Tales of a Woman Coach; Every woman coach, at all levels, knows what I am talking about. (part 1)

No one really knew what the coach was yelling about. Maybe not even him. But, just as my fourteen-year-old player stepped to the line for her pair of free throws, he marched onto center court. I could see a cloud of spit hanging in front of his wine-red face; his voice, low and hoarse and livid, shot through an already rowdy gym on a Saturday afternoon full of girls’ basketball games. The coach was going gray, had a face lined with wrinkles, and follicles of hair poking out of his unbuttoned shirt. In short, he looked like almost everyone else I coached against: he was a he.

Under the basket, the referee did nothing except gape at the hysterical coach. So my player turned around. I saw then that her face had fallen, her brown eyes wide with faint wisps of poorly applied mascara, her pink cheeks puffed from a game suddenly turned aggressive, even violent. At each of his curse words she flinched; when she faced the basket and shot the ball, she missed.

A few possessions later, I raised my voice when my post player missed a box-out. All of a sudden, that same referee raced towards me and, with his chest raised and puffed, hit me up with a technical foul. He looked down at me with a glint in his eyes, a sudden, cheerful lilt: Gotcha!

As soon as he marched away, I chuckled—I didn’t know what else to do (and for that, in our championship game two months later, I also got a technical foul). That afternoon, we fouled out four girls. The coach kept screaming while I sat on the bench, helpless. I couldn’t protect my team, who played the final three minutes with three players left on the court and we were two points away from pulling off the win. As the girls untied their shoes in the corner of the gym, I told them I was proud of their fight. But my words hung in the air, stagnant—dead. A hushed anguish was steaming through all of us.

“The fight is exhausting. The heckling is harassment. The discrimination is toxic. And we don’t talk about it.”

By that point I had been coaching girls’ basketball for the better part of seven years. I was twenty-five,
and I had spent nights crying into a pillow convinced that I was useless, ineffectual, a fraud of a coach. At the end of each season—really, almost every month—I fought an urge to quit. But I was also beginning to understand that my sense of powerlessness was not due to some secret shortcoming. What I was experiencing was a larger problem, a social, gendered issue steeped deep in our sporting culture. It was Billie Jean King’s Battle of the Sexes still at war, more than 40 years later.

So when I wrapped a scarf around my neck to keep myself from yelling at the referees and pulled, hard, to the giggling of my girls, it was more a metaphor, I realize now, than a joke. It was me, once again, standing in front of a mirror, wondering if I should wear heels and short skirts to a game to flirt, or to dress down in sweats so that perhaps I could engage in the same friendly jibes with referees and fathers, that jocularity of white and black men bantering. It was me sitting in coaches’ meetings trying to ignore the degrading way with which men explained things to me. It was the Wednesday evening more than a decade ago, when I was fifteen years old, when the men at the YMCA told me I couldn’t play with them because I was a girl.

And, unfortunately, that is still the message we are sending to our girls. At the same time that we are trying to teach them about fairness and empowerment, our girls are first-hand witnesses to the discrimination of their female coaches.

Every woman coach, at all levels, knows what I am talking about.

Part 2 HERE

Bio:  Bea played basketball at Haverford College (D-III) in Pennsylvania, after which she taught and coached in Singapore and Honduras. She drove out to Seattle to pursue her Master of Fine Arts at the University of Washington, where, in her “spare” time, she has coached girls’ basketball all over the Puget Sound. She founded Basketball Education in Action, an organization dedicated to girls and women’s athletics, as well as the Awesome Sports Project, an online blog committed to inspiring girls and women’s voices in sports.