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‘Man up, you play like a girl…’
Before diving into the world of soccer and what it means for female players psychologically, it is worth sharing a perspective on the impact of the wider social environment in which they live on a daily basis.
This environment, like the club and the pitch, has an important role to play in shaping a woman’s sense of self, her identity in the wider world and the values on which she builds her attitudes and behaviours.
In 2001, renowned sociologist Geert Hofstede conceived the “Masculinity Index” – essentially, how national cultural values and mindsets could be distinguished in terms of the degree to which they represented masculine or feminine behaviours and ideals.
In so-called ‘masculine’ cultures, people – whether male or female – value competitiveness, assertiveness, ambition, and the accumulation of wealth and material possessions. In so-called ‘feminine’ cultures, people value relationships and quality of life and a focus on collaboration.
It is probably no surprise that the UK and US were ranked highly in exhibiting more masculine cultural values, at 9th and 15th respectively.
Girls living in the UK and the US are interacting in a socio-cultural system on a daily basis that prioritises the ‘masculine’ experience.
This is important to be aware of because women in these countries are already having to adapt to a pattern of attitudes and behaviours that may subconsciously favour more masculine ideals – in football terms, the use of league tables, trophies for “man” of the match, performance pathways and so on.
This can lead to women suppressing or hiding some of their more feminine values, as they are not as socially evident, accepted or prioritised. In turn, this potential lack of being true to one’s self may lead to feelings of uncertainty, self-esteem issues or a sense that ‘something just doesn’t fit’.
“Part of a coach’s job is to make the environment fun and support players.”
When you think of traditionally ‘feminine’ sports, soccer doesn’t exactly spring to mind, given its physicality, historical links to male participation and strong competitive nature – as opposed to gymnastics and dance, for example.
But this is not about playing the game differently, this is about working with both masculine and feminine social values, attitudes and behaviours to ensure they are appropriately represented and interconnected.
This will allow women (and men) to tap into more emotional and collaborative personal values and motivations on the pitch that support their own sense of what it is to be themselves.
Collaboration as well as competition, through a positive learning environment, will also play to ‘soft power’ and what it means to create a psychologically safe space. Working collaboratively fosters an agreeable, calm, and gentle set of behaviours.
As a coach, part of the job is to make the environment, and the experience of being there, fun, memorable and engaging and to support players – particularly women – in knowing they belong.
Ask yourself – is it common to hear players talk about their club in terms of on the field friendliness or togetherness after the game? Do players enjoy coming to training because they learn from each other, trust and feel supported by their team mates, and feel part of their team? Is it easy to make friends here?
Many coaches or players will have heard shouts of “man up!”, “grow some!” or “you just let a girl get past you” at some point. Becoming aware of whether these phrases, which the misguided consider merely attempts at encouragement, have a negative effect on girls is worth exploring.
Fear of negative evaluation and social anxiety (“I worry what others say or think about me”, “I worry others don’t like me”, “I worry I might be teased”) are more prominent in girls than boys and therefore need to be considered as part of the coaching conversation.
Understanding the player’s perspective on what it is to be a soccer player and for what purpose is critical in ensuring their needs are met and their fears are worked through.
Valuing each player as a person in their own right will enable coaches to see their uniqueness and potential and support a communication style that best supports them.
In other words, being aware of every touch point in communication and nurturing the right behaviours as coaches will have an enormous effect on how to get the best from both female and male players.
The language used, the support of peers and family and the use of female role models are all important contributors to a woman’s self-esteem. They also help to promote a self-belief that what they are doing and how they are doing it is socially and personally acceptable.
“How something takes off from the coach’s mouth isn’t always how it lands…”
This starts with how coaches communicate with their players. How something “takes off” from the coach’s mouth isn’t always the same as how it “lands” with the recipient.
Our values and internal motivators are very much our own, and subconsciously influence how we think, act, react and interact with the world around us. This is true for all genders and is how many misinterpretations arise in all walks of life.
In football, for example, a coach who shouts “get out wide”, “put some effort in” and “boss the defence” is probably aiming to encourage motivate or guide. It may, however, land as “you think I’m lazy”, “I’m not doing a great job” and “I don’t want my team mates to think I’m bossy”.
Whether it lands badly or well is the responsibility of the coach, in understanding how to get the best from their players and to communicate in ways that tap into all values whether they are linked to competition, collaboration, winning, friendship or something else.
The coach’s superpower in this instance is great questions. They help to prevent assumptions, to understand whether information has landed in the way it was intended and to enable the players to own their insights and to build solutions in a way they feel comfortable with.
Great questions include “When did you have the most fun in the session and why?”; “Who supported you the most this evening and how?”; “What brought you the greatest sense of achievement?” and “What three things would you like to be better at?”.
Women don’t play football because they want to be more like men, or more masculine – they play football because they like football and what football gives them.
Being clear as a coach as to what that entails for each player will ensure you tap into the very best of the individual for the benefit of the team.