She’s the boss: Is the future of coaching female?

Story highlights

"Men are easier" to coach, say female managers rising in the NBA, NFL and European soccer leagues

Women must let men "act macho" at times, and not let it get under their skin

Backing of management is crucial to avoid player insurgency

CNN  — 

The faces of coaching in big-time sports are looking a lot less familiar these days.

Say goodbye to the old boys’ club that’s been filling vacant managerial slots since the dawn of professional sports, and welcome in the dynamic women that have been rising up the ranks everywhere from the NBA to the PGA.

“What you’re going to find in the NBA, in professional soccer, in the NFL is that men will listen to just about anyone who they think will make them a better player and perform better,” Dr. Justine Siegal of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society told CNN.

Last month, Sacramento Kings assistant coach Nancy Lieberman became the second female to land a job on an NBA bench, following Becky Hammon, who is in her second season as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs under five-time NBA champ Gregg Popovich.

Popovich makes no bones about what he thinks of Hammon, his 38-year-old assistant who has been tipped to land an NBA head-coaching job, possibly as early as next season.

“She’s a leader, she’s fiery, she’s got high intelligence and our guys just respected the hell out of her. She’s out on the court, she’s coaching with us, she’s running drills, and so that’s why we made her a full-time person,” he recently told KNBR radio.

“I don’t even look at her as, well she’s the first female this or that or the other. She’s a coach and she’s good at it,” he added.

A less anticipated move came from the macho world of the NFL, with the Arizona Cardinals taking on Jen Welter as an assistant coach for training camp and preseason.

Meanwhile, over in soccer-crazed Europe, French second-tier club Clermont Foot 63 is embarking on its second season under manager Corinne Diacre, while former Arsenal Ladies coach Shelley Kerr has taken over the reins at Scottish fifth-tier club Stirling University.

Why, all of a sudden, are all these women getting a crack at coaching men?

“What we’re seeing now is that if we open our eyes, what makes someone qualified is a little different from what traditionally we have thought of in the past,” says Siegal, who has first-hand experience in the matter.

In 2009 she became the first woman to coach men’s baseball professionally as the first base coach for the Brockton Rox, an independent league team in the Boston area.

Siegal says female coaches getting their shot in men’s leagues have a calling other to themselves: “All of these women know that they are trailblazers, and that their role is just so much more important than just what they are doing.”

“Every step I made, I knew that there was a teenage kid behind me looking to see if this was possible, and so I was very careful with how I reacted to everything,” she says. “I knew my mission was bigger than just me.”

Unfortunately Siegal’s mission was curtailed after just six weeks on the job, an indication that the road to men’s coaching jobs is not always paved with roses.

“We were probably both winging it,” says former Rox manager Chris Carminucci. “When you’re doing ground-breaking things, it’s probably best to have it laid out. So, it really wasn’t as well (planned) as it probably should have been.”

In her short stint, Siegal says she experienced a series of challenges (for example, she was told not to visit the men’s locker room, although a female trainer was allowed in) before eventually being let go for “financial reasons.”

Carminucci, now a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks of the MLB, says he was not involved in the decision to dismiss Siegal and that the two remain friends.

“There was definitely a dynamic there that we had to work through,” he says. “I was getting a lot of questions from players saying, ‘What is this all about? How is it going to work?’

“Was it perfect? No, because it was a brand new thing and everyone was kind of feeling it out,” he adds. “The locker room situation we had to figure out, and I thought we came out with a pretty darn good system. I wanted her to feel like she was part of the team, but obviously guys want to be able to change and not feel funny.

“We kind of set up another room for her to be able to change, then she came into the locker room whenever we had meetings,” he says, while stressing that Siegal “did everything right.”

“I had zero complaints about her,” he says.

Siegal notes that a crucial advantage for the likes of Hammon and Lieberman is that they have the full backing of senior management. That way, should a player ever get out of line – refusing to run a drill for instance - the risk of an insurgency would be low.

“When that leadership is not behind, all of a sudden there’s space (for dissension),” she says, “and maybe one player tries to go through it and brings more players along, so that’s why it’s so important to be backed.”

Siegal, who rose through the ranks after serving three years as a pitching coach on the men’s baseball team at Springfield College, where she was fully backed, offers a word of caution to her fellow coaches.

“If they are not doing well, they will blame whoever they can blame,” she says. “And when there is a female in the room, she will usually be the first (to go).”

Or sometimes, even when things are going well, female coaches will be cut loose with little explanation (of course, winning male coaches get fired too).

That’s what happened to golf coach Susie Meyers, who led Derek Ernst to his first – and only – PGA victory in May 2013.

When she took him on, Ernst was ranked 1,207th in the world. Just three weeks later, the Californian took home the Wells Fargo Championship and credited Meyers for his win.

Despite taking his ranking up to 123, and getting through four out of five cuts on the tour, Meyers was dismissed by Ernst following two short months together without explanation.

“I’ve never been given a reason,” says Meyers. “His best success on tour is when I was coaching him.”

Since parting ways with Meyers, Ernst has made only 9 of 24 cuts since October, confounding his former coach. “I kind of just get mind-boggled sometimes,” she says.

