It should come as no surprise that girls are social creatures. If you’re the coach of a girls’ team, you’ve likely noticed the non-stop chatter and laughter—no matter what level you’re coaching (and sometimes even while they’re supposed to be playing!).
As a coach of female athletes and a former athlete myself, I can tell you from first-hand experience that these social relationships are incredibly important for girls in sport. Friendships are often one of the driving forces behind girls trying sports in the first place. It’s one of the strongest factors that keep them involved. And you don’t have to take my word for it—the research tells us the same.
However, just because a girl plays a sport it does not automatically mean that she’s having a positive social experience. When a group of girls spends so much time together, there’s also the possibility that teasing, bullying, and exclusion can occur.
For coaches, it’s easy to say that this is just “how girls are” or turn a blind eye. Yet the coach can actually play a pivotal role in creating a positive social environment for their team that hopefully keeps girls coming back year after year.
How to help girls develop healthy relationships with teammates
I’ve come up with three key strategies (the three Cs) that coaches can implement to help foster and encourage healthy relationships between teammates from a young age.
Tip #1: Co-create team expectations
Try asking your players to help set expectations for the team. This can be done with players of any age and helps to ensure that all players are aware of what a positive environment looks like.
This type of collaboration is often done in the classroom, and easily translates to the field, track, court, rink, etc. It can be as simple as asking your players, “What do we want our practices to look like?”
I have done this with players as young as six years old. It may seem like more work, but every time I’ve tried this, the players are able to provide helpful suggestions for positive behaviour. My players have said things like: encourage each other, listen when Coach is speaking, and treat each other how we want to be treated. When the players come up with these standards themselves, they are more likely to buy in because they feel more invested in the team.
Setting these expectations from the beginning helps create a safe and positive space for all members of the team.
Tip #2: Cultivate healthy relationships
When we see our players chatting and laughing together, we may think they have this whole “social interaction” thing figured out. However, if we look closer, we may notice a few troubling things. Maybe the same small groups or “cliques” are always engaging with each other, the same few girls are being left out, or the same player is the butt of all the jokes.
By creating situations where players must cooperate with a variety of teammates, you can help them get to know others outside their immediate friend group. This can be as simple as assigning partners instead of allowing them to choose their own. Or if you want to take it a step further, you can have your players work in small groups to create an activity, then teach it to the rest of the team.
When teammates work together to accomplish a task or overcome an obstacle, they in turn develop their communication skills and learn to respect one another as people.
Related read: How to help girls get more out of the game
Tip #3: Create camaraderie
This last tip may seem obvious, but will take some extra effort from the team coaches and managers. The definition of camaraderie is “mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together.” It’s clear that teams spend a lot of time together during practices and games, but what about outside of that?
Organizing team get-togethers is a very simple way to foster fun and friendship among your players. By planning events unrelated to the sport, the girls can relax and engage with one another about things other than winning games or achieving goals in practice.
These events help the players see each other as equals, and can lay the foundation for lifelong friendships. I know from personal experience—I’m still friends with some of my teammates from 20 years ago. The memories we reminisce about are almost always from events that happened off the field.
In an ideal world the three Cs would be implemented together, but if that seems a bit overwhelming then placing a strong emphasis on tip #1 is a great place to start. As coaches, creating a safe, healthy environment should be top of our priority list. These tips can help you achieve that.
Victoria Miliucci is a high school teacher, soccer coach, and (new) mom. While she has played a few different sports throughout her life, soccer is her true love and passion. She completed a BSc. in Physical Education: Sports and Fitness Studies from Florida International University, where she also played four years of division 1 soccer. She then became a teacher, and most recently completed a Masters of Kinesiology in Coaching Science from the University of British Columbia.