Closing the gender gap in sports

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 21, 2012 - 2:41 PM

In the 40 years since Title IX, girl athletes have proven to be just as motivated as the boys.

Former Minnesota Gopher and current Lynx player Lindsay Whalen says by later in high school, female athletes are "all about the competition."

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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A few years back, Matt Percival faced a daunting task. The girls' hockey coach at Apple Valley's Eastview High had resigned just before the season, and the school asked Percival, a boys' assistant coach, to take over. He came in armed with conventional wisdom -- that proved more conventional than wise.

"We had been told that girls would never be able to run the power-play system [that the boys used]," he said. "Could they physically do it at the level of the boys? No. But mentally they grasped it at such a high level that they progressed at a faster pace [than the boys had].

"What was happening was the girls were being sold short on their ability to grasp high-level hockey concepts."

That's a common theme heard from local coaches who have worked with high-school athletes of both genders: Girls show learning and listening abilities that exceed those of their male counterparts. Beyond that, longtime coaches say high schoolers -- and the approaches that coaches and parents take toward them -- differ very little these days.

The generalizations of old have fallen by the wayside in the past few decades, as girls got just as serious, and as tough-minded, about sports as their male counterparts.

"They aren't that much different in how they react to coaching," said Kevin Kelly, whose Minnesota Developmental basketball program mentors players from elementary school through college. "But the girls are like sponges. They'll take something you show them and go try it, whereas a boy might say, 'Yeah I've seen that on ESPN, I know how to do that.'"

While there's broad agreement that girls might be more attuned to a coach's tone, neither gender responds well to "screamers" unless a relationship has been established.

"I don't think you can push players, boys or girls, if they don't think you care about them as people first," said Dave Thorson, boys' basketball coach at De La Salle.

That's certainly how Minnesota's most accomplished female athlete, Lindsay Whalen, sees it.

"I think [the ideal coach is] a good mix of someone who you can talk to but then is also going to push you and not necessarily yell and scream and throw fits on the sideline," said the Minnesota Lynx star, who has less than fond memories of an AAU coach who incessantly yelled at players.

The other danger: "As a coach, anything that gets overused is not going to be motivating any longer," said Percival. "It loses its impact."

One difference that Percival, now the athletic director at Eastview, has noticed is that girls were more mature.

"You see that developing in young girls faster than boys. They have a more adult look at things at a younger age. A group of 11th-grade girls has a more worldly view [than boys their age]."

Kelly couldn't agree more. "Boys, when do we ever mature?" he asked. "Maybe at 28?"

While growing up, girls tend to view sports as a more social endeavor, with boys showing much more intensity and aggressiveness. But by their later high school years, the motivation for playing and intensity levels even out.

"Once you get to junior and senior years," Whalen said, "it's all about the competition."

That can happen even sooner in sports that boys don't play at the high-school level, such as volleyball and softball.

"With something that truly is their own," Percival said, "they achieve more quickly because they don't stop at a level where the boys can do it better. Soccer, no matter how well girls play, there's always someone saying that boys are better, and for girls there's always intrinsically that feeling."

In the 40 years since Title IX opened the door to gender equality in high school sports, it hasn't been just the adolescents breaking through stereotypes. So have the adults.

Parents are less likely to coddle their daughters and tell their sons to "buck up.'"

"I know a family where the girl is told to suck it up and with the boy, the parents are more sensitive," Kelly said. "But you don't see differences in terms of expectations."

The same goes for the schools. "We use the same criteria and rubric in selection" of coaches, Percival said.

But Thorson, in his previous tenure as De La Salle's activities director, actually followed a form of gender inequality. "I really felt like having a female role model was important," he said, "so anytime I could find a good female coach, I would hire them."

All hands agreed that no matter a coach's gender, he or she should handle girls and boys teams virtually the same way -- with one notable exception:

"A player's weight, most coaches would leave that alone," Kelly said, "especially if you're a guy coaching a girls' team."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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