By Clara Facchetti
When Emma Manning started coaching boys’ track and field at Lake View High School, she encountered a lot of resistance from her athletes. Manning said that a lot of the boys would question her training program during practice, asking why they had to do things a certain way.
“I think if I was a male coach, that would not have happened,” she said.
The track coach said she sometimes took time to explain certain exercises to her athletes, step by step. Other times, she would simply “be more stern.”
“I would say, [we’re doing this] because I’m your coach and this what we are doing today,” Manning said.
Though the San Francisco 49ers’ assistant coach Katie Sowers recently made headlines as the first female coach in the Super Bowl’s history, the number of female coaches of men’s teams remains extremely low at the university and high school levels.
In 2018, women held only 8.6% of U.S. head coaching jobs of men’s Division I teams at the university level, Forbes Magazine reported. In Chicago high schools, the numbers are slightly better, but still far from ideal.
During the 2019-20 season, women made up a total of 15% of boys’ coaches for six of the most popular sports: basketball, volleyball, soccer, cross-country, track and field and swimming, according to an analysis of available data from the Illinois High School Sports Association.
Lauren Zallis, who coaches boys’ soccer at Beacon Academy, a private high school in Evanston, said that women often have to work harder, and they need more experience to gain respect from male athletes.
Zallis has played soccer for most of her life and currently plays for the Chicago City Soccer Club, in a semi-professional league. She has more playing experience than most high school coaches, male or female, yet she still worried about gaining her players’ trust. She said she took time creating elaborate game plans for her team.
“I did feel like I needed that to get the respect,” she said of the game plans. “But I think I gained the most respect when I jumped into practice with them.”
Zallis said that at the beginning of the season last year, her team was one player short for a practice game, so she decided to play to even the teams out. Her athletes were impressed with her level, she said.
Manning, the track coach at Lake View, said that many of the young men she coached believed women couldn’t coach because they had only been coached by men in the past.
“I feel like they automatically respect a male coach more immediately without even building a relationship,” she said. “I’ve had to fight more for the respect as a coach. I had to earn that.”
Seeing women in leadership roles is fundamental and transformational for high school boys, said Paola Zamperini, a gender studies expert at Northwestern University. Zamperini added that women in sports often suffer from discriminatory stereotypes, such as the cliché of the soccer mom.
“As the coach, women are bringing in expertise and competence that can have a positive impact,” she said. “It is perhaps one of the most effective ways to transform the chauvinism and misogyny that is still so present in the world of competitive sports.”
Manning expressed a similar sentiment.
“They’re hopefully going to have female bosses, so being able to respect the authority of women,” she said. “For so many high school students, athletics is such an important aspect of growth and maturing. I think it’s really important to have female coaches providing that.”
A big part of the challenge, however, is that there are still too few women who look to coach boys’ teams. Justine Hunter, who coaches boys’ cross-country at Lake View, said that female coaches often tried to replicate their own high school experiences.
Having grown up around female athletes, they were more likely to be drawn to coaching girls, Hunter said. She added that she herself had felt some fear when she started coaching boys.
Caroline Gazjler, who coaches volleyball at DePaul College Prep, a catholic high school in the north side of Chicago, said the support of her athletic family had a lot to do with her success as head volleyball coach.
“My mom played professional handball and she had a huge impact on me,” she said, adding that her dad and brother had always been very supportive of her athletic endeavors.
Zallis said that women coaches often sold themselves short and did not realize their own worth. She said that male coaches have told her in the past that her experience was not enough to qualify for certain jobs, even though she has been playing soccer for over 20 years.
“I’m a go-getter, I throw my name in the hat for plenty of things, and I don’t think it would stop me from trying,” she said, “but I definitely could see people getting stopped from being chosen to interview.”
She added that it was about time more women jumped into the mix. “We need more women to start heading in that direction,” she said.