Hellgate’s Serious Lack of Female Coaches Influences Student Perspectives

Ali Caudle, Co-Editor

     Hellgate’s fall sports looked different in 2020, and it wasn’t just the COVID precautions taken. Both the volleyball team and girls soccer team looked like completely different teams from the year before. 

     Hellgate’s varsity volleyball squad went 4-10 as their overall record for the season, an improvement from 2019’s 0-12. Hellgate’s girls soccer team had a historic season, making it to the semifinals of the state championship for the first time in program history.

Ali Caudle

     One thing these two teams had in common? Both had new female head coaches this year, replacing male coaches who stepped down. Natalie Hiller-Claridge and Brittany Tilleman joined the other three female head coaches at Hellgate, shifting the balance of head coaches from 12 male head coaches and 3 female head coaches, to 10 males and 5 females. 

     In compliance with Title IX, Hellgate has equal opportunities and sports available for girls and boys. For each male sport, there is a female one. The majority of sports at Hellgate are co-ed, available for students of all genders. However, even though there are similar numbers of female athletes and male athletes, the coach numbers are anything but equal. There are roughly 15 more male coaches than female coaches, if you include assistant and volunteer coaches, and ⅔ of the head coaches are male. 

     These stats seem to indicate that male coaches are predominantly seen as more capable than female coaches, because at Hellgate there are far more men coaching female students than women coaching male students. Regardless of whether they are hired at higher rates, or women are just not applying for these coaching positions, this hints at a larger problem. Women are just as capable as men at coaching students.

     Interestingly, when students are asked, many respond that they actually prefer female coaches. A recent poll conducted of a sample of 100 high school students from Missoula County, via Instagram stories, found that 65% of students prefer female coaches and only 35% prefer male coaches. 

New girls soccer coaching staff. From left to right, Natalie Hiller-Claridge, Rachel Eull, Crystal Herzog. Photo courtesy of Rachel Eull.

     “I feel like female coaches take better measures to get to know their players as people,” said Alix Mund, a freshman and member of Hellgate’s varsity soccer squad. As for her proof, she added, “This year for soccer we made history with our all female coaching staff.”

     However, some members of that same sample group switched their response when the question became, “Have your teams performed better with female or male coaches?”. The margin narrowed, as only 55% responded female coaches and 45% responded male coaches. Gilly Sherrill had no preference for female or male coaches, because she has “actually only had one female coach for an entire season,” referencing Tilleman. However, based on her experience playing club volleyball, she thinks her teams do better with male coaches. 

     Some students mentioned that perhaps your preference was based off of your own gender; simply put, girls prefer female coaches and guys prefer male coaches. Cooper Kress, a junior at Sentinel High School and varsity football player, said he preferred male coaches, “just because male coaches can relate to the team more, I’m sure that’s the same for women.”

Ali Caudle

     However, perhaps the most interesting part of the poll was that due to sampling bias and Instagram demographics, 82% of respondents were female. This indicates girls are far more likely than guys to prefer male coaches. When you look at the responses student by student, it becomes clear that boys are much less willing to have a female coach compared to the number of girls who would be willing to have a male coach. Only one boy said that he preferred a female coach, but 27 girls responded that they prefer male coaches.

     Some girls genuinely had no preference. “I don’t mind, I’ve had both genders and I’ve been comfortable talking to both. It’s about the coaching and personality quality for me,” said Hellgate sophomore and soccer player Natalya de la Plaza. 

     Other girls were more clear: they prefer male coaches. “When I have female softball coaches, it creates drama. Male coaches stick to the game,” said Khasidy Hodge, a senior at Frenchtown High School. 

     These preferences may have to do with pre-existing stereotypes of different genders. Some students likely based their response off of assumptions about how coaches act. Hellgate junior Disa Doherty admitted that she’d only ever had female coaches, but she still definitely preferred females because “male coaches tend to put down female athletes.”

      Whether or not these stereotypes are true likely depends on the coach. However, Doherty was far from alone with her sentiment.

     “Male sports coaches scare me as a young woman, I feel extremely vulnerable,” said Cara Wright, also a junior at Hellgate. Her experience on the swim team led her to believe that not only does she prefer female coaches, but teams do better with females at the helm.

     “This season was a record breaking season with Natalie!!! Usually I feel that guy coaches are more intimidating but girl coaches are more understanding,” said junior Clara Tallent, referring to Hellgate’s 2020 soccer season with Hiller-Claridge.

     Taken all together, this information presents several trends. One, Hellgate is dominated by male coaches. Two, girls generally prefer female coaches because male coaches make them uncomfortable, and guys usually prefer male coaches because they feel like they relate to them better. Three, girls have had to get used to male coaches because often that’s the only option. Therefore, they are more likely to drop their preconceived ideas and be willing to learn from a coach of the opposite gender than boys are.

     Considering how well the volleyball and girls soccer teams did in 2020, it might be time for Hellgate to consider hiring more female coaches – for teams of all genders. Female coaches can bring valuable perspectives and news ways of looking at a game. They can inspire girls to stick with their sports and maybe even motivate them to pursue it beyond high school. Most importantly, having females teach some guys how to play basketball challenges gender norms and contributes to Hellgate becoming a more inclusive high school.