I am crazy competitive (no duh says everyone who has ever known me). I love sports and have a passion for coaching. I have also almost exclusively coached boys. That all changed last year when I was asked to coach a girls’ soccer team. I’ve always loved coaching individual girls, but an entire team of them would be a vastly different experience: A transformative one, it turns out.
Lucy had been playing on an incredible boys team with the best coach, teammates, and families we could ask for. She had grown into a strong player who had the love, support, and confidence of her entire team. She was in a good place; why on earth would I take the risk of moving her? Ultimately, though, we decided that the best long term decision would be to develop a girls’ team and I would coach.
I am an unapologetic feminist, yet I was uncertain about my ability to coach girls successfully. I am passionate about girls’ sports and the empowerment of young women, yet I was hesitant to take on the challenge of this team. I had heard warnings of drama and tears, a lack of drive and toughness. I wasn’t sure I could deal.
Ridiculously, I had similar fears before Lucy was born. I really did not want a daughter, despite the pride I felt in being a strong and independent young woman. It was all so hypocritical of me to buy into the stereotypes I have been battling my entire life.
Despite my hesitancy, I pressed forward and formed a team. We toughed it out through our conditioning, “Coach Nicole’s Run Club,” and made it to our first official practice. It was clear the majority of the girls were anxious. Some of them had never touched a soccer ball and others were unsure of the more intense practice structure. I saw a few wide eyes as they watched my more experienced players strike the ball with strength and precision. We were not having a great practice. And then it started to rain.
I was amused by the girls’ amazement that we were going to continue practicing; in fact, we were going to break the unwritten rule for little girls to stay out of the mud. That night, Lucy and I drove home from practice soaked, muddy, and joyful. I always love coaching, but this was next level fun. The girls pushed aside their doubts and let themselves enjoy the game and each other. I teased them about getting their parents mad at me for muddy clothes and they allowed themselves to forget about social norms and pressures. It was glorious.
One of the first lessons I taught the team was that it is absolutely possible to work hard and have fun at the same time. Of course, they will complain about running a mile before every practice, but they also brag to anyone who will listen that they can do it. They may groan when I ask them to complete exercise after exercise to improve foot skills and passing, but their faces beam with pride after successfully using a stepover or pullback in a game.
We had a very successful season last fall, and then were fortunate to add two players we never knew we were missing, but can’t picture our team without. I’m confident we’ll continue our success this spring, but this is not why these girls are special.
Sometimes mothers who only have boys will joke about being happy they never had a girl. I will chuckle and tell them, “That’s because you don’t have a Lucy.” She is a light and a wrecking ball- kind, fierce, loving, and tough. I am in constant awe of my daughter.
So if moms just need a Lucy to understand the joy of having a daughter, it seems I just needed a Hannah, Haylee, Cori, Payton, Amaria, Myana, Kaitlyn, Kiley, Leila, and Addi to learn that I was meant to coach girls.
In addition to technical skills, I teach the girls words that are crucial to their development: Tenacity, Bravery, Accountability, and Focus. In turn, they encourage me to apply more Empathy, Humor, Humility, and Joy to my coaching. I push them to be more competitive, and they remind me to be a little less so every once in a while. I focus on developing them to be better players in the future, and they remind me to let them enjoy being kids in the present. I toughen them up and they illuminate my life.
Playing sports helps girls to develop individual confidence and skill, but more importantly it can provide them with an invaluable source of support, comfort, and encouragement through the crucial years of youth. Each player on our team is her own unique and wonderful person. We are diverse in race, background, school district, and personality. We are all strong, independent, and fierce in our own ways, but together we are a female force. This group embodies sisterhood and female camaraderie as it should and absolutely can be.
In the days after the unimaginable tragedy of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and their friends, a remarkable hashtag began trending, #girldad. The phrase came from a conversation Kobe had with a reporter about how much he loved his daughters. While some have pushed back on the undercurrents of inequality in the movement, ultimately the sentiment is heartwarming and encouraging. Fathers are embracing their roles, uplifting their daughters, and challenging gender expectations. This is good.
As much as I love seeing fathers celebrate their daughters, I’m also reminded of how far we have to go to truly level the playing field for our girls. Our country has yet to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and in fact, not surprisingly, the current administration and several states are fighting the ratification in the courts. Women’s sports are still treated as second tier at all levels, despite gains from Title IX and movements fueled by female athletes. Girls and women still face unfair stereotypes, violence, and both explicit and implicit forms of misogynistic bias from both men and women in their lives.
Not only am I a #girlmom, I’m also a #girlcoach. My job is to advocate for my daughter, my players, and all other girls who deserve to be seen, heard, and valued. I have a chance to yes, be a positive role model, but also to evolve from fighting for myself to lifting all others.
Not only am I the coach of girls, I am also a girl who is a coach. Perhaps this seems contradictory, but I can’t write about my girls without including the boys I coach. Sometimes we see the empowerment of girls in opposition to the development of our boys. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Children take their cues about social norms and expectations from what they observe in their lives. A woman coaching boys is a bit jarring for some adults, but for the boys I coach, it’s normal. Male coaches treating a woman as their equal sets a precedent for boys to follow. To paraphrase and extend the thoughts of UCLA coach, Cori Close, women and girls do not need men and boys to validate them, but they can be powerful and important allies in the fight for equality. In turn, when we all see each other as equal and valuable, everyone wins, including our boys.
What girls need most is a space to be their own authentic selves. We as girl moms, girl dads, girl grandparents, girl teachers, and girl coaches don’t need to protect and shelter girls, but instead champion them. We don’t need to force them into traditional stereotypes, but we also don’t need to force them out of them either. Girls have so much to offer; all we need to do is encourage them and provide them with ALL of their options. Most importantly, though, we need to acknowledge their incredible versatility and diversity.
Over the last year, I’ve expanded to girls’ basketball, and am currently coaching another incredible group of girls, along with the boys I still adore. I am continuously working to balance my competitive drive with a more compassionate approach. I take lots of deep breaths as I bury my frustration; however, the laughs and joy and pride dissipate my frustration as I learn that what we all gain from the experience extends far beyond the field or court.
At a time when women are shattering glass ceilings everywhere, but are still subjected to ridiculous questions like whether a woman could be President, our girls need all of the champions and allies they can get. Witnessing a young female athlete build her confidence can erase built up cynicism and renew resolve to continue our upward climb. Coaching my girls has shown me that we can both lift them up AND take their lead. There’s everything to love about these girls; we just need to let them show us.