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What are the differences in coaching boys and girls?

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Brett Holland

LITTLE MIX: Brett Holland oversees a mixed session of young hockey players during his spell coaching in Australia

This question will always divide opinion, as sure as night follows day. There are those who believe your methods should remain the same regardless of which gender you are coaching. Others swear that differences do exist, offering up examples to prove it. This article aims to provide food for thought rather than serve up a definitive answer.

  • Coaches should be discouraged from attaching gender labels to their athletes.
  • While it is untrue, for example, to say categorically that girls are more sensitive than boys (some boys are more sensitive than girls), it is important to be aware that some differences can exist.
  • Generalised examples, while by no means all-embracing, include girls being goal-oriented, boys being more task-orientated.
  • Girls have a tendency to take criticism more personally but respond better when faced with the challenge of finding solutions to problems. 
  • Boys can get hooked on the need to achieve, girls’ priority can be more focused on the need to avoid failure. 
  • Girls are more likely to be perfectionists in aspects of their game, whereas boys want to do a lot of things really well. 
  • Getting to know the individual personalities of everyone you coach is a good way to avoid succumbing to gender stereotypes.

Every sports coach should embrace controversial topics that evoke strong opinions. 

The role of a coach, after all, is to provide knowledge and judgement in specialised areas so frank exchanges of views can provide worthwhile insight, and help enhance long-term development. 

After scouring members’ conversations on ConnectedCoaches looking for engaging interview ideas, I arrowed in on Lawrie O’Keeffe’s, who wanted to know the difference between coaching boys and girls. 

You can’t accuse me of taking the easy option.

The feedback by members piqued my interest and persuaded me to do a bit more digging. 

I have been careful that the article does not become a points-scoring exercise and degenerate into some sort of battle of the sexes – nothing quite so drastic. 

And yet the nature of the subject matter means it is necessary to draw on a number of gender stereotypes and sweeping generalisations. 

Do girls lack confidence, and are they more sensitive to criticism than boys? Do boys have more of an ego and a desire to prove the coach wrong? Do boys play sport with more passion than girls? Are girls faster learners? High-octane debate for sure, and there is a need to tread carefully or risk breaking a few eggshells. 

But is there some truth behind these traditional beliefs entrenched in society, or do they need to be shot down? 

The intention is not to be flippant or disparaging, but to examine whether re-evaluating your approach to coaching each gender could prove beneficial to the athletes in the long term. 

In my back-seat role of devil’s advocate, I enlisted the help of two experts who have a wealth of experience in coaching boys and girls. One of them believes differences do exist and provides some fitting examples; the other believes the differences are negligible and are more difficult to detect the younger the age group. 

Don’t take it personally! 

ConnectedCoaches Community Champion  Brett Holland  coaches girls’ hockey at an independent school near Peterborough. 

He works between three and five days a week at Oundle School and last year guided the under-16 girls to the National School Championship finals. 

Brett is also a centrally contracted England Hockey coach, whose role is to oversee coaches at the Junior Regional Performance Centre and coach under-15 athletes who sit between Regional and National Academy level – helping elevate them to the England national age-group squad. 

A UKCC Level 2 coach, he spends his evenings coaching a ladies’ team at Milton Keynes, and occasionally plays himself at weekends. 

His take on the topic is that there are differences between coaching boys and girls. 

‘It’s all a bit subconscious when I’m coaching,’ he adds. ‘You slightly adapt what you do as you react to the situation.’ 

Brett believes that, to get the most effective communication with your players, it is important to be aware of some differences that can exist. And he kicks off (or should that be bullies off?) with this example.

‘For me, it’s more goal-oriented with girls,’ he says. ‘They seem to respond better if they know why they are doing something. So if I extract the reason why I think it’s important, it gets a little bit more of a buy-in from the girls. They appreciate the extra detail regarding the purpose of the activity, and it helps them get their heads around why they are doing it. 

