Tales of a Woman Coach
BY BEA CHANG
This essay was awarded a Notable Mention in the Best American Sports Writing series 2018
No one really knew what the coach was yelling about. Maybe not even him. But, just as my fourteen-year-old player stepped to the line for her pair of free throws, he marched onto center court. I could see a cloud of spit hanging in front of his wine-red face; his voice, low and hoarse and livid, shot through an already rowdy gym on a Saturday afternoon full of girls’ basketball games. The coach was going gray, had a face lined with wrinkles, and follicles of hair poking out of his unbuttoned shirt. In short, he looked like almost everyone else I coached against: he was a he.
Under the basket, the referee did nothing except gape at the hysterical coach. So my player turned around. I saw then that her face had fallen, her brown eyes wide with faint wisps of poorly applied mascara, her pink cheeks puffed from a game suddenly turned aggressive, even violent. At each of his curse words she flinched; when she faced the basket and shot the ball, she missed.
A few possessions later, I raised my voice when my post player missed a box-out. All of a sudden, that same referee raced towards me and, with his chest raised and puffed, hit me up with a technical foul. He looked down at me with a glint in his eyes, a sudden, cheerful lilt: Gotcha!
As soon as he marched away, I chuckled—I didn’t know what else to do (and for that, in our championship game two months later, I also got a technical foul). That afternoon, we fouled out four girls. The coach kept screaming while I sat on the bench, helpless. I couldn’t protect my team, who played the final three minutes with three players left on the court and we were two points away from pulling off the win. As the girls untied their shoes in the corner of the gym, I told them I was proud of their fight. But my words hung in the air, stagnant—dead. A hushed anguish was steaming through all of us.
"The fight is exhausting. The heckling is harassment. The discrimination is toxic. And we don’t talk about it."
By that point I had been coaching girls’ basketball for the better part of seven years. I was twenty-five, and I had spent nights crying into a pillow convinced that I was useless, ineffectual, a fraud of a coach. At the end of each season—really, almost every month—I fought an urge to quit. But I was also beginning to understand that my sense of powerlessness was not due to some secret shortcoming. What I was experiencing was a larger problem, a social, gendered issue steeped deep in our sporting culture. It was Billie Jean King’s Battle of the Sexes still at war, more than 40 years later.
So when I wrapped a scarf around my neck to keep myself from yelling at the referees and pulled, hard, to the giggling of my girls, it was more a metaphor, I realize now, than a joke. It was me, once again, standing in front of a mirror, wondering if I should wear heels and short skirts to a game to flirt, or to dress down in sweats so that perhaps I could engage in the same friendly jibes with referees and fathers, that jocularity of white and black men bantering. It was me sitting in coaches’ meetings trying to ignore the degrading way with which men explained things to me. It was the Wednesday evening more than a decade ago, when I was fifteen years old, when the men at the YMCA told me I couldn’t play with them because I was a girl.
And, unfortunately, that is still the message we are sending to our girls. At the same time that we are trying to teach them about fairness and empowerment, our girls are first-hand witnesses to the discrimination of their female coaches.
Every woman coach, at all levels, knows what I am talking about.
(Photo Credit: Ed Ducheane)
Men and women often ask me, “Where are all the women coaches?” In cities and suburbs across the United States, winter evenings echo with the orchestra of girls’ basketball games and spring weekends pound with the pace and sweat of hundreds, if not thousands, of girls in ponytails, racing up and down hardwood floors. Everyone wants to know—where do all these girls go? Why don’t they coach? The way the question is phrased to me often implies that it is a fault of our gender. But we do coach. Or, at the very least in my experience, we try.
"Our sporting culture still does not accept aggressive women, [and] she has, once again, become a cheerleader to the very game we have raised her to play."
It took a long time, but as a society we have finally accepted that women can run marathons and play a full game of soccer. Our breasts won’t atrophy and our vaginas won’t fall out, as male critics had warned when Katherine Switzer became the first woman to don a bib in the Boston Marathon in 1967. We have won dunking contests, sold out the hallowed Rose Bowl. Yet, up until Becky Hammon, there were exactly zero women working as coaches for the 122 teams playing in the NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL. Here in a nation we claim as world leaders in democratic progress, women still cannot sit on the bench in male sports because of some spiritual chokehold it has on an age-old definition of manhood in America.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that we’re not going to touch the sacred grounds on which male American sports walk—God forbid!—and look only at women’s sports. Back in 1972, 90 percent of all women’s college teams were coached by women. Yet, when the NCAA became the governing body for both men and women college athletics and acceptance and cash came into women’s sports, male coaches wanted a slice of the pie all of a sudden. By 1992, the percent of women’s teams coached by women had fallen to 72. By 2014, the number stood at a heartbreaking 39.6 percent. In more than ten years of coaching, I can count on my fingers the number of women coaches I have coached against.
Let me say here that I do not believe women are by nature better coaches for girls than men. Far from it. I welcome men in our sport. I believe that men and women have a lot to offer sports of each gender. I have seen incredible male coaches transform average girl players into state champions. My own basketball career, too, was filled with wonderful men who taught me everything from a hesitation-cross to a step-back jumper.
Yet, by and large, the coaches who most taught me the lessons we are supposed to learn from sports—the coaches who taught me how to grow up and become a woman—were, well, women.
