Monday 6 October 2014

The Antinomies of (Men) Coaching Female Runners.

If you're a male coach of serious female runners, and if you approach your job with even a flickering awareness of the history of women in sport, or of the many double-binds that still characterize the condition of being female in a world still made largely by and for men, you will already have some idea of what I'm getting at. And if you're not, get ready to hear about why, well intentioned or not, you might be part of the problem (and there is STILL a problem) where women's running is concerned.

What, in a sentence, am I getting at? To successfully coach female runners (and I define success here in terms of the total experience of the athlete in the sport) a coach must both attempt to recognize the differences in the way female athletes still typically come to, and negotiate their participation in, sport AND treat female athletes as athletes first. This necessity of balancing two seemingly contradictory principles arises from nothing less than the whole history of "female" existence (including women's emancipatory struggles) in the modern world. It arises, in other words, from the fact that, to simply live a tolerable life in a world in which they have been viewed, for the most part, as means to men's various ends, women collectively have had to remind men of their history of oppression, articulate the specificity of their needs, while at the same time demanding social, political, and economic "equality" with men. The heart of what came to be called feminism was largely a demand, both personal and political, that women (and things coded "feminine") be recognized as both different and equal (i.e. to men and to things coded "masculine"). As grandiose as it may sound to some, I would argue that, for a man to successfully coach women athletes, he must enter imaginatively into social world of women, and of female athletes in particular-- a world that has been and continues to be shaped by the reality of male dominance. Above all, this means recognizing and attempting to understand the seeming contradiction of needing to be treated "equally" while also having the gender-based specificities of one's life experience acknowledged and understood. To the shock, perhaps, of some coaches (both male and female) who have spent their lives in the ostensibly genderless and history-less world of jockdom, I would argue that coaching female athletes effectively is a feminist practice, with all of the challenges that the term implies.

To make this argument, some generalizations are inevitable and some provisos are in order. First, gender is blurry, and times have indeed changed (although not as much as some would imagine). There are many more women today whose entry into sport and experience of it has been similar to that of boys and men than even 40 years ago. Still, I would argue that women in general still face significant barriers to serious participation in sport, both material and social-psychological, and that the world of sport is still largely a male-dominated one (sports being examples par excellence of a world made by and for men). Second, where sport especially is concerned, the experience of womanhood is not universal. The fact is, most women globally have no access to sport and recreation at all; and, when they do attempt to gain access, resistance is sometimes brought to bear in forms far more virulent than male coaches who don't get it (reportedly, even Kenyan women, who are among the most successful distance runners in the world, have to endure sexist taunts-- such as "get back home, running is for school girls"-- along with the rigors of their training). My comments here refer to the realm of my own experience (that of North America), and can be generalized probably only as far as the developed world, including parts of Asia (e.g. Japan and China).

Now for some specifics. What are some of the typical problems associated with a non-feminist approach to coaching female athletes, and what are some of the familiar styles associated with this approach? In general, I would say that the mistakes we coaches make when coaching female athletes result not so much from being unaware of, or of intentionally ignoring, the above mentioned antinomy as from attempting to "solve" it by coming down exclusively on one side or the other-- i.e. either insisting on a thoroughly "gender-blind" approach, in which there are only "athletes" and not male and female athletes, or, tailoring every aspect of our coaching practice to what we perceive to be the specificities (social and biological) of female athletes. Even the best intentioned coaches of women athletes can sometimes come down too heavily on one of these two sides (and the most experienced among us will recall times when we have erred in one direction or the other). Some coaches, however, choose to come down deliberately (and sometimes adamantly) on one side or the other, often with unfortunate consequences.

In general, the first approach-- that of treating female athletes as "simply athletes", read: simply male athletes, albeit in female bodies-- leads to ignoring certain real (albeit largely socially determined, of which more below) differences in the ways in which girls and boys come to the sport, experience it, and imagine their future in it. It remains a fact, for instance, that more girls than boys come to running out of an interest in what we have come to call "fitness", including body image maintenance, than boys, who often come into running as an extension of their involvement in competitive sport. This is yet one more in a long line of ways women and girls have come to negotiate the social demands of femininity in the modern world, and it remains an important consideration in coaching female athletes. To ignore it completely is to risk misunderstanding, for example, why the pursuit of the sport is more likely to lead to disordered eating (usually under-eating) among female athletes than among male athletes (and that male athletes are closing the gap in this respect-- i.e. because they are now increasingly induced by media images to concern themselves with the minutia of physical appearance-- merely proves the point re: women, who have long been exhorted to carefully manage their physical appearance-- originally, and still to some extent today, as an economic asset in a world where men quite literally owned everything). Ignoring girls' often different routes into the sport, and the gender specific meanings participation can often have for them, can also sometimes lead to misunderstanding and frustration about why girls and women choose to abandon the sport before having reached their full athletic potential (and the vastly lower numbers of serious post-collegiate female versus male competitors attests to this fact). Having been less likely in the first place to see running in terms of its competitive dimension, women are often less likely to want to continue pursuing it competitively, once subject to career or reproductive pressures (again, in a world where women own less, wield less managerial authority, and are frequently structurally punished for choosing to have children before the age of 30).

