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Long hours, poor pay, discrimination: Why the number of women in collegiate coaching remains low

Laurie Henes, NC State’s director of cross country and track & field, has coached her team to three consecutive wins at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. (Photo courtesy of NC State University Athletics)

By Alison Wade

Working for $14,000 a year or less. Getting stuck in entry-level jobs. Breastfeeding in porta potties. Working for head coaches who behave unprofessionally or unethically. And dealing with athletic directors who are skeptical that women can successfully coach male athletes. 

These are just some of the reasons why so few women hold collegiate cross country and track & field coaching jobs. 

Across all NCAA women’s sports, the number of female head coaches is increasing, but slowly. During the 2022–23 academic year, only 41 percent of women’s teams and 6 percent of men’s teams across all NCAA divisions had a female head coach, up from 39.8 percent and 3.9 percent in 2013. 

In cross country and track, the numbers are much worse. During the 2022–23 academic year, women held only 18.3 percent of the head women’s cross country and track coaching positions across all NCAA divisions. It’s an increase of a mere 0.4 percent over 10 years. (The NCAA does not currently publish data on nonbinary coaches.) And women of color held only 4.5 percent of the head women’s cross country and 5.5 percent of the head women’s track jobs during the 2022–23 academic year.

Of all the NCAA coaching opportunities—including head and assistant jobs in men’s and women’s cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track—women held only 25.9 percent of the positions in 2023. It’s an increase from 23.2 percent in 2013, but at that rate, it would take another 90 years to reach gender parity. And as of now, women are disproportionately concentrated in the lower-level jobs.

Although women are entering collegiate cross country and track coaching every year, others are quietly exiting the profession. Why are they leaving? According to interviews with 30 former and current NCAA cross country and track coaches, the most common reasons were financial, family-related, or a toxic work environment fostered by a head coach or athletic director. Some shared their stories anonymously, out of fear that speaking up could hurt their careers.

“It’s been really defeating seeing my good friends, who are incredible coaches, walk away from [the profession],” said Taryn Sheehan, Yale’s head women’s cross country coach. “It’s been really sad to see young women that I think have the potential to be great coaches feel like there’s not a future in it.”

Ball State assistant coach Angelina Ramos, center, pictured with graduating track athletes, is one of the founders of the USTFCCCA’s Female Coaching Mentorship program. (Courtesy photo)

A 24/7 job, often with poor pay

Coaches in other college sports get an off season. Not so in cross country and track, where the distance runners are in-season throughout the entire academic year, and the best athletes compete into the summer, too.

It can be an incredibly rewarding job, but it’s one that often requires coaches to be on call, ready to help athletes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And when coaches aren’t busy with their teams, a lot of their time goes into recruiting the next class of student-athletes. One former coach said that because of her demanding work schedule, she didn’t date anyone for 17 years.

Despite the challenges, there’s a lot of competition for jobs. But when coaches are able to get a foot in the door, it’s not a profession that everyone can afford to pursue.

“College coaching is one of those jobs where you don’t add up the hours and then divide [that into] your pay,” said Kelsey Quinn, a former collegiate coach who now works as assistant coach for the On Athletics Club. “You don’t want to bum yourself out.” 

At the top, college cross country and track coaching is lucrative work. Oregon head coach Jerry Schumacher is in his second year of a seven-year contract worth more than $3.4 million. Georgia’s director of track & field, Caryl Smith Gilbertmakes $500,000 per year before bonuses. Last summer, Texas Tech’s director of cross country and track & field, Wes Kittley, signed a seven-year contract worth more than $3.8 million.

But salaries like theirs are the exception. At the bottom, it’s a different story. It’s commonplace for coaches to work for little to no compensation while they pay their dues.

Abbie Hetherington, who no longer coaches, accepted a position at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, but when she arrived, she was told there was a hiring freeze, and the university could no longer pay her. Her boss told her they’d figure it out, but they never did. She delivered for DoorDash and walked dogs so she could pay her rent.

