Why Aren’t There More Women Running Coaches?

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Throughout her entire track and field career, Gina Procaccio never had a woman coach. That’s saying something. Procaccio ran competitively for 10 years, as an All-American collegiate and professional long- and middle-distance runner in the late ’80s and ’90s.

But in 1994, she became the first woman track and field coach she knew, when she began assistant coaching at her alma mater, Villanova. By 2000, she was head coach. Today, she’s been training runners for nearly 30 years, and has led her team to multiple individual and team national championships.

While Procaccio is no longer the only woman track and field coach she knows, the number of women track and field and cross country coaches in collegiate and pro spaces is still stunningly low, especially in comparison to other sports.

A 2023 report put out by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at The University of Minnesota in collaboration with WeCOACH found that just 18.6 percent of head coaches of college-level women’s track and field and 19.3 percent of head coaches in college-level women’s cross country were women. Additionally, only 9.3 percent of head track & field coaches were women of color, the report noted.

This is a major issue, because “same-identity athletic role models increase the accrual of positive psychosocial, health, and developmental assets for girls and women,” the Tucker Center report notes.

Why Aren’t There More Women Running Coaches?

There are several factors that play into the gender gap in college and professional running coaching, many of which also affect other sports.

The lack of existing representation is part of the problem. Research in Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal suggests that women athletes coached by women are more likely to become coaches themselves. But it’s still possible for women runners to go their entire careers without having a woman coach, and the lack of role models and mentors may keep them from considering the coaching path themselves.

The significant gender gap already in place also creates structural barriers to entry and retention for women coaches. Lara-Jane Que, the head coach of track and field at Bowdoin College, says at her first national coaching convention, “there were maybe 2,000 coaches and I estimated that there were less than 500 women there. It wasn’t a space to feel comfortable. It felt like an old boys’ club sometimes, and it was a hard place to feel like I could take up space.”

Conventions like this can function as networking opportunities. But extreme gender (or race, ability, or any other identity) disparities can make it harder for those in the minority to feel included or participate, especially if there’s no overt attempts made to bridge the gap or make the space more welcoming. And that can, in turn, contribute to discrimination and biases that create fewer opportunities for women coaches.

Additionally, until more recently, women may not have been recruited or considered as coaches of men’s track and field or cross country teams, says Celia Slater, co-founder of the Alliance of Women Coaches (now WeCOACH), co-founder of the NCAA Women Coaches Academy, and current CEO of True North Sports. “There seems to be this underlying bias that women can’t be qualified role models for men,” Slater says.

This both limits the number of jobs available for women, and may contribute to pay inequities between women and men coaches, considering that coaches of Big Ten men’s teams make “considerably more” than coaches of women’s teams, reports the Tucker Center .

It’s worth noting that before Title IX passed in 1972, more than 90 percent of women’s college sports teams were led by women coaches, according to WeCOACH, a nonprofit that works to improve the state of play for women coaches. Now, only about 41 percent of head coaches are women, per the NCAA Demographics Database’s 2022-2023 report. Title IX itself did a lot to increase equity and opportunities for athletes of all genders. The law also boosted scholarship support, training, resources, coach salaries, and investment in women’s sports, and most of the new resources were allocated to male coaches, says Vanessa Fuchs, CEO of WeCOACH.

Another major reason for the gender disparity is that women’s track and field and cross-country coaching has a retention problem, says Juli Benson, a 1996 Olympian who’s coached pro and collegiate runners. The Tucker Center has identified that women are most likely to leave coaching between ages 26 and 33 — or about seven to 10 years into their career. This period is dubbed the “critical zone of attrition” by the Tucker Center.

It’s no accident that this age range spans the time period that most people start having children, if they decide to. (The latest CDC data puts the mean age people have their first child at 27.4 these days.) For better or worse, women still end up taking on the bulk of childhood and household chores (yes, in 2024, ~rolls eyes in exasperation~). And coaching schedules are intense, and getting even more so every year, says Benson.

The hours are long, and the year is packed. While many sports have quieter off-seasons, that’s not true of many running programs. “Say you coach cross country,” Fuchs says. “You go immediately from your fall cross country season into your winter indoor track season. Then into your spring outdoor track season. The summer brings lots of important competitions. You’re in season year-round, and you need to be recruiting that whole time. It’s a 24/7, 365 commitment, and it’s all at 500 miles an hour.”

The lack of a work-life balance may end up being the final piece that causes a woman coach to leave the field. “We get into this fork in the road of: do we choose our career or potentially building a family,” Que tells PS. “I have unfortunately seen women quit because their administration and the structure of their department made it difficult to balance the demands and responsibilities of motherhood and collegiate coaching.” Procaccio agrees this juggle is probably “the biggest reason why there are not more women [in coaching] or they don’t last.”

Why Women Coaches Are Important

All of this is a big problem, considering what we know about the difference having a woman coach can make for an athlete — especially women athletes.

For one, women are able to pass down unique experiences and perspectives. This was Que’s experience: unlike Procaccio, she had women head coaches both in undergrad and while getting her graduate degree at Smith College where she was also under the coaching mentorship of Carla Coffey as a graduate assistant coach.

