Last fall I accepted the position of Assistant Men’s Soccer Coach at Dutchess Community College in New York. I have spent most of my career coaching, and this was by no means my first time coaching male players, it was however the first opportunity at the collegiate level. In the past year the questions I have been asked about what it is like to be a woman coaching men have been seemingly endless. Do they respect you? What is it like on the bus? What are the physical or social dynamic differences between the genders? While these discussions can be interesting, they are so mired in societal norms and perceptions as to have become their own field of study. As a result the one word answer I usually give when asked what I see as one of the biggest difference between coaching men’s and women’s soccer in the U.S. often surprises people. My answer, diversity.
With the recent success of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team at the Olympics the very different look of the team, when compared to previous years, stands out and has precipitated much discussion. The diversity in background, cultural history, religion and skin color of the entire 2016 U.S. Olympic team has been celebrated by many as a more complete and true representation of America than any team before.
This however has not been the look of soccer in the U.S. where the majority of players on club-organized teams, particularly on the girls side, come from white middle- and upper-class families. Yes, there are always exceptions and living in New York, America’s melting pot, you can perhaps find more than in many states, but when looking at girls club and college programs they too often stand out as the exception, not the norm. On the boys side things look different. When looking across the field at DCC, and including the teams we compete against, the visual can be striking.
As a lower budget DIII program we often travel in vans. Last season, my van was dubbed the “minority van.” While the players rotated between the vans randomly based on arrival time, the irony of the name was that the head coach, an American born white man, was as much a minority as I was as a woman and as every player on the team based on background or skin tone. The only outward sign of similarity on the team was the uniform.
Many of the players on the 2015 and 2016 rosters either moved to the U.S. as children or were first generation citizens. Countries they represent include Columbia, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines and Russia. Never have I worked with or seen a female team of any level in the U.S. made up of such a wonderful diversity of players. Reasons for this difference between genders of soccer players in the U.S. are broad, complex and include economic, cultural gender roles and societal norms. Consider the South American countries, many with significant immigrant populations in the U.S., and where soccer is the national sport. In 2016, six of the ten had women’s programs that had been declared inactive by FIFA (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay). The Chilean women’s team has not played a game in more than two years. Traditional male powerhouse countries like Brazil and Mexico have women’s programs so poorly funded that even their top stars have another primary career. Some say that it is easier for a woman to become president of a country than to be president or serve in any significant way at the federation level where decisions are made. When this is your frame of reference, and language and economic constraints are included, it is easy to see how girls and women with cultural ties to these countries now living in the U.S. get overlooked. So my answer to what is one of the biggest differences coaching men and women – the diversity of the players.
The richness of experience being part of a team, especially one with the diversity that the DCC team has, is one that is truly American. It is time that soccer and all sports in the U.S., from the youth through adult ranks, become more accessible to players of all backgrounds. A conscious effort needs to be made to reach out and make available sports to girls from within communities who may not have a tradition and expectation of female participation in soccer and other sports. I welcome the day when female participation in sports in the U.S. begins to share in the diversity found on male teams. I offer my sincere thanks to the 2016 Olympic Gymnastics team for truly representing the U.S. and for bringing the subject of what a true American athlete looks like into mainstream discussion.
Bio: Sarah earned a BA in American Studies from Smith College and MSM in Sports Management form The University of Denver. During more than a decade coaching collegiate soccer she coached at all three NCAA Divisions and made two trips to the NCAA tournament. She spent nine years with US Youth Soccer’s Olympic Development Program in Eastern N.Y. and served as Director of the Girls North program for five.
Sarah is currently the Assistant Men’s Coach at Dutchess County Community College (NJCAA) and will join the staff of Eastern FC, a boys club based in Westchester NY, in the fall. She holds the NSCAA Advanced National and Advanced National Goalkeeping Diplomas, earned her USSF Youth License and is a NSCA Certified Strength and Condition Specialist.