Sheehan is now at Yale, but during her first two years at Western Michigan, she made $14,000 per year, with no benefits. One day over the summer of 2010, she and her husband ran four races in one day to earn as much prize money as they could. “We were like, ‘Okay, now we can pay our rent this month,’” she said.

The poor pay limits who can enter the profession. “When I see what people, in good faith, are offering as salaries, for full-time jobs, or even part-time jobs, the question for me is how would you expect somebody to live on that?” said former Stanford coach Dena Evans, who now coaches the Peninsula Distance Club. “And who is the person who would be able to live on that?”

One former coach said she made only $2,500 per season when she was the head coach of a Division II team that transitioned to Division I during her tenure. Another coach said that to make ends meet, she used to work a six-hour shift at a coffee shop before going to her coaching job.

On the Keeping Track podcastHannah Chappell-Dick, now the head cross country coach at Amherst College, said that when she was a volunteer coach at Georgia Tech, she lived in a church basement, and she was the janitor of the church in exchange for free rent. 

Angelina Ramos, an assistant coach at Ball State and one of the founders of the USTFCCCA’s Female Coaching Mentorship Program, said that finances are one of the major reasons women leave the sport. “There are so many coaches who go into credit card debt or lose money trying to make early gains in the sport,” she said. “They hit a certain point and they say, ‘Does this make sense?’”

The NCAA limits the number of coaches allowed in each sport. But as of July 1, 2023, the number of “countable” coaches in cross country and track has doubled, which might create more opportunities for women. But programs don’t necessarily have the funds to create additional paying positions.

Cracking the old boys’ network

In a 2018 Tucker Center report on the recruitment, hiring, and retention of female coaches by Dr. Nicole M. LaVoi and Matea Wasend, the authors write that female coaches face gender bias in hiring and performance evaluationAnd they point out that college athletics has been “slower than other industries to embrace the value of diversity and inclusion.”

Many of the coaches said that they felt there was an old boys’ network both within college athletic departments and among cross country and track coaches, and it affects hiring decisions. “The process by which we hire head coaches at the Division I level is not about who applies for the job,” LaVoi, the director of the Tucker Center, told Global Sport Matters in 2021. “It’s about who you know. Athletic directors will pick up the phone and call their network or the people they know. They go out and actively recruit who they think is the best fit. They are not sitting in the offices with stacks of random applications. It just doesn’t work like that.” 

Universities often combine their men’s and women’s cross country and track programs to save money. That means for women to have a shot at climbing the coaching ladder, the athletic director needs to be comfortable with women coaching and recruiting men. The percentage of women coaching men has grown, but it’s still low. (In 2023, 12.9 percent of men’s cross country and track teams had a female head coach, up from 8.4 percent in 2013. And at the assistant level, women held 29.0 percent of the positions, compared to 24.3 percent in 2013.)

Several current and former coaches said their athletic departments weren’t comfortable hiring them to coach men. One coach said that when she applied to be a head men’s and women’s cross country coach, she got the job, but the athletic director decided to split the program and have her coach the women and hired a man to coach the men. “It sent the message that I couldn’t be trusted to coach a men’s team,” she said. “I don’t think anyone would think twice about hiring a man to coach a women’s team.” 

Another former coach said that on one occasion when she and her boss didn’t see eye-to-eye on something, he told her that when he hired her, he had hoped that her husband, who wasn’t employed by the university, would be more involved with the program. 

When women do get hired, they sometimes find that they aren’t paid as well as their male colleagues. One former college coach said she had to fight to get her salary to $42,000 after years at her school, but then the athletic director hired a less experienced man in a parallel role and gave him the same salary. Another coach talked about how discouraging it was to learn that some of the men in similar roles in her conference were making twice as much as she is.

Diljeet Taylor, head women’s cross country coch and associate director of track & field at BYU, led her team to the 2020 NCAA Cross Country title.

