When he coaches male runners, sports psychologist Ralph Vernacchia expects them to do as he says and not take things personally. When he works with women, he’s more complimentary and less authoritarian.
“Boys are more used to being reprimanded by authority figures, they’re more subjected or used to more direct forms of criticism and they don’t take it as personally,” said Vernacchia, who works with USA Track and Field athletes. “Women wear their emotions more openly. You need to be more sensitive, be willing to listen.”
Last week, two college basketball coaches agreed to allow a female player, hobbled with a career-ending injury, to come onto the court in a cast and score an uncontested layup to break a school record.
Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said he approved the arrangement because women and men have “entirely different sports cultures” and should be treated differently. The gift shot and Tranghese’s comments have sparked a debate over what those differences are - if any.
The sex roles that pervade society exist in sports as well, say coaches and sports psychologists, with female athletes being more likely to take criticism personally or to prefer a democratic team structure to an authoritarian one.
“Sometimes you have to teach women to focus and do the work on the field and leave it there because they don’t often have the experience of coming up through sport since they were little like boys,” said Deidre Connelly, a sports psychologist who works with men and women at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
“They may not be taught that it’s OK to compete and Susie will still be your best friend afterwards, but while you’re playing you have to play hard against her. We don’t coach little girls like little boys - we don’t expect as much.”
It begins when little girls are babied by coaches and given credit just for trying, the sports professionals said. Richard Buckley says he noticed the difference when he went from coaching boys baseball to girls softball.
“Girls want to please coaches more than boys do. Boys play more for the love of the game and because they think they’re supposed to,” said Buckley, who now coaches 9- and 10-year-olds in Louisiana. “But it doesn’t mean the boys work harder. Girls want to please. With the boys, you have to get on them or they’ll get lazy.”
Buckley and other coaches said female athletes are more outwardly emotional about their relationships with each other and with their coach.
Emotion - that was the key reason Tranghese said he agreed to let Connecticut star Nykesha Sales take the free shot last Tuesday at the start of a game against Villanova. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma proposed the idea to Sales and Villanova coach Harry Perretta agreed to it, if his team also got a free basket. With the two points, Sales broke the school record.
“Males are made up differently from women, and I try to be sensitive to women,” Tranghese said. “Men compete, get along and move on with few emotions. But women break down, get emotional, get so much more out of the game.”
But Bob Ernst has coached male and female rowers at the University of Washington and says they’re equally emotional.
“When you look at the differences, they tend to wash out,” Connelly said. “The differences aren’t weaknesses, it’s just who we are.”