Women in Coaching – Why so Few? by Michael Leatt

What is the Story?

In November 2017, Stacey Frances of Sports Coach UK reported to Skythat “Only 10 per cent of UK coaches are women, which is a problem,”. If she is right, that is a stark statistic. A coach tracking study undertaken by Sports Coach UK in 2012 identified 30% of the coaching population to be made up of women. So, which is accurate? Probably both; the first statistic may be to be referring to the ratio within the British Olympic Team, whilst the latter encompasses all categories including volunteers. That same report also identified that women make up only 18% of the qualified coaching workforce. None of these figures reflects the UK society gender ratio of 51% of women.

As part of a continuing social trend, various movements have been established with the aim of increasing women’s involvement in previously male dominated environments, of which sports coaching is no exception. The Women’s Sport Foundation, started by Billie Jean King to advance the lives of girls through sport and physical activity, produced a hard hitting statement  to address several ‘myths’ around the premise that women prefer male coaches. In a similar vein to Stacey France’s comment, it appears to take a relatively extreme view by focussing strongly on the problem rather than seeking to address the solution. This use of a Critical Theory approach (Coakley, 2009) may have the desired effect of raising profile but does not necessarily win support. On the other hand, some sports still retain values firmly based in the interests of men with power. Where such sports are global, and ownership sits within countries whose cultures have moved very little with the times, even a hardcore Feminist Theory approach would have little impact.

Evidence of Change

Nevertheless, there is growing evidence from interviews, shifts in theemphasis of NGBs and research (Light, 2013) to suggest that the sporting landscape is changing and female coaches are gaining credibility. It is easier in some sports to make the transition towards a gender balance of coaches. In my sport of hockey, whilst I identify with the 30% figure quoted by Sports Coach UK in 2012, I see a  more equitable state of affairs. The Regional Performance Centre set up in Bristol, this year, has a female manager in  charge, a male lead coach and coaches in the ratio of 50:50, albeit 3:1 in favour of the sex being coached. In the Regional Women’s Premier League in which I coach, 40% of the head coaches are women, although there are no female coaches in the parallel men’s league. Additionally, hockey coaches in schools locally are predominantly female. However, as far as I can ascertain, the approach taken by England Hockey has been to recruit and develop the best coaches they can and it does not have an overt policy to recruit women. That said, this is a sport with a good gender balance and where, in the public eye, women have the spotlight.

In other, male dominated sports, changing the fabric will take longer. A more successful policy in such an environment may be to stay grounded in the continuing change of social order and shifting culture clearly expressed in the Coaching Plan for England (2016) , rather than force supporters of the status quo to dig in. This aligns with the Interactionist Social Theory and a bottom up approach that is slowly seeing women moving into positions that can help shape organizations into becoming more open and democratic. However, it does not address the economic power issues based on exploitation and wealth creation. This is a matter much wider that the topic we are discussing today!

Other Factors

Trying to address social issues in a pragmatic way, and working through institutions to change a social construct in a manner, consistent with Functionalist Social Theory, may have unintended consequences. The US Government attempted to adjust the system top down in 1972 with the introduction of Title IX legislation, which prohibited sexed based discrimination on any education or activity based programme receiving federal funding. By 2012, the numbers of college women’s teams coached by women dropped from 90% to 42.9% and men’s teams coached by women remained around 2%. With it has come further conflict.

There are also some practical issues around the type of work and associated demands that may not be as attractive to women as men. That has been highlighted recently by Leanne Norman (2016) where she has used the Keyes’ Model of well-being to examine women in coaching. Again she points to the need for system change to enable women coaches to flourish.

Accelerating Progress

How else can we accelerate the slow wind of change and start to influence the inclusion of more female coaches of male teams and in performance areas, in particular? An illuminating document produced by Sports Coach UK and the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation  about the coaching of women, highlighted the different response in intellectual function, base reaction to stimulae, stress response, innate interests, survival strategies and methods of processing information of males and females. It could be argued that there is a similar difference in a female coach’s approach to these factors that is more in line with the requirements of the increasingly valued athlete-centred approach to coaching (Mageau and Vallarand, 2003). Two things might happen: if the emphasis of coach education follows this expressed wisdom of how to maximise athletes’ potential, then women may be more inclined to take qualifications and stay with coaching as a career and; employers may see that women possess a more appropriate skills-set to meet the challenges of the coaching environment. So men better watch out!


Coakley, J.J, and Pyke, E, (2009) Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies; pp26-46. McGraw Hill 

Light. A, (2013) How are student athletes perceiving female coaches, Lavery Library, St John Fisher College,  Digital Fisher Publications

Mageau, G. A, and Vallarand, R. J. (2003) The coach-athlete relationship and motivational model, Journal of Sports Sciences, 21, pp 383-904

Norman, L, and Rankin-Wright, A. (2016) Surviving rather than Thriving; Understanding the Experiences of Women Coaches using a theory of gendered social well-being, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 1-27

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