The second approach, on the other hand, can lead to the ghettoization of female runners, based on the belief, for example, that elements of their biology and social-psychology are universal, immutable, and prevent them from pursuing the sport with an eye towards risk-taking in the pursuit of maximum performance. Here, too much emphasis is placed on the differences between female and male athletes, leading, in many cases, to: the under-training of women versus men; inordinate vigilance against the risk of eating disorders, such that the topics of nutrition and weight often become taboo, and thus more potent than they might otherwise be; and, the belief that women will be always be less likely than men to want to pursue the sport into adult maturity (i.e. because they are "naturally" less competitive and more concerned with getting on with their "real" lives, including procreation). The risk, in general, of this ostensibly gender-sensitive approach to coaching women athletes is that damaging gender narratives are reinforced and individual women are often sold short, by being under-trained because assumed to be physically and psychologically more "fragile", or by being subtly made to feel as though their desire to be serious athletes beyond the age class ranks is anomalous, even "unfeminine" or "irresponsible". This approach can also lead to the even more troubling phenomenon of male coaches engaging in intimate relationships with their female athletes (an all too common practice in the history of men coaching female runners-- with running being one of the few sports where men have almost always coached female athletes). Even when not obviously abusive (such as when the athlete is underage, or subject to the institutional authority of her male coach), the development of emotionally/sexually intimate relations between male coaches and their female athletes almost always exploits and reinforces gender stereotypes about female athletes and is thus almost always potentially damaging to them as both athletes and women. Whether between people of the same or different genders, the coach always relates to the athlete as bearer of specialized knowledge and experience, and thus as a figure of authority. Intimate relationships between athlete and coach-- which are vanishingly rare between female coaches and male athletes-- thus always entail coaches viewing their athletes as other than simply athletes (but not in ways that make them better coaches). In the case of male coaches and female athletes, it entails coaches seeing-- and treating-- their female athletes as gendered in very specific ways (i.e. as potentially available to them emotionally and sexually) in ways that they typically do not see their male athletes. In my long personal experience in the sport, I have observed that male coaches who have indeed gone on to develop intimate relationships with one or more of their athletes are more inclined to take a stereotypically gendered approach to their work with all of their female athletes. This kind of coach typically develops more intense emotional/personal bonds with his female athletes, allows himself to be privy to more personal information about them, puts greater emphasis on the emotional/psychological aspects of racing and training, and generally cultivates a stereotypically emotional dependence on the figure of himself as a source of knowledge and support in relation to his female versus male athletes. Sadly, this kind of coach often takes less interest in his female athletes competitive success, and sometimes even trivializes women's running in general as compared with that of men.

How then to best negotiate the antinomy of (men) coaching the female athlete; how to recognize the specificity of women's typical approach to and experience of sport while also supporting their desire and right to be treated equally as simply athletes in pursuit of top performance?

In short, coaches of women athletes need to recognize that, while the factors that shape and sometimes limit women's entry into and experience of competitive sport are "real" (that is to say in their effects), their origins are social, political, and psychological-- and thus subject to change-- and not "natural"-- and therefore immutable. Historically, sport has been liberating activity for women because is has frequently been an arena in which all that was thought to be solid and "natural" in terms of society's beliefs about women's minds, bodies, and characters melted into air once women had the opportunity to take to the field, track, or road. As coaches, we can work to reinforce the liberating potential of serious competitive sport for women by recognizing and acknowledging the barriers girls and women face in entering into and sticking with it, while also encouraging them to challenge those barriers. This often means simply reinforcing female athletes own often hidden instincts and desires (the image conscious "fitness" runner may indeed want to find a safe way to unleash her competitive drive, and the female athlete who grew up believing uncritically that women should quit sport after school in favour of getting on with their "real" lives may actually want to be encouraged to see things differently and to a take chances with her early adult life). Too often coaches of female runners will belittle them for not being competitive enough (but then also call them "crazy" when they try-- quite reasonably, if often disastrously-- to reduce their weight in order to gain a competitive advantage); or, they will decry their lack of commitment to serious post-collegiate running, as if there were no basis at all to women's reservations and fears in this regard. Or, coaches will take these barriers as given and, instead of working with their female athletes to challenge or negotiate them, will adapt their coaching practice to them, helping to reinforce them in the minds (and actual practices) of their athletes. The alternative approach is to challenge ourselves to see coaching women athletes as an inherently political practice, and one with the potential to liberate all concerned-- as, in short, a feminist (or pro-feminist, if you prefer) practice.