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Men Coaching Women

By: Simon Grieve

One afternoon following the conclusion of the qualifying matches at James Madison University a friend and fellow coach stopped by to talk to me, shaking his head. "I gotta get a life", he said,. "Coaching women is driving me crazy. There is just too much emotion out there". I understood his point-of- view. Coaching women is totally unrelated to coaching men. This may come as a surprise to many, but it is backed up by extensive scientific research. In addition, I can say with complete confidence from my 15 years of experience coaching women that it is true. However, while women are challenging in their emotional complexity, they are the prefect student and my experience is that they demonstrate a level of commitment and determination that I have rarely seen among the men. In short, I prefer, by far, to coach women.

So what is the secret to coaching women?

To be a successful women's coach you must understand and accept the fact that women just think differently than men. There is a wealth of scientific data supporting this fact and supporting the fact that this difference is essential for the survival of the human race. A woman's brain is superior to a man's in many respects (for example a woman's brain can survive injury more effectively than a man's). But let me point out right away that on the question of intelligence, there are no discernable differences. Women are just as intelligent as men in all areas of study including science and mathematics. I am able to personally attest to this fact having spent many years in scientific and mathematical research and teaching mathematics at the college and high school levels.

The key difference to understand is that a woman's brain is more richly interconnected than a man's and this accounts for much of the difference in behavior we see. The significance of this superior inter connectivity is that a woman can draw relationships between seemingly diverse ideas on a level that a man cannot. And it is here that the confusion begins. Another consequence of this inter connectivity is that women can connect what may seem like abstract ideas and events to feelings. And this is can be difficult for men to understand.

Besides making complex emotional connections between things, because of their superior ability to see the world holistically, women will often express a train of thought that a man cannot follow. This can result in considerable frustration in a coach unless you understand it. When the pressures of winning and playing become high enough, this frustration can become explosive, resulting in the dissolution of the coach-player relationship. Hence, it is essential for men coaching women to understand how women think and feel.

Three Deadly Sins in Coach-Player Relationships

There are three deal breakers in a coach player relationship and they are: (1) Disloyalty; (2) Deceit (3) Silence. Disloyalty needs no further explanation. On the other hand, deceptiveness requires a great deal of explanation. People are deceptive mostly for one of two reasons. One is to obtain something they could not get otherwise, the other is to protect their feelings or the feelings of others. The first reason is exemplified by lying in order to obtain the services of someone, which if they knew the truth, would not give. This is a form of stealing and is the worst form of deception. Once uncovered, and it almost always is, it will end a coach-player relationship without extraordinary efforts to forgive the transgression.

The second reason is innocent and without malice. We all deceive to protect our feelings in various ways. This is normal and to be expected. However, the degree to which we must protect ourselves in a coach-player relationship is a measure of the strength and trust in the relationship. If deception is pervasive, the deceiver should rethink being in the relationship. It is very difficult for a relationship to withstand the pressures of the professional circuit in the presence of mistrust. An example is where the player feels the need to socialize one evening before a tournament with their friends but is afraid the coach will not approve, so they make up a story to enable them to socialize and not risk offending the coach. Perhaps this occasion was the only one they would get for many months to come. As a result, their performance in the tournament is greatly impeded by the late night socializing. Since they have been deceptive, the coach has no idea of why their player's performance suffered so severely. Without knowing about the late-night socializing, there is no clear path to take to correct the player's performance. This is a frustration point that could easily have been avoided with better communication and respect for the players needs. There are countless such situations that can arise and all are innocent and natural. What is at issue is the degree of deception and what it says about trust and confidence in the relationship. This leads to our third deal breaker: communication.

Communication is the tie that binds two people together through crisis and through the pressures of the pro tour. A good example of the importance of communication is the case where a player feels a strong but never expressed obligation to a parent to win. This feeling can appear without warning at any time and can greatly affect the outcome of a match. For example, the player can lose a winnable match in an inexplicable manner that baffles the coach, leaving the coach scratching their heads for answers. Without knowing the psychological pressure that the player was experiencing, the coach has no way of of being helpful to the player. Just sharing this pressure can alleviate it and diminish its power over the player. But it must be communicated. Free and open communication requires trust and the degree to which a coach-player has free and open communication will directly affect their performance as a team.