Developing the right skills 

Once women get a foot in the door, they aren’t necessarily developing the skills and tools they need to advance in the profession. Diljeet Taylor, head women’s cross country coach and associate director of track at BYU, says programs can’t hire women just to check a box. “We need more good women at all levels of coaching—entry level, intermediate, all the way up to being directors,” she said. “We need more women in positions of leadership, which is not holding a stopwatch, braiding hair, putting ribbons on athletes, and driving vans. It’s doing the actual coaching.”

Female coaches have opportunities to expand their knowledge and their networks through programs like the NCAA Women Coaches Academy and the USTFCCCA Female Coaches Mentorship Program, or organizations like the Women’s Running Coaches’ Collective. But there’s no substitute for hands-on experience. One former coach said it’s the head coach’s responsibility to invest in assistant coaches and mentor them. “If they bring a woman on board, they can’t just let her flounder,” she said. “I just think there’s a lack of mentorship going on within many programs.”

As she tried to move up the ranks, one coach cited age discrimination as a challenge. Another said that despite having success running at the Division I level, she felt she got pigeonholed as a Division II coach who worked only at small schools with few resources. 

“The difference between men and women is women have to be successful to get support and men get support before they’re successful,” Taylor said. “I had to prove myself, and then I got the support. Whereas it might look different for a lot of my male colleagues. I’m hoping to change that.”

Andrea Grove-McDonough, the director of cross country and track and field at the University of Toledo, is discouraged by how few of the Power Five director of cross country and track jobs are held by women. “It’s really hard to sit there and know women who are incredible coaches, who have been doing this for a long time [but] have been overlooked when it comes to stepping into the head coaching role,” she said. 

The “interwoven barriers” female coaches face

Former Augsburg University coach Meghan Windschill (formerly Peyton) had a male assistant coach, and people would most often assume he was the head coach. To avoid it, when she was recruiting, she took to wearing a nametag that read, “Meghan Peyton, head coach. 

Gender equity researchers Dr. Amy Diehl and Dr. Leanne Dzubinski coined the term role incredulity—when people’s implicit bias leads them to assume someone isn’t the one in charge. Many female coaches have experienced it. 

When Craig Lake, who left collegiate coaching in 2010, began having success at Columbia University, people were slow to believe she was actually the one behind the team’s success. They would credit the male program director instead.

In their report, LaVoi and Wasend write that female coaches face “multiple, inevitable, and interwoven barriers that make sustaining a career in coaching challenging.” Those barriers can include sexism, racism, homophobia, harassment, and pay inequity, among other things. The women who discussed leaving collegiate coaching rarely did so for a singular reason, but more because of a string of negative experiences that built up.

Quinn used to check the LetsRun message boards sometimes, when she was looking for jobs. “People are just ruthless about women getting jobs,” she said. 

Lake remembers female coaches being “ripped to shreds” on LetsRun, and the more success she had, the more she was a target. While she admits she made some mistakes along the way, she faced a level of scrutiny her male colleagues didn’t. “I didn’t have the confidence back then that I would now to handle it, and so I always just felt like I had to keep my head down, and I felt ashamed,” she said.

One time, in a job interview, the athletic department member who was doing the hiring told her it had been so entertaining reading about her on LetsRun. “I knew then and there that I had zero chance for this job,” Lake said. “That’s like reading Star Magazine or something. And then no matter what, that’s in your head. [LetsRun] honestly hurt the way I felt about myself.”

Several coaches have stories about being hit on during the profession’s annual USTFCCCA convention. “I would be trying to network with male coaches and I would find that they didn’t really want me to enter the conversation,” said one coach. “It was more like, ‘Can I buy you a drink at the bar?’” In a different setting, Lake remembers a male head coach in her conference asking her to sit in his lap.

And often female coaches’ negative experiences came from within their own coaching staff. Several women described feeling alienated by a “bro culture,” especially when they were the only woman on staff. And for women of color, the feeling was often heightened. 

