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She’s Got Next: Nicole M. Lavoi

April 16, 2024

Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer in the area of social and behavioral sciences in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota where she is Co-Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. She is program manager for the Tucker Center’s program, Coaching HER which aims to help youth sports coaches tackle unconscious bias. Her seminal research includes the annual Women in College Coaching Report Card which is aimed at retaining and increasing the number of women in the coaching profession, and a groundbreaking book Women in Sports Coaching (2016).

The following interview is edited for length and clarity.

You are one of the leading researchers on women in coaching. What drove your interest into this particular area? What has the research shown about women in coaching?

I was a college athlete in tennis, and then I parlayed my love of tennis into coaching at Wellesley College in my early 20s. I loved seeing that I could make a difference in the lives of the women I coached on my team. That really got me interested in how we can make a difference for millions of girls and women around the world through empowering more women to be coaches, by reducing the barriers and supporting women in coaching.

As a young coach, I experienced a lot of sexism, discrimination and harassment, but at that time, I didn’t know what I was experiencing. I just knew it made me mad or uncomfortable. Now, I have the language to talk about it. From that experience, I became interested in the intersection of gender, sport and coaching science and went to the University of Minnesota to study with Dr. Mary Jo Kane at the Tucker Center when it was just getting off the ground.

When I first started focusing my research on women in sport coaching around 2010, I distilled all the literature around the barriers that women face – whether it was societal around stereotypes, gender bias, homophobia, racism, ableism, or at the organizational level, where it’s about people in positions of power, pay inequities, and family-unfriendly policies. They’re treated differently because they’re women, and that impacts their self-perceptions, their confidence, their choices to coach or to leave coaching. What we also know from the research is that there are not many supports for women coaches.

We now know what the barriers are, so my focus and the focus of many of my colleagues is taking we’ve learned from women who have survived and thrived in coaching and using them to create supports for the next generation.

What do you wish more people understood about the importance of women in coaching roles?

Much of the work that we do in the Tucker Center is to dispel false narratives around women coaching with data, not opinions, because there are a lot of opinions about women and coaching. “They don’t apply for jobs. They won’t move for jobs. They don’t like to coach as much as man. They only get jobs because they’re women.” There’s a long litany of things that we hear about women, which I call “blame the women narratives.”

What I want to stress is that women are just as interested in coaching as men. They’re just as qualified if not more so than their male counterparts. What they need to be given is the opportunity to coach both women and men because they’re qualified, competent, amazing women, who often don’t get the opportunity in a system that doesn’t value and support them.

The biggest message is that if you hire women and give them opportunity, it is a good return on your investment. Women coaches matter. Same identity role models matter. Girls and women want and need that. Opposite gender role models matter too for boys and men because it changes their ideas about gender and leadership and can result in them respecting and valuing women to a greater and different level.

The latest project from the Tucker Center, Coaching HER, notes that coaches’ unconscious gender biases and stereotypes are often a reason girls drop of sport as teenagers. What are some of those unconscious gender biases and stereotypes and how can those be addressed?

Coaching HER is a free online digital platform for coaches of girls to self-guide themselves through an evidence based, research tested curriculum that helps to upskill coaches to recognize girls’ identities, support their needs, and increase their awareness of and reduce their own gender bias stereotypes in their coaching.

A lot of what we know about coaching girls is people think that “coaching girls is different than coaching boys” because many coaches unconsciously, and maybe consciously, have gender bias. They’ll say that girls are moody, girls are more emotional, girls are less competitive than boys. Girls take everything so personally. They’re sensitive. They’re less tough, they’re less aggressive. These are all gender stereotypes, which are not true for all girls.

We also want coaches to realize that if they internalize these gender stereotypes about girls, it probably impacts how they coach and teach. This may lead girls to feeling like they’re not valued, that they’re not competent, that they aren’t as talented, sport is not for them, and they may drop out a sport because of it, which is what we don’t want. What we’re trying to do with Coaching HER is address with coaching science how we interrogate gender stereotypes around coaching girls, and get coaches to realize they may be coaching in ways that are harmful to girls.

You have been part of the Gatorade Women’s Advisory Board. Through that role, how have you seen companies change the way they invest in women’s sports? What can other brands and businesses learn from big-time sponsors that they can apply in their own sponsorship strategies?

One of the other areas in the Tucker Center where we’ve carved out a niche is looking at the academic literature around the business of women’s sport, which honestly, in the last five years has exploded. Nobody was talking about this, except for very few of us. And now every time you get a media alert, it’s around the business of women’s sport, which is amazing.

The good news is that with this most recent data 9% of media spend, has gone to women’s sport in the last year. Now, you might say, 9%, that’s horrible. But it was 1% a couple of years ago. So, we’ve gone a long way in a little bit of time.

What I think that people should know, is that investing in women’s sport is a value proposition. When you invest in women’s sport, the return on investment is far greater than any investment you would make in men’s sport, because of the nature of the fan of women’s sport is highly loyal. They’re digital natives. They’re tech savvy, they’re highly engaged, and they support brands that support women’s sport. The data has proven that out.  I think it’s a very exciting time to be following the business of women’s sport.

What’s next for women’s sports? What’s flying under the radar that we should be paying attention to?

Well, it’s not flying under my radar, but maybe for other people who are not immersed in this in this world, is how brands and private capital and venture capital is now investing in women’s sport. That’s a game changer.

As we like to say, follow the money. And people that are savvy investors and care about women’s sport, are changing the game by supporting, investing and sponsoring women’s sport.

I also think another thing to keep our eyes on is women or former high-profile women athletes and celebrities investing in women’s sport. We’ve had Billie Jean King for years being almost the lone advocate in terms of female athletes’ advocacy and investment. Now we’re seeing other women athletes – Serena Williams, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Sue Bird, and others – using their social and athletic capital and actual monetary capital to invest in women’s sports in ways we haven’t seen in the past.

Amy Moritz

Public Relations Manager

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