The greatest problem in communication is skill. Knowing how communication builds bonds and trust is essential to building a strong coach-player relationship. The single most misunderstood element in communication is the power and destructive force of silence. Communication, to be effective, must be acknowledged. A question requires a response, even if it is not an answer. Acknowledgement of a question, whether implied or explicit is essential to communication and to building trust. For example, Suppose you as coach say " What I said to you after your match yesterday was unfair" and the player remains silent. Where does this go? Silence is tacit disagreement, not agreement. Silence in response to a question can mean hostility or just inexperience. Failure to even acknowledge the question sows the seeds of mistrust and confusion. Every statement or question between coach and player is an opportunity to bond, develop trust, and solidify your relationship.

How do we go forward in the male-female coach-player relationship?

First, get to know your player; what you don't know can lead to serious misunderstandings. The emotional life of a female is much richer than a males. Her associations are complex and sometimes mysterious and so her responses to many situations may be cryptic to you. If you don't know her, you risk making up a simplistic male explanation of her actions and words that will lead to a division between the two of you. For example, recently I began holding practices at 7:00am. It is not yet light. One morning after a rainy night a player calls me to ask if we are practicing. She elaborates that it is dark, rainy and drippy. My first thought was this player wants the day off. Her text message was too elaborate to be simply inquiry. this was especially true since she was the only one texting me about practice. Others had already begun arriving. Clearly in the absence of more information, I was puzzled and inclined to tell her to stay home so that she would not be a drag on the other player's attitude. As it turns out, she was totally committed but her father had insisted that she ask. Needless to say, I had to apologize to her for being a little annoyed. Here is an example where knowing the player better would have led to a different, more informed response. Now I know if she shows any hesitation about coming to practice, it is not she that is indecisive, but reasonable concerns of a parent. She could have told me that her father asked her to ask me about practice, but that was not her personality. There is no substitute for getting to know a player.

I recall a player who often would not answer a message because it might run her over her cell phone plan limit. She was too proud to admit this so instead it appeared that she was ignoring my question. A man could easily interpret this as disrespect and get mad at her. If so, she would likely be confused and become withdrawn because you treated her unfairly. It may never occur to her (depending on her age) that not answering at all and not explaining her reasons could look disrespectful. She may just expect that you should have some faith in her and understand she couldn't reply. Once the misunderstanding gets started, feelings get hurt and her response to you may take a very unintelligible course. This can get really messy because she may not be willing to admit (her pride is a private matter in her mind) that she can't afford to respond. Within a short time she is crying and you are completely frustrated. If enough such incidents occur, she will look for another coach that better understands her.

The central problem is that you have to get to know her if such trivial misunderstands are not to escalate into a crisis. How do you do this? With a lot of patience. Begin with understanding her culture. Read about it, make yourself informed. But this will not be enough. You must have some insight into how she was raised, what she thinks is important, what she learned in her family about how to communicate to those outside her family. It should be clear now why players who have a parent as a coach have an advantage in communication. The parent already knows all of this complex stuff. It also points out a fact for male coaches: you may have to take on the role of a parent as one of your many obligations to making your coach-player relationship successful.

Some players come with a past that involves a tragedy. If you don't know about it, you are at risk for a disaster. Here is another role of a coach: psychologist. You don't need a degree, just patience and the willingness to listen (not give advice or make judgments) and be compassionate. If your player has a dark secret in her past and you aren't willing to deal with it with the love of a parent, you are in for a stormy ride. There are problems with this situation, chief of which is that she may be unwilling to tell you such private matters if you are not sensitive and approachable. Another possibility is that she simply cannot express her feelings in words. This is a situation in which a female coach has a significant advantage. Women like sharing their feeling whereas men are not so receptive. If you feel strongly that her emotional problems are not your problems, you may be in the wrong business. Again, it is clear that parent coaches have a significant advantage in this area of a players psychological life.

Thus free and open communication between player and coach is usually essential to making a successful team.