More than one-third of the women who left the sport did so at least partially because they didn’t want to be associated with what they perceived to be poor behavior on the part of the head coach. That included making decisions they didn’t think were in the student-athletes’ best interests long-term, handling eating disorders poorly, unethical or inappropriate behavior, making racist comments, or disrespecting their assistant coaches.

One former coach said she didn’t feel comfortable bringing the head coach’s misconduct to the administration’s attention, knowing that his removal would also lead to the firing of his longtime assistant coaches. “There are just all these lives attached to [the head coach] just taking care of his shit and doing a good job,” she said. But eventually he was forced to resign, along with the rest of his staff.

Women get fired, or are forced to resign, too, but some of the women feel that they and their female colleagues were held to a different standard than the men in the sport. Cassie Funke-Harris, who voluntarily left her head coaching role at Amherst College in 2023, pointed out that female coaches are often called on to be surrogate parents in ways that male coaches are not. 

“We are expected to be nurturers and that has implications for expectations around communication style, boundaries around personal and professional time, and emotional off-loading by athletes onto coaches,” she said. And while that can be a rewarding part of the job, it can also become a heavy load.

Several women said that if they were tough on athletes, they were more likely to be viewed as “rude” or “bitchy,” whereas men would just be viewed as tough but fair for doing the same. And when athletic departments rely on student feedback to determine whether or not coaches keep their jobs, and the students’ expectations of female coaches are inherently sexist, that becomes a dangerous environment for women. 

“We are expected to treat our athletes as consumers,” Funke-Harris said. “Keep them happy, keep your job and your good favor with the college. But my job as a coach is to make my athletes uncomfortable sometimes. To tell them, ‘You didn’t have a good season because you didn’t [train] over the summer.’”

LaVoi says women get a lot less latitude if they’re not acting in ways that conform to the traditional female norm. “If female coaches act like men, they’re judged and evaluated harshly by the female athletes,” she said. “If they’re not caring and kind, they’re also judged. But if they’re also too caring and kind, then they’re perceived as being incompetent. So they really can’t win. They have to walk a very fine line.”

One coach said that it was discouraging to see her male colleagues get a slap on the wrist for toxic behavior. “Women just don’t get that luxury of being like, ‘Oh, we’ll just sweep it under the rug for a few minutes and then you can go back to being a coach,’” she said. Research supports the idea that when male collegiate coaches are fired, they’re more likely than women to be rehired elsewhere. 

“What this job gives me is a lot more than what I give back,” says Andrea Grove-McDonough, the director of cross country and track & field at the University of Toledo. “I think everybody around me understood that this is where I’m meant to be, so we’re going to figure it out.” (Photo courtesy of University of Toledo Athletics)

The profession can be tough on families

Because of the long hours, frequent travel, and lack of flexibility at certain times of year, coaching can wreak havoc on families. Add children to the equation and the degree of difficulty skyrockets. 

“Athletics and coaching is not a family-friendly occupation for anybody,” LaVoi said. “And for women, who bear most of the domestic labor typically in heterosexual families, it becomes really challenging, because the system isn’t set up to support parent coaches.”

For the most part, the female coaches took little to no maternity leave. Their reasons included not being given much of an option, enthusiasm for their work, not wanting to lose ground, concern about how they would be perceived or that other coaches would use it against them in recruiting, and not wanting the student-athletes they coach to feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick.

Fifteen days after Laurie Henes, now the director of cross country and track at NC State, had her first daughter, Elly, they were both at the ACC Cross Country Championships, followed by regionals and nationals soon after. In retrospect, Henes says there were other capable coaches on staff, and she’s sure they would have been fine without her. 

“When your children are so young, it’s like there’s no good answer,” she said. “You take maternity leave and you feel like you’re not doing the best by your athletes or the staff. And if you don’t, you’re dropping your child off at daycare and feeling like, ‘What am I doing?’”

Several coaches said they felt pressured by their head coach or the program director to make a quick return, though their bosses knew better than to explicitly say anything that would be a violation of university policy. But for some women, if they weren’t at practice, there was no one coaching their event group. And they’d start getting texts from team members saying so.

