It was not an auspicious season in 2010 when Tameka Stewart became the girls’ basketball coach at Evergreen High School in White Center. The team’s record improved to 1-15. “That one game we won, you would have thought it was the state championships,” Stewart remembers, laughing. Previous seasons had been entirely winless.
Even with the losses, the emphasis of those early seasons and all subsequent seasons has been to have fun playing ball. Stewart, a University of Washington Human Resource manager who has spent more than a decade as a basketball coach, used team dinners and even a visit to a ropes course to build a sense of camaraderie.
“I gave them something more than wins. It was really about developing that bond and sisterhood and having fun,” says Stewart, who found that once the girls started enjoying playing together, they naturally improved their level of play.
Advocates say women coaches can make a difference in kids’ lives and change ideas about gender roles. Women are far underrepresented in the world of coaching — just 28 percent of coaches in youth sports are female, according to a 2017 Project Play study, an annual report of the state of youth sports by the Aspen Institute based in Washington, D.C.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Julie McCleery thinks that women have a moral obligation to coach.
“We have that moral obligation [to coach] because there are a lot of big changes we can make,” says Julie McCleery, a research associate at UW’s Center for Leadership in Athletics, which studies coaching and lately is trying to figure out how to get more women involved in coaching. The Center recently hosted some 70 would-be coaches to get more women involved in youth coaching in Seattle. Present on the rainy morning were athletes including rowers, basketball players, derby skaters and hockey players — some who have been coaching for years, others about to make that tentative step toward the clipboard and whistle. McCleery, mother of three boys, has coached rowing, basketball and baseball.
In youth sports, there’s an increasing emphasis on early sports specialization, competition and winning. McCleery argues that sports should be fun and engaging, especially for kids under 12. It’s not necessarily about learning how to swing a bat, but how to move and jump. “We want to be giving them skills for a lifetime,” she says.
A 2014 George Washington University study asked kids what they think is “fun” in sports. Number 48 on the list: winning. Number 63: playing in tournaments. At the top of the list: trying your best.
Women are more likely to preserve childhood and playfulness, according to research from educator Neil Postman. McCleery cites research from a Harvard Business Review study that found that women in general have a less competitive, more collaborative leadership style.
“Think youth sports culture doesn’t fit you? That’s actually a reason you need to be in them,” she says.
Of the 70 coaches on staff at Seattle’s University Prep, 80 percent are men. Director of Athletics Rebecca Moe, a mom of two, says she would love to see more women on her staff and has found that women can be more nurturing and relational.
“You gotta apply. The girls in our school need to see themselves in the coaching staff,” Moe says. “Don’t hesitate if you do not have all of the qualifications listed on the job description. You know more than you think!”
When Mom is your coach
Gail Petteruti started coaching her son Luke’s T-ball team when he was 5. She tried to steer him to lacrosse, a sport she knew and had done well with as a Division I player. But Luke wanted baseball, and Gail gamely stepped in to coach boys despite knowing very little about the sport. “YouTube,” she says with a shrug. She coached her son’s team for 8 years, learning from baseball from YouTube, other coaches in the community and figuring it out as she went along.
It was tourney time in Luke’s final year of Little League. Their third-seeded team, the only one with two women coaches, was definitely the underdogs. Other teams trotted out their three-star pitchers for games, but Petteruti didn’t have any star pitchers. What she did have, however, was a bench of pitchers, because they had been teaching everyone the basics of pitching all season long. It was skill acquisition versus star acquisition.
Little League rules allow young pitchers to throw about the equivalent of one big game a week. As the other teams rotated and retired their star pitchers, Luke’s team held on from the mound to win the 2014 tournament.
“It was gratifying. It felt really good to have a philosophy like that and have it play out well,” says Petteruti.
Luke, now a sophomore at Seattle’s Ballard High School, hopes to play varsity this year. Was it ever weird to have his mother also be his coach?
“Honestly, it wasn’t that big a deal for me,” says Luke. “I was a little nervous I would get mad about playing time, but we worked it out. We established a bunch of memories and a good relationship. She’s shown me how to be a great leader.”
Coaching young kids is a good place to start, Gail Petteruti says, because at that age, it’s about participation, not skills. And for women who are nervous about getting started, she offers this: “Jump in. Get wet. Women tend to downplay their strength. It’s important to be role models.”
Core practices for coaches
You volunteered to coach. Now what? Tips from Julie McCleery and Hannah Olson from the UW Center for Leadership in Athletics:
Create a routine. Especially with younger kids, says Olson, having a routine reduces anxiety, and makes kids feel safe and comfortable.
Use positive feedback. Say a kid misses at bat three times. Throw a praise sandwich in there, like, “Okay, keep your eyes open, and next time you’ll get it,” says McCleery.
Get their attention. No matter what you have to say as a coach, it doesn’t matter unless you have their attention. Make up a chant or cheer for your team. Do you have a loud coaching voice? Learn to channel that inner volcano voice, says Olson, or find a tool (like a whistle or speaker) to help.
Consider safety. Is the grass wet and slippery? Move to the track for drills. “This is your number one job,” says McCleery. “Safety should be top of mind.”
Planning is key. Even if it’s just jotting something down on the back of a receipt in the car, have a plan, says McCleery.