The art of open communication

Open communication means first non-judgmental communication. Men are inclined to use logic to wrap up a problem in a tidy package to be dispensed with in a few words or minutes. This requires making a judgment or providing a logical explanation. Such a male-oriented approach to communication will not work with a female very often. I recall a specific match in which one of my players just made a big mess (details are not required). It would have been very easy to label her play that day as uncommitted. Another simple explanation could be that she just wasn't cut out for competition. Yet another was she was afraid of the other player. None of these simplistic conclusions will likely explain her performance on that day. but all such explanations let us coaches off-the-hook:. Its her fault, not ours. As an example of how far fetch a male explanation can go suppose you told her that she just wasn't sufficiently committed. If she has been doing everything you ask and has put her heart into reaching her goals with you, you are going to be in big trouble, and possibly a big fight. The real explanation was that her father came to her match and she wanted to please him so badly that she forgot about the game plan and went a little nuts. Never underestimate a female's desire to please her father. If you don't know her well enough, you could easily miss this cause and damage her confidence in your judgment and commitment to her. Such performances can be so embarrassing that they test your loyalty to her. Luckily, most females are very forgiving of simplistic male thinking (otherwise the human race would have died out long ago) so after you have your argument and get to the bottom of the matter, you will be able to go on as a team, unless you don't get to the real cause. Oddly enough, this could take a day or so. Patience and the willingness to listen are the key. She probably has a better idea of why she messed up her match than you will be able to guess. However, if you have not established the ability to have free and open communication, your joint player-coach performance will suffer.

To avoid the responsibility for patient communication, men can resort to power and authority. "Do what I say or else!" This approach will never lead to optimal results. No matter how far you go, you will fall short of your potential. Coaching women requires you to be patient and open to a broader range of expression than with men. Women are not easy to understand and failure to understand your player is a ticket to failure as a team.

The Big Three Powerful Emotions: Jealousy, Possessiveness and Shame

Emma Goldman once said, "All lovers do well to leave the doors of their love wide open. When love can go and come without fear of meeting a watch-dog, jealousy will rarely take root because it will soon learn that where there are no locks and keys, there is no place for suspicion and distrust, two elements upon which jealousy thrives and prospers." While this quote refers to lovers, the same can be said to be true of a strong coach-player relationship, or any relationship for that matter. Never assume that you are free of primitive emotions such as jealousy in any relationship. That would be very unrealistic. It is important to recognize that jealousy can be a growth emotion rather than a source of destructive behavior when dealt with openly and accepted.

Hiding jealousy and possessiveness will only result in these emotions reappearing in disguised forms that may obstruct the performance of coach or player. If you are unwilling to deal with this, or reveal it, then you are diminishing your ability as a team to be the best you can be. Revealing these powerful emotions is as simple as saying " I felt jealous when you were helping my doubles partner instead of me." The coach must respect and accept this natural response and avoid being angry and repressive. Just listen patiently and acknowledge the legitimacy of the feelings and they will probably resolve themselves without much effort on your part. On the other hand, there may be reasons you are helping her doubles partner that you do not understand consciously. You will have to deal with this. In any case, hidden feelings of jealousy and possessiveness are a powder cage waiting to explode. One way to deal with jealousy and possessiveness is to view them as positive statements by your player that they value your contribution to their dreams.

With regard to shame I can say that if you shame your player, you may never recover her trust and your relationship will be in considerable jeopardy because females can be very sensitive to shame.

Dreaming is Important

Dreams are our source of inspiration. They keep us alive. If you are on the tour, your player has a dream of some sort. You must nurture and support your player's dreams. If you cannot, you are the wrong coach for her. Of particular importance is to not fall into the trap of judging the level of realism in her dreams. All dreams are unrealistic at first and only become realistic with experience and self discovery. If her dreams are unrealistic, she will likely discover this for herself . If you do not have confidence that she can attain her dreams, then rethink your position with respect to her.

