Girls running together with male coach doing strides.
(Photo: Ross Dettman)

Being a Successful Male Coach of Female Runners

3 coaches of successful female cross-country teams share guidelines for connecting effectively.

Girls running together with male coach doing strides.

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As Dr. Stacy Sims, author of the book ROAR, often says “Women are not small men.” It’s long past time for a paradigm shift away from a gender-bias biological model that has measured and treated the female body as an anomaly of an ideal healthy male body. The same is true when it comes to coaching girl and women runners. They need to be coached in a way that puts their biological development and life experiences at the center, independent of what we know to be true about males. 

Physiologically, socially, emotionally and psychologically a girl’s journey through life and sport is different from boys’, whose physiological makeups and developmental trajectory have historically been the default athlete blueprint for training and coaching practices. The differences between girls and boys are certainly not bad differences outside of sexist value judgments, and it’s essential that coaches recognize these differences when coaching females. 

Coaches often speak to reaching each athlete at an individual level — recognizing that females have a completely different physiological makeup is imperative to reach their needs. When coaches recognize these legitimate differences and honor the female journey they can have an even bigger impact on their developing athletes.

Being a male coach of female athletes may seem daunting when navigating this journey alongside the female athletes. Questions come up like: How can I connect?  How can I understand what she is going through mentally and physically when it is different from my journey as an athlete. Here is the good news: If you are already asking yourself these questions, you are halfway there to creating a strong relationship with your female athletes.

Tips on Coaching Girls

Male coach cheering on girl runners.
Photo: Matt Swain

So what is the formula? We talked to 3 successful Oregon Coaches who lead dominant female programs in Oregon: Coach Eric Dettman of Lincoln HS, Coach Steve Richards of South Eugene HS and Coach Micheal Herrmann of North Salem HS. They offered their advice on keys to building relationships with their female athletes.  

1. Recognize the journey is different

Because it just is. Athletes want honesty and honesty builds trust. Be upfront with your female athletes that their journey will look different than that of their male peers, and that we embrace and celebrate those differences. Coach Dettman says, “One of the biggest things that I’ve learned is that the path to success and building a complete athlete is different for each gender. Yes, both need the same tender love and care, but the path to get there can be quite different.” Coach Herrmann says, “We know that the struggles females face in society and especially in the teenage years can be excruciating, so having a group of strong, confident girls on your side can really be the lift an athlete needs to see themselves as a powerful, successful, and worthy female runner.”

2. Provide opportunities to talk

Providing space to talk and share will help coaches build a strong foundation and a level of trust upon which the athlete/coach relationship can thrive.  Coach Richards says “For all our athletes, the key to building relationships is being honest, direct, encouraging email, office hours, and feedback through online logs and a shared whiteboard space on our team website.”

Coach Herrmann offers this advice for connecting, “We have individual team meetings (guy only meeting, girl only meeting) to discuss everything from training, to nutrition, race plans, and team drama.”

3. Get help as needed

As a male coach if you need support in having these conversations then look to female coaches to support your mission of providing a supportive environment. Coach Dettman hired Marie Davis Markham as an assistant coach, recognizing that a female presence would add another strong component to his coaching staff to provide the best environment possible for his girls team to thrive. “The piece that she’s brought is elevating that trust into more important topics like Red-S, periods, etc,” Dettman says. “I’ve definitely noticed a change in our girls and their willingness to talk openly about some of those topics. That would not have happened without Marie’s presence. Overall she’s brought a great dynamic that promotes health and confidence in our girls.”

4. Talk about the hard stuff

Coach Richards says he talks to his athletes about “nutrition and avoiding some of the common early high-school pitfalls (restrictive diets, vegan/vegetarian without proper management of balanced diets) along with the introduction of menstruation for many of your younger females and huge growth spurts for the boys.” Coach Herrmann says, I spend more time teaching our female runners about concerns with iron deficiency and nutrition than I do male athletes, however I stress to the whole team that they should all know about this information because I want them to be empathetic, knowledgeable, and well versed athletes. The female body has unique needs, sure.”  

Robyn McGillis is the Head Girls Cross Country and Track and Field Coach at Central Catholic High School in Portland, Oregon. Coach Eric Dettman will be speaking at the Wildwood Running Clinic on August 7th and 8th about his experiences coaching female distance runners.

From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: Ross Dettman