Given the historical context of youth sports, perhaps the lopsided numbers of male and female coaches makes sense. Early promoters of organized athletics for kids believed that team competitions would help boys develop the critical manly attributes they would need to contribute to an industrial society. Luther Halsey Gulick, a social reformer and leading figure at a Massachusetts YMCA who rose to prominence in the 19th century, added team sports to the Y’s slim menu of athletic options and introduced interscholastic sports to New York City’s public schools. He had an evangelical mindset: “The fundamental qualities to be cultivated in the boy are those of muscular strength, the despising of pain, driving straight to the mark, and the smashing down of obstacles,” he wrote in A Philosophy of Play, which was published in 1920, shortly after his death. “The world needs power and the barbaric virtues of manhood, together with the type of group loyalty which is based upon these savage virtues.”
Military leaders and heads of business also seized on the benefits of organized youth sports, said Tom Farrey, the head of the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute and author of Game On, via email. Athletic teams would divert aimless city boys into healthy pursuits and shape them into reliable workers, solid soldiers, and fellow patriots. Sports would serve as an introduction into this respectable world, with the coach acting as a boy’s first boss or commanding officer.
Few youth coaches today would bluntly encourage the cultivation of savage virtues. Still, a century later, most boys playing sports see the same face of leadership in the people at the helm of their teams.
Why so relatively few women decide to coach for high-school or youth sports teams is unclear. After all, thousands of girls who grew up playing sports under Title IX are qualified to coach, and many are parents themselves. But the management of such teams, all of it volunteer, typically splits along gender lines. According to a 2009 study by the sociologists Michael Messner and Suzel Bozada-Deas, men typically coach, and women typically serve as “team moms,” organizing the snack schedule, managing logistics, and collecting money for coaches’ gifts, among other administrative work. In the researchers’ view, this imbalance stems from “institutional gender regimes” that divide the work between men and women based on traditional roles. The well-documented gender gap in confidence may also be part of the answer. And some mothers who might otherwise enjoy leading their child’s athletic team are vetoed by their offspring. “My kids didn’t even want me to cheer; I’m their mother!” said Kathleen Feeney, a mom whose two sons who played on ample youth sports and high school teams.
Yet the preponderance of male coaches, even kind and gentle ones, has consequences for boys. “Boys are denied the ability to see women operate in leadership roles that males most respect,” Farrey said. “This has deep implications for our society as boys grow into adulthood, work with, and decide whether to empower, women,” he added. Exposure to female coaches can pay dividends for boys.