Don't make tennis the only thing you share

You will never get "to know" one another across a net. It is important to step out of the tennis arena into the non tennis world where you can be confronted with ideas, opinions and emotions that define who we are beyond the court. . While the coach-player relationship is a business relationship in most cases, it requires a wider stage to develop effectively. Note that top corporate executives make it a point to get out of the office to get to know their peers and subordinates. I am reminded of a great line from a movie where, at a company party a young ambitions employee comes up to her boss and begins discussing business. His response was to her was: "This is a party, not a meeting". The point was that her boss was not going to get to know her in a wider context by discussing business which can be done in the office.

Politics and Religion

These are dangerous subjects and should only be discussed between the most trusting and understanding individuals. I am not saying not to discuss them, but tread lightly. If you share the same political and religion, then there is little risk. If not, it can be a minefield. You may ask how is this resolved within free and open communication. The answer lies in trust and acceptance of one another.

Equal Partnerships Work Best

One-way relationships are sub optimal and this is a dilemma. The coach has a body of knowledge not available to the player except through learning. The player has a body of knowledge not available to the coach except through learning about the player. Further, relationships that are one-way eventually breed resentment. The player needs an arena in which she is "the boss" so to speak. This will go far in reducing the resentment that builds up in one-way relationships. Further still, collaboration on what the player must work on will produce better results that dictating what she should do. Even if you think you are right, it is better to concede power and gain trust than hold on to power at the expense of trust.

Falling In Love

Inevitably some players and coaches will fall in love. Sometimes it is one-way and leads to considerable pain and suffering and sometimes it is mutual and lasts for a lifetime. No one can lay down a rule that works in every situation, but in general openness is the best policy. Even in unreciprocated relationships, open communication can avoid a disaster and illuminate the avenues forward that are best for both player and coach. Don't presume that if one party falls in love with the other that the relationship must end. It could still be the best coach-player relationship possible since true love seeks to nurture the one loved. But, in general, it is better to get these feelings out into the open at the earliest possible date for the sake of the player. Concealed love can be explosive.

Flirtation does not mean She is Interested

Females may want to be appreciated and to be admired. As a result, they can be a bit flirtatious in order to get attention. This does not mean that they are interested in going further. Misreading the natural attention getting signals of a female can result in serious damage to the coach-player relationship. Most often the player is the one who suffers. I have seen relationships of the tour where a coach has used his position to promote an unwanted relationship with his player that led to the complete destruction of her game, confidence and future. Young male coaches must be particularly careful not to misread a players signals due to their inexperience.

A Few Pointers

First, females generally respond better to positives rather than to negatives. I have personally never found negative attitudes, tones or comments to be helpful and I have a lot of misguided experience to back this up. In my early years of coaching women I often made the mistake of being negative or using a harsh tone (we obtain most of our information from tone). As I look back on those early years I can see no value in that approach. On the other hand, in the many years since that I have used a positive approach the results have been excellent.

Females like to know exactly how things are done. They want to get it right. I have found this to be true in both tennis and mathematics. You may have to go the extra mile to make technique details clear, but it is worth it. I have also found that females will work many times harder than males on the average.

Avoid simplistic thinking. I recall one occasion while observing the GWU women's team that a male coach walked by and said to a player receiving serve "Show me what you've got" She promptly began performing well below her capability. Simplistic judgmental thinking does not resonate with females. and can undermine their confidence.

Protect her confidence and physical well being. Females are naturally inclined to protect their physical condition. They don't want to get hurt. This is biological and is essential for preservation of the species. Be constantly aware of your player's confidence in their physical condition. If your player shows fear at doing a certain drill, go slowly and carefully. If you push too hard when they are injured, you are fighting evolution-a losing battle. If you once push them to get hurt, they will lose confidence in you. However, if you are careful to develop their physical strength to prevent injuries, they will work hard to succeed.

Females do not want to get hit in the face with a tennis ball. You have to respect that. Develop their confidence carefully and patiently and they will be better able to protect themselves at the net and have less fear of getting hit.


In summary, women are complex, but they are also very dedicated. It takes a lot of patience for a man to understand how they think, but if you will take the time and be patient, the rewards in progress and success will be many. If on the other hand, you are unwilling to follow the recommendations in this article, you should rethink your coaching goals

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