Saturday, April 24, 2021

Coaches And Gender

I recently stumbled upon the FleetFeet journal after Dr. Paula Quatromoni DSc RD linked to a post about body acceptance, one that was nicely written and informative. That led me to check out a few other posts, and I noticed a definite contrast between what's being written there and what you see on the pages of blogs and magazines presented by the usual suspects. Tracksmith also has a journal section that contains inspirational stories, and it's surprising that these bits of free information aren't circulated more in the running community. 

When you compare Mary Cain's write-up in Tracksmith about her comeback after double hip surgery to the one that Lindsay Crouse wrote, it's unfortunate that fewer people are promoting Cain's account of being forced to sit out of running due to injury and instead favor a partly fictional story about someone temporarily giving up running during COVID. I'm not saying made-up stories have no place or can't be useful, but, as a reader, I feel duped when I find out that a piece presented as an actual account isn't factual. 

While reading Crouse's story, I recalled some of her tweets about running during the pandemic, how many running shoes she had gone through that she had lined up at her door and the number of miles or type of workout she ran on a given day. Logging at least some of her exercise on Strava made it easy to verify her truth stretching. In addition to being honest, Cain's story offers more in terms of advice and takeaways, especially for athletes. Instead of a "just do it" approach, Cain offers valuable tips about the benefits of listening to your body and having patience. She and her coach, John Henwood, and the rest of her support crew seem to be aware of the importance of pulling back when needed. Crouse's story, on the other hand, contains other inaccuracies. She suggests that "When you're tired, you need rest. But if you're in a rut, you need to nudge yourself into action," but this doesn't address those in a rut of doing the same routine, something that can easily happen during a pandemic when people are seeking structure in a long stretch of limbo. In that case, it's not so much action that's needed but a change, any kind of change. Rest might also help. 

Recently, Fast Women covered a conversation between several female coaches that Women's Coaching Collective members could pay to watch. Based on the interview, Shalane Flanagan did an excellent job with her considerate responses, really impressive. I found it disappointing that Lauren Fleshman mentioned that she recruits athletes who have untapped potential, those who are healthy and didn't "fight their body" previously. I'm not sure how she accesses this, but it's her right as a coach to choose whomever she wants to mentor. Remember, though, mental illness doesn't show on the surface and eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. What's more problematic than someone not wanting to bother with those who struggled -- it's understandable and I'm fortunate that my first college coach and then later Bobby McGee didn't turn me away when I told them about my eating disorder, injuries, and OCD struggles -- is the misinformation she presents, just so breezily, as if it's fact. 

When Lauren states that women are capable of being terrible and abusive coaches, she suggests we look at statistics that point to men leading the charge of offenses, but there are no statistics that show this. How would that even be measured? Who defines what's toxic or abusive and how does what men do and say compare to the abuse women inflict on their athletes? What's the supposed ratio and how would we find it? As far as I know, there are no statistics showing that men are more abusive coaches, even though it's likely that more men are on the list of coaches who have been cited for misconduct. One should note that the list, yes there actually is one, does not include all sports and has women on it, too. If there are actual statistics, I'd love to see what they really suggest. Observation, speculation, and a few prime cases that landed in the media do not make any kind of formal study. Given the fact that there are more male coaches overall, it would make sense that more men are called out for abuse, but women are cited for the same types of abuse. Lauren goes on to suggest that women can create safer environments for athletes, but any environment change depends on the athletes and the coach and those involved with the program. Outside Magazine took a similar approach and pointed to more female coaches magically leading to a safer environment. 

Need a reality check? Take a look at other sports, most notably ballet, dance, gymnastics, basketball, field hockey, swimming, softball, and volleyball. Ballet has a long, long history of female-led programs and also some of the most notoriously physically and emotionally abusive teachers and mentors on record, but despite dancers and former prima ballerinas coming forward in the United States and elsewhere to expose detailed instances of weight shaming, hair-pulling, slapping, and other forms of physical and emotional abuse, anti-nurturing methods are still in use by many women today. Things are very slowly changing in most sports but simply hiring more women isn't necessarily the answer if power issues aren't addressed at a deeper level. 

It's interesting to note that those who are abused can sometimes fall into a pattern of abusing others, and there's no guarantee that a female in a position of power won't abuse her role as a mentor. While the majority of sexual abuse against minors is perpetrated by males and most victims are female, when discussing toxic masculinity, people seem to ignore the fact that women in teaching and mentoring positions account for at least 10 percent of reported sexual abuse cases when the victim is a minor. Obviously, this lower estimate (some say it's as high as 19 percent) doesn't include the many cases that go unreported, and boys are less likely to report abuse than girls. The point is that boys can be and often are victims, too. Women are also perpetrators, and their victims aren't always boys.  

Don't get me wrong, in general, I'd love to see more female coaches in sports and think the right ones could potentially lead to healthier athletes, but it's unrealistic to think that simply adding more women will solve all abuse issues or eliminate toxic environments. Men can create a healthy, nurturing environment for young girls and women, too. That said, I agree with Melody Fairchild who states that young girls need more healthy role models. It's a matter of finding the right kinds of role models, preferably both male and female. I found that FleetFeet once again provided a much more balanced and accurate assessment of the topic of female running coaches. Overall, what they post tends to lean more toward problem-solving and accuracy than pointing fingers, lying, and blaming. And it's free content. 

I come back to what others have also suggested that the answer is more about educating both athletes and coaches to recognize abuse. There should be some outside resources for athletes when they feel the need to reach out. The Center for Safe Sport and other organizations are providing one avenue for athletes. Many institutions are now using a form of "coach effectiveness training" for both younger and older athletes. It turns out that a more positive approach to coaching often leads to better results and happier athletes anyway, so it's possible that a trend of more caring and compassionate coaches will continue. And, ultimately, I believe that really good coaches can take on challenging cases and lead a person to a better place in life. It's not all about performance. 


  1. One of the many amazing things about this circus is that Crouse and many, many like her spend much of their days expressing bitter thoughts about men along with a bevy of other complaints, many of them obvious lies....and then not only openly admit they're trying to attract men, but genuinely wonder why they can't.

    If I go on a Twitter roll where I'm disgusted with the ongoing lying , and start pointing out that this one is a cowardly munchkin, that one stinks of sour queef mixed with MD 20/20, and the other one looks like Shrek blended with Roseanne Barr, I might expect a lot of things, but I would *not* chime in to wonder in the literal midst of this why I can't get laid and why my efforts to look like a good catch are not connecting with anyone.

    I guess most of these people are just weak. They sure are when it comes to my ass, and I approach all matters with kindness, empathy and an open mind, so I fail to comprehend the reticence.

    1. It's just so much easier to go behind people's backs and tattle or brush off someone else with you're big opinion or make up shit on the spot, though. Listening take too much energy. Besides, when you're an expert on everything, why not let everyone know it?

      And sure, you're like a little teddy bear, just waiting to give out virtual hugs.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Ewen! I hope all is well.