It isn’t news that there are far fewer girls than boys playing tennis.
i2c is supportive of high profile initiatives such as She Rallies and Miss Hits that are working hard to improve that balance. These programmes face an uphill battle and it’s important that the whole coaching community is on board to make a difference.
So to help both coaches and parents understand the problem – and potential solutions – we interviewed i2c Area Manager, accredited coach and She Rallies Ambassador, Mel Short.
Interview with Mel Short
The gender balance in i2c’s programmes
Tennis(24/7): Do you notice a difference between the number of girls and boys in the coaching programs that we run?
Mel Short: I haven’t got exact percentages, but my estimation is that in my area the split is about 75% boys to 25% girls.
An interesting fact is that where I’ve got a female head coach, for instance at the Belbroughton Tennis Club, the percentage of female players is higher than at other clubs which have an all-male coaching team (apart from me doing a bit here and there).
(24/7): What is the split of female coaches to male coaches that we’ve got in the i2c team?
Mel: Okay, wow! That’s probably not even 25 [female] to 75 [male]. We’ve got roughly 50 coaches across the business, and I think there’s probably only seven full-time female coaches. They might not even be full-time actually.
The programmes that are working to address the imbalance
(24/7): It’s really interesting that female coaches attract more girls to play. That leads me to ask – when you look at the programs that you’ve attended like Judy Murray’s She Rallies programme, is the goal to increase girl’s participation or are they trying to boost the number of female coaches or both? Is it a chicken and egg situation?
Mel: It’s kind of both, but the focus is definitely on workforce. It’s on getting more women who are not necessarily in tennis coaching professions or don’t even need to be tennis coaches but who work with girls, so Brownies leaders, Guides leaders, school teachers, even if they’re PE teachers, TAs (teaching assistants) at schools, women in community groups. There’s a lot of women who will volunteer on their PTA, for Brownies and Guides and at tennis clubs. So, She Rallies is really focused on trying to engage with those women and volunteers. Ideally yes, we’d love them all to become tennis coaches! But the reality is that we’re just trying to get more women delivering tennis type activities. The aim of She Rallies is really to try and get more women out there delivering tennis in non-traditional settings.
The route is that the She Rallies ambassadors run the courses which are very much fun games and with a tennis basis, that can be delivered in a little village hall where a Brownies unit is meeting. The idea is to try and get more girls actually enjoying a bit of tennis in their school or their Brownie pack and then getting them to the club once they’ve had a little go and decided they like it.
(24/7): Is there then a danger, given that there are so few female coaches that you’ll get the girls to start playing and then the sport will lose them?
Mel: Yes, the focus is still on trying to up-skill, there’s a lot of level one and two female coaches, but not compared to men. Someone like me, I’m a level two but I stopped there because I knew that I couldn’t coach full-time. It’s sort of picking up people like me! I had quite a big gap between my level one and two because my kids were young. I just did it as a sort of extra skill to have. So we need to pick those people up and re-engage them with tennis and coaching.
(24/7): So how much of an impact have you seen those programs, the She Rallies and the Miss Hits, have in your area? Are they having as much of an impact as you would want them to have? It’s a huge uphill battle.
Interviewee: Yes, the balance isn’t going to be addressed overnight and we’re only in the second year of the She Rallies project. This year the focus in She Rallies is on taking fewer ladies but supporting them more in their delivery. It’s early days so it’s difficult to say yet what the success will be. It’s not a quick fix. It’s going to take a number of years for our work to filter through. In year one they [She Rallies] basically aimed to set up an ambassador for every county. At the moment I think they’ve maybe done that for half the counties in the country, so it’s a long-term project. More of a mindset change really. The LTA is behind funding it long term because they know it’s not going to make a difference overnight.
This year there is definitely more stuff going on than there was before when there was nothing! However, it’s going to take a while for that to filter through in terms of getting more women actually into coaching. As a side note to that; I think the problem is not just recruiting female coaches, it’s recruiting any coaches of quality at the moment. It’s difficult. At i2c, our big focus this year is a workforce development plan within the business. While we don’t currently have a female focus, I wonder whether that might be something we could try and do down the track.
At i2c we’re looking to try and engage with many more teenagers to try and present a tennis coaching career as a viable career opportunity rather than it just being something that the non-academic kids go for.
Do we need girls-only coaching groups?
(24/7): I’m going to change direction slightly here and look at the girls themselves when they’re playing. What have you observed about differences in the way young girls and young boys engage in tennis?
Mel: I definitely think with girls they like to be with other girls of around a similar age. Even going along to their first session if they can go with a friend or someone they know, then they’re much more confident. Boys don’t seem quite as bothered about that. I’m being generalistic, but I just think that even from a young age, girls are more self-conscious and more worried about going to a new environment and not knowing anyone. I do think girls are generally more sociable. In general, boys will just go along and get stuck in.
So, a real key to getting girls to come along and try tennis is to get them to come in pairs or come with a little group of friends. At i2c we set our programmes up that way. We have small groups and we let people set up a new group if they need to. A lot of tennis coaching environments have quite large groups. And if there are 10 boys and one girl – then when that girl turns up for the first time and she’s the only girl then even the most confident of girls will struggle.
That’s part of the problem. There are always boys on call and there’s not necessarily many (or any) girls there so when a new girl turns up she might be a little bit put off. I do think girls like other girls to be there basically. Boys don’t have to face that because there’s always other boys there.
