Research Findings: Unequal and unsafe relationships with male coaches


Findings: Achieving Gender Equity in High Performance Athletics Coaching in the U.K.

The existing coaching culture and broader systemic issues in the sport, coupled with the minoritised status of most women coaches have an emotional and relational cost for such individuals and greatly impacts their relationships with male peers in the system. A recurrent and serious theme to emerge from the interviews was that many women spoke of negative encounters and working relationships with male coaches.

Such behaviours towards women largely took the form of gendered microinvalidations (Nadal, 2010) such as not being listened to, spoken to, disrespected, or excluded entirely (‘pushed out’). Concerningly, there were also incidences of sexual harassment and degradation against women coaches perpetrated by male coaches. This is indicative of unequal power between men and women within the system. A very alarming example of sexual harassment against one of the women took place at a coaching course in which she found herself in the minority was similar to another coaches’ account in which it was suggested she had relationships with her male support staff:

One of the lead candidates for [the name of job role] in the evening at a conference, during evening drinks with a number of coaches, proceed[ed] to pick me up ‘have you ever been shagged like this? you’re really light’…I actually had reported an incident [to the NGB], it was harassment basically, me and another female [name of event] coach were just fed up with it.

But as an example, a physio that I used to work with…said to an athlete that I was coaching ‘how does your wife feel about [name of coach] coaching you?’…this is a physio who has been involved with teams…the athlete told me what they had said. I said, ‘you’re joking’, I was fuming. How disrespectful is that, that that’s what they think…That is something you are quite conscious of, especially if you are coaching males, especially when coaching the older age group rather than children…

This resonated with Margaret’s experience of sexual degradation and questions of her femininity:

One time, we were at a coaching thing and we were all together in the evening and I wasn’t wearing my tracksuit, and was said ‘oh you are a girl [name of female coach]’, you know I get comments like that, and you just think “shut up” and then he acts all friendly when he is in a group of people, he is all friendly and kind and wonderful to you, but the amount of stuff going on behind the scenes, there is a lot of fakery going on.

Gendered microinvalidations (i.e. subtle communication that dismisses or devalue women’s thoughts or feelings (Capodilupo et al., 2010; Nadal, 2010)) were also present in many of the women’s relationships with male coaches. There is a culture of dismissing women’s skills and women are made to feel inferior and less capable (Capodilupo et al., 2010). Disrespect towards them as coaches was a theme present in many of their relationships with men because of traditional and sexist gendered assumptions of women:

I’ve also heard comments such as ‘no one has ever done well with a female coach!’ But why they think just because you are a woman you couldn’t do what they are doing. I just don’t know. Like I say, that’s happened on a few occasions.

Even when I was coaching a particular athlete, men would stand beside me and coach him over me. A year ago today, we were at the [name of trials and place], people were calling at my athlete and coaching him, and I was thinking – what is going on – I was the only female there. I remember on his last jump, someone said to him ‘you need to bring it in a bit [name of athlete]’, and I said very loudly ‘[name of athlete], please take your run up out a bit’. So he did, jumped it, won the thing…It was unbelievable, people talking over me! Over the last few weeks, and all the Zoom meetings I have had, for the first time, it was all men and I was greeted with ‘Oh here is the lovely [Deborah]’. Now going into a Zoom call with professional coaches, please don’t do that. So I made a comment about it and of course I get ‘oh’, as a reaction.

There were very few females there [on the course], and one male coach said ‘oh you can be secretary’. I thought ‘blimey’! Do you just laugh it off? All these just undermine you. It’s all the time, and you don’t know how to react really…I was at the [name of place] in my coach role and I had responsibility for these top athletes, all the [name of event]. I was just checking they all knew the arrangements, like I should. One of the male coaches said to me “oh, you’re just like a mother- hen”.’ That was the worst thing he could have said to me on my first international! Just undermined again, when you don’t have that much confidence in anyway, and then hear that. 

When I had team meetings, [the male coaches] would turn up late. I would ask for help, they would always say they were doing something else, they had an attitude the whole time. It wasn’t that I was trying to be a dictator, all I was trying to do, was because I knew what was going on, so I went to the lead meetings – because the other [name of event] coaches wouldn’t go to the team meetings, but I would. I would then be able to feedback. And I had to know, I was the [name of event] lead. I got cussed out by one coach, and he said that he had been doing this thing for years, he doesn’t need me, I shouldn’t be interfering with me, blah blah blah. So I had that from him. The other two didn’t say nothing, they would just go off on their own and not tell me anything…They were all male. I think they had a problem with a female coach being the lead. I could see that, it was so obvious to me. But even other people noticed it. So, they have made my life very difficult… I was the only female and then just one female physio, that was it!

And there will be lots of good guys there who are supportive, there will be a number who will talk down to you or patronise you or pat you on the back for being there.

Through men’s poor and derogatory evaluation of women coaches along with the dominance of all-male, powerful networks, many women are ignored or pushed ouof coaching circles:

The 3 male coaches, all 3 of them would just go off on their own and I would set up times for what buses we would go on, they would go on a different bus and wouldn’t tell me. One of the coaches, he wouldn’t tell me anything. He would go off on a different bus. I organised for the [name of event] to go on a bus and whatsapp’d it to them so that everybody knew what bus to get on. He went on a bus before and didn’t tell me. So, I am there sitting around waiting for him and waiting to make sure the team gets on, but they have already gone to the track. This was in competition time!

When I’ve been involved in a confrontation I always, and very stuffily, have been talked across and over the top of and backs have been turned, and I’ve been excluded from the conversation. And it can only have been because I’m female, because I was the only female there, they had no reason to shut me out, but I’m shut out… It’s not only once. Usually it’s been at competitions or events as such.

And I do find it’s a bit boys club in that sense, like all of the others, despite [name of athlete] being one of the best athletes in the field, all the other coaches will kind of talk in and chat on and they’re not rude to me, I’m just not included in the banter I guess, if you wanna put it like that, in the same way that they’ve got their little bud[dies] and stuff like that. I definitely feel I’m very very aware of it, I feel very self-conscious about it, that they’ll all have a crack on and stuff or the athletes will talk to other coaches if that makes sense, and I might just come across as “Just cause I’m a cow is that why they don’t talk to me?”, but I am very aware of that. That is generally how it goes at the top end of it, I’m consciously aware that I’m the only woman, and that I do feel excluded.

I’ve had this conversation with many of my athletes, and I’m saying why is it there aren’t so many female coaches, especially [name of speciality] coaches, out there? Basically, it’s simple, it’s men like to dominate. I’m not being sexist or anything like that, but they like to dominate… When I was on the [name] programme one of my co-coaches from [name of country] came on it, but not one single chap spoke to her, she introduced herself, nobody took any notice. 

They kind of got the swing of how things worked, coaches then decided they were going to change the structure so that the coaches were in charge of the whole thing. So, they tried to push me out basically…the coaching lead was male and the three coaches below me were male and I had the roughest time.

This is the male [coaches], the female ones tend to be okay, the ones that I see on a relatively regular basis. But the male ones, I don’t know whether it comes from jealousy, whether it comes from an unknown quantity, they talk to my athletes, but they don’t like talking to me, which is a bit weird.

Women’s invisibility in the coaching system exacerbates this behaviour from men because as Clara’s quote shows, women still represent the ‘unknown’. For some of the coaches, they did recall incidents of feeling supported by men. This support was provided in the form of providing coaching opportunities, acting as their advocate or sponsor, or representing or defending them. However, even these stories of support evidence the power imbalance between male and female coaches – that men hold the influence and power to be in a position to support or defend women.