Like boys, girls are constantly on the lookout for someone like ourselves, some mature, successful versions of who we want to be. Yet our sporting culture is chasing women coaches out of our own game, depriving our aspiring girls of the same strong, positive role models that are a birthright for so many boys who play sports.
The first basketball camp I ever attended was in Cerritos, California. I was in the fifth-grade, a fresh-faced, twig-like immigrant girl with a short haircut; so with my gifted athleticism, I was mistaken for a boy. I was picked second for teams, right behind an agile black boy who sported Michael Jordan gear from head to toe. The male counselors gave us high-fives and fist-pumps; the two of us received a sort of praise — and with that a status — I had not enjoyed up until then. But when my father came and told the counselors I was a girl, I found out just how short-lived my fame was, how conditional on my gender. For two days, I was somebody. And then I was not.
I was too young to have understood it then. I thought that my getting picked next to last all of a sudden was due to some terrific mistake I had made on the court. I accepted it. I kept quiet. And I worked and worked. In high school and college, in the post-WNBA and World Cup ‘99 years, I had a wonderful career on the hardwood. Then at 18, when I started coaching, I began to unlearn the lessons of equality my coaches, men and women, had instilled in me. I found out that I commanded more respect when I used the back of my throat to speak in a deep, coarse voice. By 19, I learned that to question a referee’s call was an exercise in futility. By 20, I understood that in questioning them, I was challenging their manhood. When I was 25, a father texted me from the bleachers to “teach” me how to sub. At 28, a pale-skinned boy at the ticketing table chuckled when I told him that, really, I was the head coach.
Not too long ago, three fathers sat behind me during a game and spent the entire second half scooting their chairs closer to mine to voice, loud and clear—harassing, really—that we should switch our defense and run this play. As the game raced back and forth, I pictured all sorts of things, like lowering my voice to toss them out of the gym. I imagined throwing a fit, letting out, once and for all, the bitterness and anger that had been burning away at my insides, screaming at them that I, too, am human. But I ignored them, like I usually did. I didn’t want the girls to see me as one of those coaches who turned around and engage in fights with the fans. I didn’t want to lose what I had of my credibility to what fathers would see: an irrational, emotional, PMS-ing wreck of a woman. Yet, many times I do wonder, if by not saying anything, I was complacent in showing my girls how easily our gender can be rendered powerless.
Eventually, it was my outspoken captain who turned around and opened her mouth to say something, but the fathers kept chattering. None of them noticed her. I wondered what the dads were seeing then, some versions of themselves with their hands folded over their crotches during the national anthem, their chins lifted upward in the heated lights. I wanted to remind them that none of them had, to their daughters’ chagrin, even made their JV teams as boys. My captain then looked at me and rolled her eyes. I put her back into the game, and asked her to lead her team to victory. I wanted her to explore the possibilities of her strength before it all comes crashing down on her—before she grows up and realizes that our sporting culture still does not accept powerful women, that she has, once again, become a cheerleader to the very game we have raised her to play.
"By and large, the coaches who taught me how to grow up and become a woman were, well, women."
(Photo Credit: Jeff Egberg)
I tend to believe—or I want to anyway—that it is not out of some spite for our gender that boys and men on the court treat me as an inferior, or make me feel as such. As a coach, I don’t think I have been a victim of overt sexism or hostility. I think that referees who withstand berating from men but not from women do not know their bias. I don’t think the fathers and mothers who question the ability of experienced women coaches ever ask themselves why they don’t doubt the qualifications of male coaches, some of whom have never even played the sport. I don’t think we ever asked why our high school soccer program could not condone a woman coach charged with a DUI—which was later dropped—yet we sign our girls up, by the hundreds, to an organization headed up by a male convict. I don’t believe the father who once asked me to coach so that I, as he explained, can talk to the girls about boys, about emotions, really understood how degrading, how misogynistic his words were.
The things that happen to me are small things, of course, but each time, it makes me feel a little smaller, a little more invisible. Each of these micro-moments I spend in the jock world culminate, I know now, in the larger experience of what it means to be a woman coaching girls’ basketball. The fight is exhausting. The heckling is harassment. The discrimination is toxic. And we don’t talk about it. Instead, we walk away, let down by the very game and the very adults that had once promised us so much.
Most of my life, I, too, would’ve slammed the door to my beloved game. I would’ve persuaded myself that my girls were better off playing for a man. But the very lessons I learned from my two women coaches (neither of whom have coached again for over a decade) taught me to stand my ground, to keep fighting that long and tiring war within myself, that sense of inferiority and intrusion to a world men have made clear was not mine—and I kept coming back. I do it for the girls, sure, but if I were to be completely honest, I also enjoy knowing that my very presence and gender on the sideline, if not my ethnicity, offend some men, messing up the neat categories into which their identities are sorted, simultaneously threatening their being and their ego.
I giggle when they give me technical fouls for raising my voice. I laugh at their fear, their whole belief systems coming apart because I refuse to be neither silent nor deferential. Things have gotten better, sure; Title IX has given us so much. But what must begin to change is our attitude, our mindset, our treatment of women and girls in sports. I want to ask all of us, men and women, to wage a war against our own gender bias on the sporting field, so that our girls, hopefully, will not have to.
I pray that one day, when the girls ask me how it was possible that the foul count was 28-7 after we lost by four points, I would not have to glance at the parents—mothers, mostly—and try to swallow what we are all terrified to say in front of them: because the other coach was a man and I am a woman.
(Cover photo credit: Kerry Petit)