“That’s not a badge of honor that I was at practice seven days after a c-section; I shouldn’t have done that,” said Grove-McDonough. “And in the end, was it a game-changer for anyone? No. It wasn’t. My coaching philosophy is that if I’ve done my job properly, you don’t need me. You might prefer to have me around, but you shouldn’t need me to be there.”

Others struggled with university policies that wouldn’t let them return part-time. Either they were back or they weren’t. There was no middle ground, which made them worry about missing out.

There were times when Henes’ kids were young that she questioned whether she could really be a mother and coach. When Elly, who is now a professional runner, was born, her father had a job that required extensive international travel. “I’m not actually sure how I made it, to be honest,” Henes said.

But it helped that the program director at the time, Rollie Geiger, had coached both Henes and her husband, and she felt comfortable asking him if she could bring an additional athlete on a trip to watch her kids. Even 25 years ago, the answer was always yes, because Geiger and the administration valued having a high-level female coach on staff. Her husband also cut back on his travel eventually. “I was surrounded by so many supportive people who wanted me to be able to stay in that position that it worked,” she said. “I know that’s not everyone’s experience and trying to figure out how we can do better as a sport and a profession is challenging.”

Taylor says that many coaches, when they become parents, do a cost analysis to assess whether they’re making enough to continue in the profession, because doing both jobs is difficult, and having children is expensive. Often the answer is no. “It’s sad, because you shouldn’t have to be able to afford to work, you should work so you can afford life,” she said.

Every mother who coaches has a story, or many, about the challenges of travel while having a young child. At the NCAA Cross Country Championships, Quinn had the option of breastfeeding in an open-air tent in front of everyone in the race or using a portable toilet. She chose the latter. “Thank God the baby can’t remember stuff,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Sorry about your emotional scarring from that porta potty,’ but what else are you going to do?”

Sheehan says she’ll never forget pumping at the ACC Championships in Tallahassee, when she coached at the University of Louisville. One of the team’s athletic trainers flew home with her breast milk. “God bless her, she dropped my breast milk off at my house so my husband could feed our daughter the rest of the weekend while I flew to Canada to recruit,” she said.

Grove-McDonough recalls when she was coaching at UConn bringing her son to Boston University for an indoor meet. He had explosive diarrhea, and then when she finally got him to sleep, someone opened an emergency exit, the alarm went off, and he started screaming. “I remember being so aware and self conscious about whether people were judging me, particularly worried about what a recruit or their parents might be thinking,” she said. “Or maybe my future boss was in the room. That was just something I was constantly wrestling with.” 

Fifteen weeks after Grove-McDonough’s second child arrived, she was one of two finalists for a Power Five director job. She was given less than 48 hours notice in advance of the interview. She was nursing and her husband wasn’t available to take their daughter, so Grove-McDonough brought her along and arranged for a parent of a former athlete who lived nearby to stay with her and watch her daughter. She reached out to a woman in the department in advance to let her know that she would need to pump during the eight-hour interview.

They eventually gave her a room, right next to the athletic director’s office, and she knew he could hear the pump. She was so exhausted and frazzled by that point that she didn’t realize breast milk was spilling onto her dress pants. “I didn’t get the job, and I remember the feedback was that I hadn’t come with a packet,” she said. “I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? I have a 15-week-old.’”

Most of the women who have made parenting and collegiate coaching work had supportive partners who went to great lengths to help them. But so did many of the women who left the profession. Everyone was overwhelmed at times by parenting young kids while coaching.

Former University of Virginia assistant coach Nicole Freitag felt very supported by the program’s director, Vin Lananna, her former college coach, after she had a baby in the summer of 2021. Both Lananna and his wife encouraged her not to go back to work too quickly, but Freitag was excited about the upcoming season, so she took only two weeks (mostly) off. During the cross country season, Lananna let her travel to the meets separately, so she could spend less time there, or bring her husband along.

