A girl kicks a soccer ball away from an opposing male teammate during a game.

5 ways to tell if your child’s coach has a gender-neutral approach

Have you signed your child up to play on a team of both girls and boys this year? If so, here’s something you may not have considered. When boys and girls are coached together, some special sensitivity and awareness are required from the coach. Because coaches can help shape your children’s perceptions of themselves, how they develop as players, and their feelings about the sport.

Beyond teaching the fundamentals of the game, coaches need to keep in mind that their words and actions have a great impact on the children they coach and they need to understand that everyone benefits from a gender neutral coaching style. It doesn’t require massive changes, all it takes are some very small shifts and increased awareness from them to make sure they are providing the children with an experience that will keep all the players on equal footing and having fun.

Here are five ways to tell if your coach has a gender-neutral coaching style:

1. They’re conscious of small choices

Gender-neutral coaching begins by changing unconscious habits. Instead of referring to a team of boys and girls as “guys,” they use the team name, individual names, or refer to the group as players or athletes. It’s a small change but one that illustrates equal respect for everyone on the team.

2. They set expectations

A coach that sets some preseason ground rules is a must. Being on time, warming-up as a team, and listening to the coach are all good places to start. They should remain consistent with their expectations for both genders which shows players that they are fair and respectful; both important lessons to teach at a young age.

3. They play girls and boys together

I’ve been guilty in the past of matching up girls with girls and boys with boys during practice activities. Now I try to match players based on skill level, or better yet, resist interfering at all. Kids learn from each other and improve when their abilities are challenged.

4. They give choices

The coach shouldn’t assume based on gender that boys and girls will prefer different activities. They should always offer choices and let kids take risks. For example, one might assume that girls shy away from contact elements in sport. The coach can teach proper technique for challenging all players such as body positioning and balance. Healthy encouragement and praise are important too.

5. They empower all their players

If a player takes a tumble or gets a knock during a game, the coach should resist deciding for them whether they can continue playing (unless, of course, it’s a serious injury). Every child has a different pain tolerance and can learn to make decisions for their well-being. I always ask boys and girls, “Can you keep playing?” and let them know it’s okay to take a break. Be aware if your coach shows any tendencies towards coddling one gender over another.

All children benefit from gender-neutral coaching

University of Alberta professor Vicki Harber says that when we promote support between boys and girls at young ages, they’re more likely to maintain lasting and respectful relationships over the long term.

“Early positive experiences that allow everyone to test their skills plants the seeds for confidence,” she explains. “Lack of fun is a major reason kids leave sport.” Coaches listening to kids, and allowing players to make mistakes while staying supportive, have both been identified as ways to ensure players of all genders are having fun.

“It’s imperative to distribute generously and equally to both girls and boys,” says Harber.

If you aren’t seeing this approach from your child’s coach, it’s possible that it just isn’t on their radar yet. Even the most seasoned coaches may not be mindful of how these small shifts can have a big impact. If you’re concerned, forward your coach this article and get the conversation started.

Being a coach, especially to young children, is a privilege (and a fun one at that). The more opportunity there is for kids to play and develop, the better players will become.

Gender-neutral coaching is a small step towards raising active girls and active boys as a team. By following the tips above you can pat yourself on the back for giving everyone on your team an equally great start to what will hopefully be a lifetime of being active and having fun playing sports.

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