“I hadn’t seen enough women of color in leadership spaces at that time, but Carla was the first woman of color in all of her collegiate spaces as a coach, and she really was the person who ignited my flame,” Que says. “She taught me to use my voice, even if it shook. To embrace my authenticity. I’m a really loud, charismatic person and coach. But there’d been spaces that silenced me and told me that I shouldn’t take up space. Carla really emphasized: you take as much space as you want — take it all. That has stuck with me, and is how I’ve led and empowered my female-identifying athletes as well as my male athletes as a coach.”

That’s advice someone who hasn’t had to confront systemic biases and discrimination may not think to give.

Additionally, having women coaches on staff fosters an environment of openness. “Research indicates that girls and women athletes are more apt to come to their coaches with different concerns specific to being a female in sport if there is a female leader on the staff,” Fuchs says. “It can open up communication and build that trust and rapport if you have a female leader on staff.”

That can apply to physical issues, such as menstruation, body image, or weight.

“There are things that you just don’t have to explain, including your menstrual cycle,” Que says. “When I was running, I could just say: ‘Hey, it’s the time of the month I feel really icky,’ and my coach would say, ‘Hey, that’s fine, I get it.'” Today, Que always has Midol, tampons, and pads in her kit, and has even walked her athletes over to the health center to talk about options if their periods were particularly bad.

The ability to talk about these issues isn’t just a matter of comfort; it also affects athletes’ performance and general wellbeing. Sports researchers have only recently started to understand gender health gaps, as reported in the journal BMJ Open Sports & Exercise Medicine. Due to the lack of research into women athletes, there’s a general lack of understanding of how women’s bodies respond to different training plans, and what’s most likely to cause their injuries.

This research inequity puts all coaches (and athletes) at a disadvantage when it comes to training, injury prevention, and more. And while women coaches don’t magically have access to medical knowledge that just doesn’t exist, it’s reasonable to think that they may more innately understand what women need when training, both physically and mentally, Slater says.

But the openness women coaches foster on teams may also be helpful for another reason. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen these instances when male coaches have taken advantage of their leadership roles and created environments with inappropriate language or sexually inappropriate conduct,” Fuchs says. “When a woman is on staff, the data says that’s less likely to happen.”

Ultimately, a bad coach is a bad coach — and a good coach is a good coach — regardless of gender. But women deserve a seat at every table and a place on the sidelines. In an ideal world, Slater says, every athlete would get to train under coaches of all genders and backgrounds.

The Gender Gap in Coaching Is a Problem Worth Solving

The number of women coaching running sports has grown a lot since Procaccio started coaching, but it’s still lower than it was before Title IX was implemented. And it seems to be plateauing — WeCOACH notes that the percentage of women coaching women’s teams has “remained stagnant over the past few decades” at a little over 40 percent. While more women are starting to coach men’s teams, progress is slow, Slater says. All this underscores the fact that more could be done to make the industry friendlier to all genders.

For one, colleges and professional groups must do more to recruit women at all levels and for all teams, and identify what’s keeping women from joining and staying on their coaching staff.

Helping connect women with mentors is also key. Slater notes that some of the positions that used to help train coaches — such as graduate assistant coaching programs at universities, which paid for athletes’ education and “served as a doorway for women to take that first step into the coaching profession,” Slater says — are being phased out in favor of director of operations roles. The change also means less mentorship. Organizations like WeCOACH and the NCAA offer mentorship programming to try to fill these gaps, but workplaces can and should be doing more to help connect young coaches to these opportunities.

Some coaches believe helping support a healthier work-life balance is key to increasing the number of women coaches. “Frankly the way to keep more females in the sport is to change the NCAA calendar,” Benson says. “During COVID, everyone thought the calendar reductions were great and said, ‘We should keep this model.’ But as soon as COVID restrictions were lifted, it was right back to business as usual.”

Better representation may also help. Elevating the stories of women coaches in all sports — including Que and Procaccio, but also people like Coach Sydney Carter, the Director of Player Development for the University of Texas Women’s Basketball team, who’s become renowned for her game-day style — can give young women an example to strive toward. “If she can see her, she can be her,” Fuchs says.

Procaccio says she wishes there were more women coaches in part because she’d like more women to experience the strong bond that can exist between coaches and athletes, which — in her experience — is mutually beneficial.

“It’s amazing to see how you can make an impact, and it’s reciprocal,” she says. “I tragically and unexpectedly lost my husband three years ago. He was only 52. But what shocked me — 25 years of my athletes showed up for me. They called me, and they made a meal train and would do grocery drop off once a week. It was unbelievable. It made me realize; I’m definitely in the right field.”

Procaccio believes that both playing and coaching sports teaches you a lot about life in general. “You can handle big things in life if you can learn how to deal with winning and losing and injuries,” she says. “Things happen, and you need to be resilient. And you can be. It’s all about getting athletes — and all women and all coaches — to believe they can.”

Molly Longman is a freelance journalist who loves to tell stories at the intersection of health and politics.

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