‘When you work with boys, they are more task-oriented. You tell them the activity and what the outcome or objective is, and they just get on with it. They pretty much buy into it straight away.’ 

Through personal experience, Brett has found it is necessary to regulate his approach when communicating with girls during matches or at training sessions. 

‘I find it fascinating in the article by Jeff Jansen (recommended by Gary Fowler in the conversation thread referenced earlier) on how girls and boys approach team talks, how, if a coach criticises a team for doing x, y or z, the girls will automatically think the coach is talking about them, whereas boys will think it is directed at other players. That really resonates with me. 

‘I find myself having to be quite specific in what I say as, if you say something general about the performance of the midfield, for example, you see that the girls take it personally. 

‘You have to be really careful how you say things.’ 

Know your athletes 

Fellow ConnectedCoaches Community Champion and sports coach UK Coach Educator  Jon Woodward  takes a different approach. 

‘I would argue you could have exactly the same situation with a group of lads,’ says Jon, who is a Level 3 football coach and UEFA B Licence holder, and who has experience working in local authority and grass-roots environments, as well as academy and talent pathway settings. 

‘I think you can get a sensitive boy as well as a sensitive girl, but also, you will get a girl who will take it on the chin and be determined to go out and prove the coach wrong. 

‘Yes, you have to be aware how you say things, but, ultimately, if people aren’t achieving what they should be achieving then you need to manage that, and that comes down to knowing your athletes.’ 

Jon argues that coaches can fall into the trap of generalising for the sake of generalising, and believes the biggest challenge every coach faces is to get to know their athletes as individuals. 

He adds: ‘You have to understand what is in front of you, and I don’t think enough is done around what the needs are of young adults across the board. 

‘Coaching and parenting are very similar. When I go in to see the teacher at parents’ evening, I want the teacher to make me feel that they know my child.  

‘If you are working with a squad over time, you should know what makes your athletes tick, who needs an arm around their shoulder and who might need a kick up the backside.’ 

But what if a coach has taken the time to get to know their team as individuals but still finds there is a tendency for girls and boys to react differently in certain situations? 

Brett gives another example, explaining how girls respond better when faced with the challenge of finding solutions to problems. 

‘If you have something that is not quite going right in a game, both myself and England Hockey focus very much on the constraints-led approach – where the goal is to let the game pose the question rather than the coach solve it for you – and the girls seem to react to that really well.’ 

He adds that, in his experience, girls like it if they know they are being listened to while the boys prefer the direct approach. 

‘That said, I have been coached under an autocratic style and in some senses it works – you know what’s being instructed and where you stand. However, these instructions can be forgotten and the style can cause tension. I think there’s a lot to be said about getting players’ opinions and thoughts.’ 

Brett says that, when studying for a sports science degree, he was struck by the fact sports enthusiasts are driven by the need to achieve and the need to avoid failure. 

He claims he sees evidence of this need to avoid failure more in girls, while boys seem to be hooked on the need to achieve. 

‘Now, that is a really generalised statement, and by no means across the board, but I have seen that,’ he says. 

‘As soon as girls realise that they can do something, and that it is important, you see them working harder. They are more likely to be perfectionists. Boys are a little bit more laissez-faire and want to do a lot of things really well, rather than perfect aspects of their game.’ 

Men are from Mars 

Jon accepts differences do become apparent in the sexes over time, but that, at primary school, they are difficult to pinpoint – adding that coaches and teachers should not make it a mission to go looking for them. 

So if men are from Mars and women are from Venus, you could argue teenage boys are from Scotland and teenage girls are from Wales. And taking the analogy still further, primary school boys are from number 1 Whatchamacallit Street and primary school girls are from just across the road at number 2. The younger you are, the more minimal the differences, in other words. 