(24/7): I’m wondering if there’s a parallel here; studies show that in school education, girls tend to do better in single-sex schools. Is that the same for tennis coaching? Do you think that the girls would do better if they were separated out and had just girls only classes?
Mel: When kids are playing mini tennis, which is age 10 or 11 under (orange and red ball), then kids compete in mixed events. Occasionally they’re not mixed but things like the LTA team tennis and quite a lot of the graded competitions will be mixed events. Physiologically the differences between girls and boys aren’t obviously anywhere near as great as they are once the child starts going into puberty.
My feeling on it is that I actually quite like mixed groups when they’re younger. It’s good for everyone’s development. It’s good for boys and girls to work together. Once they hit the pre-pubescent age, so when they get to secondary school at age 11 plus I think girls quite like to be in groups of other girls. I don’t think the boys are too bothered. I think that at that stage the different changes in their bodies and what they are and aren’t capable of, gets more exaggerated.
I wouldn’t say that across the board I would advocate having the option for some single sex groups at our clubs, but I think that both boys and girls, the older they get, the more different they are in the setting. But I don’t think we should do it across the board exclusively, it should be an option – something that we should consider.
At i2c we do it a little. Some of our classes are all girls or boys purely by chance, but it’s often because the girls stay in an all-girls group. If the girls are in a group with boys who start mucking about, then they’re more likely to leave the program altogether.
(24/7): Once they’re on the tennis court and in the group are there different activities that are more likely to appeal to the girls versus the boys? Different drills, different exercises?
Mel: We might tell ourselves or be conditioned to think that girls aren’t able to do the same activities as boys but I don’t think that’s true. I also don’t think that there’s anything that we do that girls of any age wouldn’t want to do.
At a women’s coaching conference I attended, Joe Ward gave a really good presentation – part of her Ph.D thesis on the WETA and the ATP forehands. The male forehand is different. It’s not just due to the fact that body shapes different; a lot of men’s power is in the shoulders and women’s is in more in their trunk and hips.
That made me think about the one size fits all approach that we have as the kids get better and on a more technical level, you’ve got to take into account that the female body is generally different to the male body as they go through puberty. Maybe we should actually look at that and not try and make the girls hit like the boys because physically they’re not the same shape.
But that’s much further down the line. I think when the kids are younger, they should be doing all the same drills. There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t do it and even on that technical side of it, of the shots might need to be tailored towards male-female but the drills that they do, I think I should just be the same across the board. I couldn’t think of one game or drill or activity that we do that that wouldn’t be suited to both sexes.
How male coaches can help
(24/7): Given that we’ve got such an imbalance of male coaches and we can’t address that really quickly, is there anything you think that male coaches can do to make girls feel more comfortable? perhaps. What can male coaches do to address the situation where the girls will be attracted to groups where there are female coaches?
Mel: I think there’s a CPD (Continuing Professional Development short course) that i2c maybe launched last year or an LTA one that I actually think should be a prerequisite for the level three coaches course. Or maybe it becomes part of the level three qualification or whatever. It is actually about working specifically with girls once they start to go through puberty in the differences.
That would give coaches a much better understanding of the changes that happen and the allowances that they might have to make. It’s not talking about allowing bad behaviour it’s just trying to be a bit more in tune with what’s happening with the young girls. Obviously, as a young man 28-year-old coaches or 25-year-old male coach, they probably haven’t got that deep an understanding of the teenage girls.
So many of our male coaches don’t have children and they’re not tuned into things that happen with girls. They’re not really making allowances that as a female the hormones are generally far more polarizing in girls from one day to the next and physically as well. It would help for male coaches to understand the changes that happen in girls’ bodies and how that will affect the way they might feel. Coaches should be a bit more in tune with the physiological harmony of emotional changes that happened with girls as they get older because a lot of girls quit playing once they hit puberty basically once they get to 11 or 12.
A successful strategy in practice
(24/7): Perhaps in closing, you can tell us what’s the most successful strategy you’ve seen for keeping girls engaged in tennis?
Mel: From personal experience when my daughter started playing, which was at the age of nine, I set up an all-girls group for her to be in. Now it’s a male coach which is absolutely fine and he works well with them, but we started off just with three girls. That grew, I got a couple of girls from a school that I was working in and now there are seven girls in that group. They’re very comfortable in that group and I think speaking from my daughter particularly, I don’t think she would have stuck with it if she’d been the only girl. If there’d been two girls and three boys and the dynamic changed, I’m not convinced she would have stuck with it then either. I do think the fact that she’s now been playing for nearly two years in the same group and they look forward to getting together every Tuesday when they have their lesson.
Definitely, that worked for her. She’s not a girly girl but she’s at an age now, at the age of maybe 12 where she doesn’t really have any male friends still and part of her being comfortable in going on those days is that two of her school friends now do it and it’s all girls.
I don’t think we should do that exclusively. I think for some girls it’s good for them to hang with the boys and on that occasion, we need to be more prepared to have more options for single-sex groups as the girls get older but also keep the mixed groups as well. We need both.
(24/7): Well, it sounds like it’s created a great continuity and a great little clan for those girls that engaged them in it. They come for the two reasons. They come for the social and the tennis.
Mel: Yes, and having that, they’re confident in that group. There are obviously differences in abilities. Some of them are better than others but they all just seem comfortable in that group.
I don’t really agree with the whole thing that boys are more competitive; it’s not really that they’re competitive but you do notice that the element of competition is probably a bit heightened in boys. Whether that’s as a product of social conditioning or natural stuff, I don’t know.