Navigating the Fine Line

Coaching boys versus girls, and men versus women, the differences are slight, but noticeable.

UCLA Athletics
“I think it’s changed a bit," said UCLA women's coach Mike Sealy of the differences between coaching men and women. "I think it’s closer now than people would think."

There might be a fine line, but there are those who feel there are indeed differences between coaching men’s and women’s volleyball teams on the collegiate level.

Dr. Nicki Moore, a senior associate athletics director at the University of Oklahoma, was promoted to her current position after working with Sooner student-athletes as the department’s sports psychologist. When asked if female athletes are coached differently than male athletes, Dr. Moore responded, “I would say by and large, yes, and I think oftentimes it’s appropriate.”

The most visible coaching figure with a track record of working with both genders in recent years is UCLA women’s coach Michael Sealy. Six years ago, Sealy served as an assistant for the men and one year (2005) worked as the Bruins’ assistant coach on both sides. Sealy believes in the “fine line” difference between coaching each gender.

“I think it’s changed a bit. I think it’s closer now than people would think,” said Sealy, in his third year coaching the defending NCAA champion Bruins.

Sealy also said the approach to coaching today’s male athletes differs from decades ago.

“I think traditionally, the old stereotypes are on the men’s side [where] you can shame a guy into doing anything,” he said. “You can call him out. You can call him names. You can call him a million things. As soon as you question his ethic, his talent, and his pride he’s going to do everything he can to show you you’re wrong. That’s like that old football motivation style. I don’t know if that works anymore. I’d say with this generation of kids that’s probably not the case.”

Oregon State Head Coach Terry Liskevych agrees that much has changed since he last coached a men’s team as head coach at Ohio State for three years until 1976. Like Sealy seven years ago, Liskevych had a taste of coaching both genders at the same time in ’75 when he served as the assistant coach for the U.S. Women’s National Team competing in the Pan Am Games.

“I think the difference that I found was I was always amazed at how women will just do whatever you tell them without ever testing you,” said Liskevych, who’s in his eighth year with the Beavers. “If you say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this drill,’ they’re not going to say, ‘Why are we doing that?’ Men would always do that. I think that was my adjustment. With guys you have to have a rational explanation of why you’re doing things.”

The ‘whys’ fall into what Dr. Moore terms the “transactional interactions.” Instructional drills are laid out by coaches with directness, and with the reasoning, Liskevych believes, that’s sometimes necessary to back them up. Dr. Moore compared the instructional facets to the women’s side.

“There’s still directness and there’s still a great deal of intensity, but for coaches who have been successful on the women’s side, they’ve paid attention to that relational element,” she said. “It’s almost like it needs to be more fun for women’s hearts to be in it as much, I think.”

To reinforce the importance of the interactions between coaches and women’s volleyball players, Liskevych cited Anson Dorrance, the legendary women’s soccer coach at North Carolina with 21 NCAA championships.

“There’s a great statement that Anson Dorrance, the coach at UNC, says: ‘Women couldn’t care less how much you know unless they know how much you care.’ I think that women are going to always feel much better if you really respond to them in a way that they feel you care about them beyond as volleyball players.”

Jim McLaughlin combines the caring factor that Dorrance is cited for and takes it a step further with finite measurements. The current University of Washington coach holds the distinction for being the only college coach to lead a men’s and women’s team to national titles – the USC men in 1990 and the Huskies women in 2005. McLaughlin has sampled different responses to his highly reputable value system that measures improvement.

“The interesting thing about that is when you keep specific stats and you’re measuring progress with women they actually like that a little bit more in just that it’s very objective,” said McLaughlin. “There’s no feelings. ‘Hey, Jim likes so-and-so more than so-and-so.’ It’s just very objective and it’s on the table. Women really, really appreciate that a lot.”

Before a team even takes the floor, Mick Haley, the women’s volleyball coach at USC with three national titles to his credit—two at USC and one at Texas—places team-building in the locker room as an essential quality for success.

“If you get it right in the locker room with women’s teams, they will fight to the death,” said Haley, who coached men at Kellogg Community College (Battle Creek, Mich.) to back-to-back junior college titles in 1978 and ’79. “But if it’s not right in the lockers with women’s teams, you may not get your best effort out there because it bothers them, even in the heat of the battle.”

David Kniffin, the men’s coach at UC-Irvine, disagrees. He’s in his first year as the Anteaters head coach after spending last season with the University of Illinois women who made it to the NCAA championship match. Before his one-year stint with the Illini, Kniffin was an assistant coach with the UCI men’s squad during the 2007 and ’09 national title seasons.

“Those guys were on the same page,” said Kniffin, referring to the ’07 and ’09 title teams. “They were in each other’s business all the time, so it was important that they recognized the level of trust and the single focus that they had which was to go out there and compete.”

Translation: Bad chemistry in the locker room can ruin any team’s chances of going far, regardless of gender.

A Family Tree

You won’t find the adults in the Wiemers family huddled around a game of Monopoly after their holiday dinner. No way. Not with the competitive nature of Suzie (Wiemers) Fritz, the women’s volleyball coach at Kansas State, and her two football-coaching brothers. Not far from Manhattan, Kan.—the “Little Apple” as it’s known—the apples in the Wiemers’ family tree didn’t fall far. Their dad, Larry Wiemers, roamed the sideline as a long-time high school football coach in Clay Center, Kan.

So the Wiemers, Suzie and Steve Fritz—Suzie’s husband who coaches men’s and women’s track and field at K-State—instead of concerning themselves with what gameboard property they land on talk coaching. From observing her brothers’ coaching styles, Suzie Fritz comes to this conclusion: “They might yell a little bit more. But I don’t know if that’s because it’s a gender thing or if it’s a football thing.”

In the overall scheme, Susie Fritz doesn’t subscribe to the theory that men and women are coached differently. Certainly she sees first-hand how Steve Fritz handles it in track and field.

She offers a nuanced thought: “I think you coach them the same and I think you don’t coach them the same. What I mean by that is, I think you treat them independently, male or female. You can’t coach them all the same. Period. Even in our venue, there are players that I can really get on. I can really get after them. I can yell at them. Then there’s players that I can’t at all. I think that has less to do with their gender and more to do with their specific personalities.”

Fritz believes the bigger challenge is fighting stereotypes. Such as the notion a women’s locker room might contain more drama.

“Do you manage a set of personalities? Clearly you do,” said Fritz, in her twelfth season as the Wildcats head coach. “But I don’t know if I’m coaching males I’m not still managing personalities. Women, in general, maybe don’t have quite as much ego. Again, maybe a stereotype, but in all facets you’re managing personalities.”

For a team that was picked to finish eighth in the ten-team Big 12 last year, the Wildcats pulled one of the NCAA tournament’s biggest stunners by knocking off Nebraska, the overall No. 2 seed, on the Huskers home floor to advance to the Sweet 16. The core of the Wildcats returned this season and the team is currently ranked No. 17 (as of press time).

“We’ve had very little drama on our team,” said Fritz. “Now we’ve had teams that had a great deal of it, but currently this team finds a way to get along and a mutual respect for each other and goes to work.”

To succeed, Fritz will stick to the method she picked up from her father. Be a teacher first. No matter what the gender is.

Originally published in January 2013

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