Tales of a Woman Coach; “Our breasts won’t atrophy and our vaginas won’t fall out.” (part 2)


Part 2

Men and women often ask me, “Where are all the women coaches?” In cities and suburbs across the United States, winter evenings echo with the orchestra of girls’ basketball games and spring weekends pound with the pace and sweat of hundreds, if not thousands, of girls in ponytails, racing up and down hardwood floors. Everyone wants to know—where do all these girls go? Why don’t they coach? The way the question is phrased to me often implies that it is a fault of our gender. But we do coach. Or, at the very least in my experience, we try.

“Our sporting culture still does not accept aggressive women, [and] she has, once again, become a cheerleader to the very game we have raised her to play.”

It took a long time, but as a society we have finally accepted that women can run marathons and play a full game of soccer. Our breasts won’t atrophy and our vaginas won’t fall out, as male critics had warned when Katherine Switzer became the first woman to don a bib in the Boston Marathon in 1967. We have won dunking contests, sold out the hallowed Rose Bowl. Yet, up until Becky Hammon, there were exactly zero women working as coaches for the 122 teams playing in the NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL. Here in a nation we claim as world leaders in democratic progress, women still cannot sit on the bench in male sports because of some spiritual chokehold it has on an age-old definition of manhood in America.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that we’re not going to touch the sacred grounds on which male American sports walk—God forbid!—and look only at women’s sports. Back in 1972, 90 percent of all women’s college teams were coached by women. Yet, when the NCAA became the governing body for both men and women college athletics and acceptance and cash came into women’s sports, male coaches wanted a slice of the pie all of a sudden. By 1992, the percent of women’s teams coached by women had fallen to 72. By 2014, the number stood at a heartbreaking 39.6 percent. In more than ten years of coaching, I can count on my fingers the number of women coaches I have coached against.

Let me say here that I do not believe women are by nature better coaches for girls than men. Far from it. I welcome men in our sport. I believe that men and women have a lot to offer sports of each gender. I have seen incredible male coaches transform average girl players into state champions. My own basketball career, too, was filled with wonderful men who taught me everything from a hesitation-cross to a step-back jumper.

Yet, by and large, the coaches who most taught me the lessons we are supposed to learn from sports—the coaches who taught me how to grow up and become a woman—were, well, women.

Like boys, girls are constantly on the lookout for someone like ourselves, some mature, successful versions of who we want to be. Yet our sporting culture is chasing women coaches out of our own game, depriving our aspiring girls of the same strong, positive role models that are a birthright for so many boys who play sports.

The first basketball camp I ever attended was in Cerritos, California. I was in the fifth-grade, a fresh-faced, twig-like immigrant girl with a short haircut; so with my gifted athleticism, I was mistaken for a boy. I was picked second for teams, right behind an agile black boy who sported Michael Jordan gear from head to toe. The male counselors gave us high-fives and fist-pumps; the two of us received a sort of praise — and with that a status — that I had not enjoyed up until then. But when my father came and told the counselors I was a girl, I found out just how short-lived my fame was, how conditional on my gender. For two days, I was somebody. And then I was not.

I was too young to have understood it then. I thought that my getting picked next to last all of a sudden was due to some terrific mistake I had made on the court. I accepted it. I kept quiet. And I worked and worked. In high school and college, in the post-WNBA and World Cup ‘99 years, I had a wonderful career on the hardwood. Then at 18, when I started coaching, I began to unlearn the lessons of equality my coaches, men and women, had instilled in me. I found out that I commanded more respect when I used the back of my throat to speak in a deep, coarse voice. By 19, I learned that to question a referee’s call was an exercise in futility. By 20, I understood that in questioning them, I was challenging their manhood. When I was 25, a father texted me from the bleachers to “teach” me how to sub. At 28, a pale-skinned boy at the ticketing table chuckled when I told him that, really, I was the head coach.

Not too long ago, three fathers sat behind me during a game and spent the entire second half scooting their chairs closer to mine to voice, loud and clear—harassing, really—that we should switch our defense and run this play. As the game raced back and forth, I pictured all sorts of things, like lowering my voice to toss them out of the gym. I imagined throwing a fit, letting out, once and for all, the bitterness and anger that had been burning away at my insides, screaming at them that I, too, am human. But I ignored them, like I usually did. I didn’t want the girls to see me as one of those coaches who turned around and engage in fights with the fans. I didn’t want to lose what I had of my credibility to what fathers would see: an irrational, emotional, PMS-ing wreck of a woman. Yet, many times I do wonder, if by not saying anything, I was complacent in showing my girls how easily our gender can be rendered powerless.

Eventually, it was my outspoken captain who turned around and opened her mouth to say something, but the fathers kept chattering. None of them noticed her. I wondered what the dads were seeing then, some versions of themselves with their hands folded over their crotches during the national anthem, their chins lifted upward in the heated lights. I wanted to remind them that none of them had, to their daughters’ chagrin, even made their JV teams as boys. My captain then looked at me and rolled her eyes. I put her back into the game, and asked her to lead her team to victory. I wanted her to explore the possibilities of her strength before it all comes crashing down on her—before she grows up and realizes that our sporting culture still does not accept aggressive women, that she has, once again, become a cheerleader to the very game we have raised her to play.

“By and large, the coaches who taught me how to grow up and become a woman were, well, women.”


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.