Soccer coach Helena Costa was ceremoniously hired by French team Clermont Foot 63 last year as the first female to coach in a major men’s league in Europe – only to quit before the season even began after butting heads with management.

Undeterred, Clermont went on to sign another woman, Diacre, under whom the team finished 12th out of 20 in France’s competitive Ligue 2.

“As a female involved in football, going back a long, long time, there’s always obstacles in your way,” says Kerr, who became Britain’s first senior female soccer manager when she took over at Stirling University a year ago.

“It’s slowly changing, but for me it needs to be a little bit quicker,” she adds. “There needs to be an acceptance that there are females that are brilliant role models that have got expertise that will help individual sports people as well as teams.”

Hiring more coaches on the level of Diacre and Kerr could prove to be valuable in the professional ranks – not just strategically, but also on a psychological level – say the newcomers.

“I think that women have a different side to them than male coaches,” says Meyers, adding that it’s not unusual for men to blow up on their players, while “not that many women react that way.”

Instead, Meyers says Hammon, along with her cohorts, will need “to know how to get out of (players) way when they want to act macho and not let it get under her skin.”

“I’m lucky I’m a female because I believe I have more intuitive sense,” she elaborates. “I can feel what a player is feeling, and I know how to talk to a player and how to get him thinking.

“Men are easier. They don’t have as much going on in their heads and they’re simpler.”

Kerr, who previously coached the Arsenal Ladies to two FA Women’s Cups in two seasons in charge, agrees.

“Without being disrespectful at all to any group of players that I’ve worked with, I think women are more receptive to coaching than men are. They ask more questions, they are more inquisitive,” she says. “But men are easier to manage. I think they have less emotion.”

“It’s about knowing people,” Welter said following her appointment by the Arizona Cardinals’ last month.

Like Siegal, she is also a PhD, earning a doctorate in psychology with her thesis focusing on the NFL’s controversial Wonderlic test, a quasi-IQ exam given to prospective players.

“The more you can relate to (athletes), the more you can know them as a person, the better coach you’ll be,” Welter added. “My interest has always been in the mental side of the game.”

Despite her setback on the baseball field, Siegal says she had positive relationships with many of her male players: “They in some ways preferred to speak to me. Whether that’s my gender or my personality, it’s probably a combination.”

Meyers, whose son (and pupil) Chris will be an incoming freshman at Stanford this fall on a golf scholarship, takes the psychoanalysis a step further.

“I think that people have to have a pretty good relationship with their mothers to be able to put up with a female coach,” she says.

The notion is not far-fetched.

After winning Wimbledon and an Olympic gold medal, tennis star Andy Murray parted ways with his coach Ivan Lendl. The fact that the Scot opted to become the first top male tennis pro to hire a female coach in Amelie Mauresmo was not a surprise to his followers.

The two-time grand slam winner from France maintained her coaching role with Murray, despite being heavily pregnant through his French Open and Wimbledon campaigns.

“For me, it didn’t feel like a strange thing to do just because I grew up with a female coach,” Murray told the BBC following his decision in 2014.

That coach happened to be Murray’s mother Judy, who played a major role in his rise to the top.

“I found that, you know, with my mum especially, that she listened extremely well, and that was something that I felt right now that I needed,” Murray said.

Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Nancy Lieberman – considered one of the greatest female players in history – was already familiar with a number of Sacramento Kings players when she took on her assistant’s role last month.

The 57-year-old, who grew up playing against men on the rugged courts of Harlem and Brooklyn, had previously earned their respect – and crucially their trust – coaching them in youth leagues, she says.

“Most of these kids have been raised by and large by their moms, or females in their household,” she told Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast last month.

“So although I am a no-nonsense coach – you have to be firm, but fair – I do know that they will come to me and they would share some things that are on their heart, that maybe they wouldn’t (say) to a male coach because, you know, they don’t want to show a weakness.

“They are amazingly talented men, but strip away who they are and how big they are, they’re babies, they want to be loved cared about and they want to be able to talk to somebody about what makes them happy, what makes them sad,” she added.

At times, however, being the sole female in a male-dominated realm can be a lonely existence.

For years Meyers was the only woman on the PGA circuit, touring with Michael Thompson who she coached to victory at the Honda Classic in 2013.

“I gave Michael a lot of credit, because I’m sure it was hard having a female coach out there,” she says.

“He didn’t fire me and we had great success together, but I never thought of it as breaking barriers, I just thought of it as a privilege.”

After recently suffering a slump in his game, however, Thompson parted ways with his mentor of 15 years. While the two remain close, Meyers has taken on a slew of promising young pros – both male and female.

“From my experience, the other male professionals that were out on tour, they always showed me respect,” Meyers recalls.

“And I just hope that the players show these female coaches respect, because obviously they’ve done their homework to get there.”

As is often the case on the field, however, respect is hardly ever handed out gratuitously – especially to the opposite sex.

“I found (as a woman) you have to step on the field and prove yourself,” says Siegal. “Men step on the field and it’s assumed they know.”

“If I don’t make a success here then that probably hinders other females who want to go and do the same thing,” says Kerr.

“I’m quite sure there are some people out there that will say that’s because I’m a female, and not for any other reason. And that’s so far from the truth.”

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