It was the indoor season that “completely broke” her. At first, the schedule looked manageable, but when athletes started running well and were on the bubble for qualifying for nationals, the team added more meets to the schedule. Suddenly she was gone Wednesday or Thursday to Saturday most weeks. It put a heavy load on her husband and weighed on her as well. “I got to a point where I was just crying in hotel rooms because I wasn’t home with my son and [I also felt] incredibly guilty that I wasn’t all in for my athletes, because I was not emotionally there all the time,” she said.

Freitag knows she could have asked Lananna to send someone else on some of the trips, but it was hard for her to ask for help. She wanted to be all in on coaching and parenting, and that was impossible. Even with a head coach who wanted to support her, the problem did not feel fixable to her, and she decided to leave coaching.

As more men become equal partners in parenting, they face many of the same struggles. And that’s good news for all parents, because men need to be part of the solution. Sheehan says some of the dads she coaches with are incredible parents. “They do a really good job of setting boundaries and saying, ‘Hey, I can’t do that because I’ve got this thing with my kid.’ And I’ve never seen that before.”

Taryn Sheehan, Yale’s head women’s cross country coach/middle distance and distance coach, says that the support she has received from other female coaches is one of the things that has enabled her to stay in the profession.

Coaches speak: Their tips for retaining female coaches who are parents

Dave Smith, Oklahoma State’s director of cross country and track, has had five female assistant coaches and six female graduate assistants over the years. Only two of them are still coaching.

So Smith is trying something new this year. One of those assistants who is still with him, Anna Thorp, recently had a baby. Smith used one of his two open entry-level positions to hire Taylor Somers, who is getting experience as an assistant coach and serving as Thorp’s assistant, filling in when she has her hands full.

Smith has three young children of his own, so he knows how life-changing becoming a parent is. “Anna never asked me for this,” he said. “But I just want to make sure I don’t run her out of coaching, because that fog in the first year is so hard. I want to do everything I can to make it possible for her to stay here and in this profession as long as possible.”

While many schools won’t be able to create new positions or allocate resources in that way, there are many simple steps that head coaches and athletic departments can take to anticipate new mothers’ needs. “It’s not that hard; it’s just that because men have been in charge, they don’t think about this,” LaVoi said. “But now they have to think about it, because they’re not going to have any coaches left.”

Here’s what experienced coaches say would help.

  • Be proactive in supporting mothers. Offer a list of potential supports, rather than requiring the coach to go out of her way to request them. 
  • Make sure there are people to cover all aspects of a coach’s role during their maternity leave, so they’re free to take it.
  • Allow coaches to return to work part-time after having a baby.
  • Once the coach is back at work, a little flexibility goes a long way. Allow parents to bring infants to practice.
  • Don’t require new parents to be at every competition.
  • When they do travel, allow new parents to arrive later or leave earlier, especially with multi-day events.
  • Be flexible about where and when office work gets done. 
  • Many coaches say they’d love to see their athletic departments or schools have a daycare. One coach said her school had a daycare, but joked that it was harder to get into than the university itself.
  • Taylor said that BYU provides nannies who are available to travel with teams during a child’s first year. She would love to see more universities follow suit.
  • Some schools pay for a spouse or another support person to travel with the team to help with childcare.
  • If colleges lack the funding to do any of the above, they should allow coaches to pay to bring their own support person on trips.
  • Athletic departments need to make sure they have convenient spaces for breastfeeding coaches to nurse and pump. 
  • When hosting home events, athletic departments should offer lactation spaces for visiting coaches and make sure that visitors know about them well in advance. 
  • Brooke Rasnick, a track coach at the University of Louisville, says it was a big help when Allyson Felix, &Mother, and Athleta teamed up to provide childcare at the USATF Outdoor Championships in 2022, and she would love to see something like that at the NCAA regional meet or nationals.
  • Ramos says that it can go a long way when head coaches and athletic directors make it clear that families are welcome around the athletic department, especially because coaches miss so much family time due to their jobs.

