you elaborate a little bit more on the obvious differences you see in coaching males and females?

        Coach Dorrance:  Well, it would take me forever because there are so many it'd be hard for me to recount them all. But they're motivated differently. You can't lead women with the intensity of your own personality. A part of what motivates a man is for the coach to actually scream at him during the game to get him going, and that does get him going. And a lot of the times, obviously being a male I understand this, half the time the reason you start playing is you're so irritated at the criticism. And that feeds your adrenaline….

        That's totally ineffective with women. What happens when you are that way with a woman, unless you have a very good and close personal relationship with her is that you are going to actually shatter her confidence. And it's a totally ineffective way to lead women athletes. And I know that what's common in sport psychology is we all want to believe the way to motivate everyone is the same way.  But I'm here to testify, John, it's not (Silva 2011).

        This excerpt is only a snapshot of Coach Dorrance’s full answer, but it gives the idea that differences are often more art than science. In terms of science, there’s probably not enough evidence to support female specific training, but there is ample evidence in gender differences to refine our explanatory models and understand the nuances of the individual athlete’s adaptation.  

        One area where males and females differ profoundly is in the endocrine system. We discussed how estrogen and testosterone affect adolescent development in the previous installment. Another avenue through which hormones affect performance is the body’s stress response. Is there a difference in how females and males react to different stressors, both physical and mental? Again, this isn’t something you can ever prove with certainty due to the wide variety of training approaches and individual responses, but some common patterns do emerge.    

        Cortisol levels are a common stress measurement. While cortisol testing requires a lab, you can observe potential signs and symptoms of elevation via observation. In athletics, we’re most commonly concerned with training load, but school stress, social stress, and poor nutrition (among other things) can also elevate cortisol. With females, amenorrhea is also tied with cortisol levels (Ding 1988).  

        Since we’re talking hormones, we’d be remiss to ignore contraceptive use. Yes, it’s an off-limits area for many male coaches with their female athletes. But it’s important enough to have been studied repeatedly in the literature (Vaiksaar 2011, Reichichi 2008), and fairly recently among swimmers. Reichichi (2012) studied competitive swimmers and found monophasic contraceptive cycle did not impair 200m swim performance, though it may affect blood lactate readings, due to increases in fluid retention, plasma volume, and cellular alkalosis.  

        As for physical training differences, several studies examine cortisol levels in swimmers and other endurance athletes. Tsai (1991) studied elite male and female endurance athletes over a full competitive season. Athletes were tested three times: preseason, midseason, postseason. Women began their seasons at higher cortisol levels and increased significantly during the season compared to men.    

        However, after a three day training increase, O’Connor (1991) observed no differences in psychological or physiological responses between males and females. Though cortisol levels are a sign of stress, they are not necessarily a real-time indicator of performance.  In fact, in the short term, elevated cortisol may reflect the exact response we’re seeking as part of a sympathetic nervous response to peak for racing (the “fight” part of the fight-or-flight dichotomy). It’s a greater concern when levels are chronically elevated.

        In the O’Connor study eighteen female and twenty two male college swimmers increased daily training volume from 6,800m to 11,200m for the females and from 8,800m to 12,950m for males. Stroke frequency, perceived exertion, fatigue, and muscle soreness all increased. Clearly this was a taxing effort for all, but in the short term, the stress response was the same for both genders.

        The results may change for swimmers on dry land. Chatard (2002) studied a mixed gender group of swimmers over a 37 week period. Cortisol increased with volume increases and as the season progressed. Athletes completed sixty eight races during this time frame.  Although they observed no link between cortisol and race performance, cortisol was a reliable marker of dryland stress among the females.  

        “Dryland” is a broad label, and can mean everything from easy stretching to intense lifting. Nevertheless, given the frequent bone density problems of female aquatic athletes, it could be that dryland is more stressful, especially in an elite sample where athletes have spent much of their lives immersed in water for up to 4-5 hours a day. This is just speculation on my part, but it is one possible explanation.  

        Another explanation could be the heat dynamics of land exercise versus aquatic exercise.  Filaire (1996) conducted a female-only study, but compared swimmers to handball players.  Handball players had higher cortisol levels, with one theory being the natural cooling provided by water for swimmers.  

        Training and racing can induce emotional stress too (see, The Cause of Choking and How to Avoid It). In a fairly lengthy study, Raglin (1991) followed 84 female and 102 male swimmers over a four-year period to examine psychological stress. Ratings for depression, anger, vigor, fatigue, and confusion all correlated with alterations in training yardage in both genders. Tension was higher in the female swimmers each year and did not abate with yardage reductions.   

        Kivlighan(2005) studied collegiate male and female rowers and observed that cortisol levels rose in preparation for competition. Levels remained elevated over pre-event baselines and forty minutes post-competition. The sample included both experts and novices in both genders, with the only significant differences in the novice females.

        Conclusion
        Remember, not all stress is bad, so long as we have appropriate opportunities for adaptation to occur.  There’s probably not enough evidence to create gender paradigms for all, but knowledge of physiology and reported findings unique to each gender can help individualize based on the athlete’s characteristics, whether female or male.      

        References
        1. Tsai L, Johansson C, Pousette A, Tegelman R, Carlström K, Hemmingsson P.  Cortisol and androgen concentrations in female and male elite endurance athletes in relation to physical activity.  Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1991;63(3-4):308-11.
        2. Kivlighan KT, Granger DA, Booth A.  Gender differences in testosterone and cortisol response to competition.  Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2005 Jan;30(1):58-71.
        3. Chatard JC, Atlaoui D, Lac G, Duclos M, Hooper S, Mackinnon L. Cortisol, DHEA, performance and training in elite swimmers.  Int J Sports Med. 2002 Oct;23(7):510-5.
        4. O'Connor PJ, Morgan WP, Raglin JS.  Psychobiologic effects of 3 d of increased training in female and male swimmers.  Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1991 Sep;23(9):1055-61.
        5. Raglin JS, Morgan WP, O'Connor PJ.  Changes in mood states during training in female and male college swimmers.  Int J Sports Med. 1991 Dec;12(6):585-9.
        6. Filaire E, Duché P, Lac G, Robert A.  Saliva cortisol, physical exercise and training: influences of swimming and handball on cortisol concentrations in women.  Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1996;74(3):274-8.
        7. Silva J.  Psychological Aspects of Competition: An Interview with Anson Dorrance Head Women’s Soccer Coach at The University of North Carolina.  Journal of Excellence.  Issue No. 11.
        8. Ding JH, Sheckter CB, Drinkwater BL, Soules MR, Bremner WJ.  High serum cortisol levels in exercise-associated amenorrhea.  Ann Intern Med. 1988 Apr;108(4):530-4.
        9. Rechichi C, Dawson B.  Oral contraceptive cycle phase does not affect 200-m swim time trial performance.  J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Apr;26(4):961-7.
        10. Vaiksaar S, Jürimäe J, Mäestu J, Purge P, Kalytka S, Shakhlina L, Jürimäe T.  No effect of menstrual cycle phase and oral contraceptive use on endurance performance in rowers.  J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jun;25(6):1571-8.
        11. Rechichi C, Dawson B, Goodman C.  Oral contraceptive phase has no effect on endurance test.  Int J Sports Med. 2008 Apr;29(4):277-81. Epub 2007 Sep 13.
        By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.