Brett Holland 2

HAVING A BALL: Brett pictured in action playing the sport he loves

If the differences between the sexes are imperceptible at a young age, could holding more mixed PE sessions at high school prevent the onset of these behavioural changes? And could holding single-sex sessions encourage coaches to unintentionally impose prejudices on their athletes? Wow, plenty to ponder. 

‘The way primary school PE is set up, you can play a lot of mixed sports, and I’m a big fan of this,’ says Jon. ‘When you get to secondary school, then you have to be aware of all the social changes that happen. I think it comes down to general maturation rates. Boys will be more blasé and confident, especially when they are in groups; girls will lack the confidence. 

‘But maybe if you addressed the drop-out of girls doing sport as they leave primary school, when they reach puberty and lose interest, maybe there wouldn’t be an issue at 14. 

‘I think there is a call for greater awareness and integration of it all. It’s the old phrase: it’s always been done this way. I think there is a need for more education and development in how PE sessions are held. But, yes, if they carried on providing some mixed sessions, depending on the sport and/or activity, at high school, I’d be a massive fan of that.’ 

Integration over segregation may be an interesting idea, but don’t hold your breath. Especially as the in-vogue term in secondary education at the moment is for a ‘diamond model’ school system, which advocates mixed classes from 4–11, then single-sex classes from 11–16, before returning to mixed sessions at sixth form. 

The prospect of mixed PE sessions at high school seems further away than ever then as this model becomes increasingly popular. 

Aussie rules 

More food for thought on mixed sessions is provided by Brett, who has seen the benefit of them first hand in Australia. 

‘I spent a year there coaching, and we had two leagues at junior level – a girls’ league and a mixed league. There was no boys’ league. The more able and physical girls played in the boys’ league. 

‘I was a bit sceptical to begin with but it made the girls quicker and stronger. And you only have to look at the Australian women, who are the best team in the world. I’m not saying there is a direct link there but there may be a correlation.’

Brett believes boys play the game at a higher intensity, while the tendency for girls is to take things a little bit slower and be more patient in their build-up play. 

‘The game of hockey is getting faster and I want my players to be fast and quick, because I know other girls’ teams aren’t going to be,’ he says. ‘There is a massive potential there for improvement. 

‘A lot of my activities are set up to try to promote the girls’ assertiveness, whereas with boys I don’t need to do that.’ 

Brett had the shrewd idea – as part of the squad’s preparations for the National Schools Championships – to match his under-16 girls against an under-14 boys’ side to see if it would motivate them to raise their intensity levels. 

‘We played another girls’ team who were an equal standard to us, an under-14 boys’ team and then the best team in the country, who went on to win the national title. 

‘In the first game, we were OK, but perhaps not as good as we usually were, but in the boys’ game, something just happened to the girls. They became ultra-competitive, ultra-quick and ultra-physical, and it was a really great game to watch. 

‘Then we went on to play the best team in the country, and we won 2-1. 

‘It was the first time I had seen that sort of intensity in our game. So, on the back of that, we now make it part of our practice to make training more competitive.’ 

When the experiment was repeated recently, the result was the same. 

The energy levels of his under-16 girls soared against the school’s boys’ team, and the week after, they ended up drawing with the girls’ under-18 first-team squad. 

‘C’ the light! 

Coaching in a club setting is one thing, but spare a thought for community coaches who have no chance of getting to know their athletes as individuals. There simply isn’t time. 

‘In an ideal world, you would have a tailored programme for everyone you coach,’ says Jon.

‘But you could coach five sessions a day and see a hundred people who you don’t know. You meet them for the first time, and then, 45 minutes later, they are gone. So that is a massive challenge for community-based coaches, and there is a risk of generalising in those sessions.’ 

Jon’s advice to coaches, in whichever environment they ply their trade, is to find a way of connecting with people as quickly as possible. 

By doing this it should discourage you from attaching gender labels to your athletes. 

‘In our “Coaching Children 5–12” workshop, as well as the “How to Deliver Engaging Sessions” workshop, we utilise the “C” system, which is based around connection, confidence, competence, creativity, caring and compassion,’ says Jon.