How to make the profession sustainable for women

Outside of more support for parents, coaches listed a number of things that would help more women stay in the sport and could benefit coaches of all genders. They included:

  • Athletic directors need to understand the unique demands of coaching three sports per year and compensate and support cross country and track coaches accordingly. “I once had an assistant athletic director tell me completely straight-faced that I did not need additional assistant coaches, or to have my assistant paid better to attract a better candidate, even though I actively coached 40–50 athletes for nine months out of the year and [an additional] 8–10 athletes for seven months,” Funke-Harris said. “You [can’t] compare the demands of our sport versus a volleyball coach with a roster of 16 and a 3- to 4-month season.”
  • Provide coaches with the budget, staffing, and support they need to be successful. In LaVoi and Wasend’s report on the recruitment, hiring, and retention of female coaches, they stress how important it is that female coaches feel supported and valued by their athletic director or senior woman administrator.
  • Make sure new coaches are being mentored and are afforded more responsibility over time.
  • Commit to having a gender-balanced coaching staff.
  • Some say they would like to see the recruiting calendar shortened; others would like to see the competition calendar shift. “It was always hard to make it through all three seasons as an athlete, and it’s really hard to coach kids to make it through all three seasons healthy,” said Sara Slattery, who left her position at Grand Canyon University in 2022. “And if you as a coach are tired from the schedule, think about how the kids are doing, because they’re the ones doing all of the training.”
  • Given the amount of poor behavior by coaches that goes unchecked, some would like to see the NCAA or another organization have a place for people to safely report coaches’ misconduct, so coaches could be held responsible and not just get passed along to the next institution.
  • Evaluate coaches in a holistic manner. If using student feedback to evaluate coaches, educate student-athletes about gender bias and pay close attention to what is being criticized and whether the criticism is fair.
  • Give coaches space to make the calls they deem best for their programs, within reason. Former college coach Elizabeth Carey says that if more coaches and ADs were willing to challenge the norms, they might be able to make the profession more sustainable. One example she gives is that coaches could try meeting with their athletes only five days a week and trust them to do what they need to do on the other days. “I think if we gave athletes a little more responsibility and space, coaches could also find space for themselves,” she said. “The irony is that the research and anecdotal evidence suggests that a more holistic, positive approach is beneficial for performance. It’s so interesting to me that we’re so scared to let go of these old ways and try something new.”

What coaches can do to help themselves:

  • Work smarter, not harder, said former coach Maura Burke. “There’s this mentality that the more hours you work, the more successful you are,” she said. “And I think that you don’t have to have that mentality in coaching. I think you can set a good example for your athletes [and] have balance.”
  • Henes says that she and some of her coaching colleagues try to be intentional about taking breaks when they have the opportunity, as difficult as it can be to step away. 
  • She also encourages parents who coach to accept help wherever they can, especially when their children are young. “Try to surround yourself with people you trust and let them do some of the things that you feel like you have to do on your own,” she said. “Let somebody else take over a few practices, or a trip here and there, because the athletes in the program are, in most cases, better off with that coach that they are close to [being a part of the program] instead of getting overwhelmed and quitting altogether.”
  • Choose your bosses wisely. Or, when possible, be the boss. As a program director, Grove-McDonough gets to decide when practice is, which coaches are covering various meets or handling recruiting visits. While what’s best for her team will always come first, being in charge gives her a level of flexibility and freedom that she would be unlikely to have if someone else was calling the shots.
  • Be supportive of other female coaches, and look for allies. A few coaches mentioned not feeling supported by their female colleagues, saying there’s a scarcity mindset in the profession at times, because too many people are competing for limited jobs. Some veteran coaches have formed networks along the way. Sheehan said that the support she has received from other female coaches has been one of the things that has helped her stay in the profession. “We’ve gone through the trenches and had shared experiences around the same time, and I’ve been able to lean on them and call them,” she said. “They’ve been incredible sounding boards and shoulders to cry on, and I just hope that I’ve been able to do the same for them.”