Keeping Girls In the Game: Successful Coaches Coach Girls Differently

Jan 22, 2020 3:02:05 PM / by Marianne Engle, Ph.D.

InCourage Girls Coach

One of the issues we frequently address is how a lack of fun is increasingly driving our kids out of sports—and girls in particular are dropping out. New data shows girls abandon sports at 1.5 times the rate that boys do. This disproportionate dropout rate shows that we clearly need to better address girls’ challenges and find ways to nurture their love of sport. There’s one person positioned better than just about anyone else to help level the playing field for girls: their coach.

The Women’s Sports Foundation found that when girls like their coaches, they are more likely to:

  • keep playing
  • see the importance of being active
  • love their sport

Coaches who utilize supportive coaching practices that address girls’ challenges and nurture their love of sport are vital in getting and keeping girls involved. 

Lisa Haag, head cross country and track & field coach at Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater, Florida, has generated significant enthusiasm among students during her first year of coaching the program.

“When I coach, my goal is to make practice be the best time of their day,” said Haag. “I am trying to make them love what they do. Everyone likes to have fun, so I try to set the stage early of what my expectations are when it’s time to work.”

Girls have a different set of cultural experiences than boys do, especially when it comes to sports. 

“Soccer, on a tactical level, is the same no matter who is playing,” said Meagan Frank, head girls and boys soccer coach at Menomonie High School in Wisconsin. “But the way they play, girls are much more in a cooperative sense, they want to engage with each other as they play, and boys really like the physicality part. They play a different style of the game when they play.”

Fight Perfect With Process

Many girls face a lot of pressure to be perfect, but with a success mindset, they can harness that pressure, bounce back from failure, and prepare themselves to use all of their physical and mental skills when they need them. Rather than celebrating getting it right, coaches should emphasize focusing on the process that got them to that victory. 

Taking risks and trying new things can both feel like incredibly high stakes situations, but if a coach focuses on what’s controllable—working hard, sticking with something, being brave—they’ll realize putting in the effort is just as important as winning. Showing girls that it’s ok to not be perfect—and sharing examples of when you weren’t perfect—are powerful ways to gain their trust and make them feel safe making their own mistakes.

Shut Down Stress

Nervous anticipation before a game is to be expected when participating in sports, but high levels of stress can destroy enjoyment and wreck an athlete’s performance before she’s even on the court. Girls can face different stressors than boys: family responsibilities, such as caring for younger siblings, cultural expectations that sports are not really for them, body image concerns and feeling self-conscious, and even threats to their physical safety. It is important to make sure their team itself isn't creating additional stress

Providing an environment where girls feel safe and know they can trust you and their teammates will allow you to help each member of the team be in the best position to learn and have fun. Some coaches feel that it helps to build team camaraderie—and cuts down on disruptive side conversations later—by allowing time in the schedule for their girls to socialize before practice.

“I have certainly noticed a difference in need for social time,” said Frank. “Girls like to see each other and look at each other. So if you are a coach and you are trying to get their attention, for girls if they haven’t had that time to have eye contact and space with each other in that kind or circle moment, then you really don’t have them, or have them connected to each other”

Lead By Example

Two core values in sports are honesty and integrity. 

These values are a natural fit when it comes to the code of conduct for a team: Get your team involved in creating this and make sure they know how important it is that integrity and honesty are part of the code of conduct for them both on and off the field.

While girls aren’t a monolithic group there are some universal issues they face. Gender bias can play out in sports in the way that we perceive girls’ abilities and actions. 

“I haven’t found girls to be fragile,” said Haag. “They aren’t crying when we have to work on something, they aren’t emotionally fragile. Some people may think that they have to be a little gentler with the girls, but I haven’t really found that to be the case, at all.”

When you see a girl giving commands, do you think she is bossy? Or is she a leader? We have to be aware of this thinking because we can’t change what we don’t see. An easy way to start confronting your own biases—and we all have them—is to reflect and ask yourself, “Did I treat her like a girl? Or did I treat her like an athlete?”

The character and confidence girls gain through sports are the very tools they need to become the leaders of tomorrow. Coaches can model good decision-making, provide support and share their own experiences so that girls understand what they are going through is normal. Having a meaningful and positive relationship with her coach can go a long way to helping make a girl feel like she belongs, both on the team and in sports as a whole.

Introducing  “Ask the Coach” -- Your Questions, Welcome!

Too often parents and coaches struggle alone with a sports-related issue. But you don’t have to figure it out alone—the inCourage team is here to help. We’re available to answer your questions and provide solutions to the challenges you face as you create a positive sports environment for the next generation.Have a question? Send it via email to Please include your first name and the state where you live in the email.


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Topics: coaches, athletes, youth sports, teen athletes, sports parents, girl's sports

Marianne Engle, Ph.D.

Written by Marianne Engle, Ph.D.

Marianne Engle, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and a sports psychologist. Her clients have included professional athletes and teams from the NBA, PGA, and the America’s Cup sailing race in addition to elite athletes in ice skating, baseball, tennis, soccer, water polo, squash, dressage, volleyball, etc. Marianne has written a sports psychology program for youth athletes and coaches to enhance commitment, physical and mental skill building, and group dynamics. She is currently on the faculty of the NYU Langone Medical School. She has held faculty appointments at Harvard, MIT, and UCSD in addition to being a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Sport and Society. She is a board member of the NYU Sports and Society program.