‘Those are all the things that should underpin your coaching. You have to connect with your players, but that connection could be on so many different levels. 

‘Coaching is coaching, to be really flippant. The difference between coaching girls and boys is no different than between coaching children and adults or any other two groups for that matter. You have to develop a session based on what’s in front of you. Be aware of what people want from the session and work to break down those barriers.’ 

Wherever your affinity lies in this topic, whether you find yourself leaning to Jon’s way of thinking or siding with the sentiment expressed by Brett, every coach will surely be nodding in agreement at Jon’s closing remark: 

‘What this question highlights is the fact that coaching is a complicated vocation to be involved with. You are definitely mistaken if you think coaching is easy.

Brett's Top Tips

  1. With England Hockey we use a philosophy called ‘the Golden Thread’. When you’ve had a good session you can nearly always think back and tick these off. For example: FUN, lots of touches, decision rich, physically and mentally stretching. 
  2. Make it competitive. For example: One team against each other, making the difficulty of the task be the competition; get the athletes to decide what makes it work and they chose what’s worthy of scoring points.
  3.  Allow the game to teach the players – less is more. For example: Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.

Next steps

If you’d like to learn more about the ‘C’ system referenced in this article, sports coach UK runs a number of workshops that introduce you to the concept, including ‘How to Deliver Engaging Sessions for Young People and ‘Coaching Children (5–12). Visit the sports coach UK website for more information.

You might also be interested in our blogs 'A coaching system that will help you C the light!' and 'Let the creative sparks fly: The ‘C’ system, chapter two'

Please leave a comment below if you have found this article useful.

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Comments (2)

   
Colin
A good thought provoking blog Blake. I have coached both genders and at all different age groups in football and have found the following just relating to the girls:
1. At a young age the number of girl players was lower and so it was always a "boys" team with 1 or 2 girl players. These players were really into football and very supported by the parents - the dads (yes sorry it was usually the dads) were always there and would spend time watching and talking about football with their daughter. They (the girls) were very knowledgeable about the game and generally knew more and watched more football than the boys. So at that age, in that environment there was absolutely no difference in coaching the girls or boys.
2. As the girls got older they had to move over to girls only teams. Now they were in a team where a lot of players were there socially and so although the girls were the "stars" of the team they were no longer benefitting from their environment. As a coach you had to coach a range of players which meant turning it down a notch.
3. The better players would join academies, PDC, or the better local girl's teams and coaching was about developing the players and so was high level.
4. My current team is a higher level female team playing at a very competitive level. And I am finding very quickly that you have to find out about the individual players and what makes them tick and how to coach them both individually and as a team. I have found they need to be told the "why" a lot more than the men I have coached. I have to "create" competition within the session as they don't naturally want to beat each other. And positive individual reinforcement of their efforts brings more success than being negative. Although I find that a collective negative works well to galvanise the team as they possess a collective inner strength to do better.

I have to conclude that I agree with all the contributors to the blog.
1. Coach who is in front of you.
2. Coach to the environment.
3. Coach to the age group.
4. Coach to develop all the athletes in your charge.
5. Listen as much as you talk.
6. Keep learning.
7. Challenge them, challenge yourself.
8. Make it fun.
9. Prepare, deliver, review.
10. One size doesn't fit all - work out what makes your athletes tick and how to get the best out of them.
22/12/15
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Blake
Thank you for your input Colin, very interesting. I am planning a possible follow-up to this article. Hopefully a few more coaches will share their views. I linked to the article on the @CoachwiseUK Twitter account and there has been a positive response. Liam McCarthy is studying for a PhD in sports science and says he is keen to provide his thoughts after doing some work with Women's Super League footballers. Watch this space.
23/12/15
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liammccarthy16
Hi Blake. Still very happy to share my research on this, and provide additional thoughts for debate. Let me know.
04/01/16
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