If you ask other coaches if they think male and female athletes require

different coaching approaches, I’m sure you’ll spark a lively debate probably even bigger today than 10 – 15 years ago. Back then everyone would have said ¨Hell yeah!¨, due to existence of generalizations about male and female physical differences, approach and attitude towards sport. For example, during competitions and games, it was said that males tended to be more individualistic as opposed to females who prefered a more cooperative style. Boys wanted to be the “alpha males” on the team, which could sometimes hurt the team as a unit and since girls wanted to fit in, they could sometimes sacrifice their individual talents in preference to being accepted by their peers. Luckily for our beautiful sport, in our time, women like Brittney Griner, Sabrina Ionescu and Caitlin Clark are proving that all those ancient notions and definitions of a ¨female basketball¨ player is in need for a re – evaluation, as well as the whole notion behind the gender differences in sports.  

The truth is that if we decide to abide by the gender differentiation in sports, besides the physical aspect, we should also reflect all the differences which include goal orientation, self-confidence, motivation, mental toughness, incentives, preferences, the emotional baggage etc. Times are changing, and so are athletes and therefore the gender generalizations lines that before seemed so clear are today very blurry in all sports environments. Guess that it is no surprise to find out how more similar than different male and female athletes are today..soshould they then be coached/trained differently?

After having coached boys and girls, women and men I can tell you that no one athlete is the same and that all of the differences above are so individual and can’t be generalized or attributed to a specific gender anymore.

The young athletes of today

At one point in my playing career, I had a coach who still until this day tells me that I was a player who ¨made women’s basketball coaching and experience easy and pleasant¨ for him. He would mention my coachability and discipline, but I never quite understood what he meant by the rest of it. Personally, I can say that I was the exception from the above-mentioned rule, but I knew that the reality was what it was. At the same time, in that era, there was the generalization that male and female athletes should be coached differently, mostlybecause of the physical inferiority of the female gender, their lack of technical skills and their let’s call it psychological sensibility and fragileness. And don’t forget the drama, oh the drama. 

For the last reason above, I never thought I would end up coaching women’s basketball, at least on the senior levels because I knew that keeping 12 women pleased and always happy was even trickier than Tom Cruises assignments in Mission Impossible and I did not have patience nor time for drama. And after coaching for some years now, I still agree with the whole mission impossible part, but not only when it comes to women’s basketball. It is hard, PERIOD, regardless of the team being male or female, to make every player content with themselves, their performances and team results. Why you wonder? Well, the majority ofyoung basketball players today do not have the right mentality, the discipline nor the work ethics that players once upon a time head, plus that many of them have a surreal and subjective image of themselves and their capacities. And now I am specifically talking about European players, male and female, while bearing in mind also, that uch of this is also related to basketball cultural predisposition as well. So, depending which environment you find yourself in, as a coach, there will be exceptions, like always. 

My experience with the younger players in different clubs and different gender groups, has been the one of that while some are determined and work for what they want, others would like to work less and expect the same results. And if the results are not there..well, you guessed it..it is the coaches fault and that is the version that the parents will get as well. This also applies to for example, when you bench a player they will assume the worst or think that you subbed them out because they did something wrong. They will make up their own story and it will rarely be right. When the parents add in their version of the story the situation becomes increasingly confusing. The struggle is real, and as the player get older, the more opinionated they become and the more they will question and challenge the coach, and this too has nothing to do with gender.

Even the drama component can not be only attributed to the female compartment. There is drama, also in the boy’s department, they just have different ways of dealing with it. While most of the girls are more prone to friend and de- friend and form cliques within a team, with grudge holding lasting longer than the happily ever after, they boys usually solve matters quicker unless it is a group filled with grown ass men with a Peter Pan syndrome or an ego bigger than the team itself. What I have found interesting, while coaching a men’s team this year, is that male athletes instead of punching the drama out, can use humor as a way of conveying dislike or animosity towards a fellow teammate or coach. As if a joke and humor will make the emotional damage lighter. 

The emotional baggage

While coaching a women’s team some time ago, my assistant coach told me: ¨These girls don’t need a basketball coach, they need a psychologist¨. And as I am writing this, I can see in front of me many readers shaking their head and thinking ¨what an idiot¨ and others nodding their heads as an approval. The second group of readers are probably those whose thoughtsand ideas still belong in dinosaur age and attribute the mental weakness only to female athletes. The first group of readers is probably the one aware of the fact that the seal has been lifted from the stigma of mental toughness and illness and is no longer a taboo to talk about even in the world of male sports. 

The reality is that athletes working in any sports career are exposed to some of the most high-pressure situations imaginable and must continually work on self-confidence, motivation, and concentration more than ever before. An athlete’s ability, male and female, to perform consistently is often determined by the consistency of their emotions; as their emotions go, so go their performances. Their ability to respond positively to the inevitable challenges they will face in training and competition are often impacted by their emotional reactions to those challenges. How athletes respond to all those challenges emotionally will affect the way they carry their perceived view of the consequences with them into new experiences. 

It is important to remember that the older a player gets, the more emotional baggage they carry with them, physical and mental, and once they become your players, their baggage becomes yours to deal with. In order for the athletes to perform to their best abilities, we need to help them remove the negative extra weight that is slowing them down and trim away the emotional fat, so their backpack becomes easier to carry.

The Conclusion 

As a coach, to get the best out of your athlete you must get to know them as individuals and as athletes, male and female. To do this you have to understand their previous experiences, what gets them motivated, their learning style and their feedback preferences without assuming and generalizing. What I have taken with me from my coaching experiences thus far is that yes, boys might be physically stronger, but when it comes to the technical-tactical and mental/psychological side of things, there is no big difference between boys and girls, men and women. Whether they can pass, shoot, and dribble the ball or not has nothing to do with an athlete’s gender. It is related to their past experiences, the number of years that they have played basketball and also the work that they put in before they became your players. 

This fact plus the fact that the human mind being one complex and fragile organism thattogether with the cognitive processes and mental toughness does not understand and segregategender, nor should you as a coach. Therefore, do not make the direct separation of male/female in your coaching philosophy, but instead adapt the different expectations and coaching style to the specific age group that you are coaching. The coaching of today, is not just about the workload, running practices and creating game strategies. It is also about developing athletes by motivating and getting the best out of them regardless of their gender.