Where Are All The Female Coaches?

Gina Lucrezi providing guidance to her women's trail running group, Trail Sisters

USA Track and Field (USATF) made groundbreaking strides in naming Rose Monday as the head coach for the US Team in 2021. But looking around at track and field athletes across the country, very few are coached by women.

In fact, in a 37-year study titled “Women in Intercollegiate Sport,” Brooklyn College professors Emerita R. Vivian Acosta, Ph.D. and Linda Carpenter, Ph.D., J.D observed a steady decline in the number of female head coaches across 24 varsity NCAA sports as of 2014.

Governing organizations such as the USATF and the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) have slowly taken steps to provide resources for female coaches and amplify their voices.

Beginning in 2014, the USTFCCCA initiated a Women in Coaching event held in conjunction with the association's annual meeting. The event highlights female coaches in the NCAA and provides training and networking opportunities for coaches.

Empowering the Elite

Coaches like Juli Benson, who led a successful professional and Olympic career before coaching in the NCAA for 19 years, are seeing the positive impact of increased conversation and visibility around female coaches.

Juli Benson providing color commentary at an indoor track meet.

“(Female coaches) weren’t something that I consciously missed or longed for, because quite honestly, there weren't a lot of them to look towards especially when I was in college,” says Benson. “Now female coaches are more visible and there are more conversations about how to navigate coaching in a male-dominated profession.”

Though visibility of elite and collegiate female coaches is certainly increasing, Benson and many others believe the massive time commitment required to coach both cross country and track and field sways women with families away from coaching.

“Coaching is just so unique in that every day looks different, you can’t go home and shut the door on it. If you’re part of a family where both parents are working that becomes a huge challenge, and I think that is really the biggest deterrent for women getting into coaching,” says Benson.

For example, an NCAA Track and Field team’s schedule features races multiple times per week, not to mention hours of practices, strength and conditioning, and other training. There are few breaks between indoor and outdoor seasons, making for a continuously busy work schedule.

However, hope is not lost for the women who decide to dive into the chaotic, yet rewarding world of coaching. The growing sisterhood between female coaches at all levels brings an inviting aspect of camaraderie.

“When you have more conversations about it and you hear from other female coaches that are trying to operate at the highest level of their industry, you see that there are people you can call and talk to about your daily struggles and how to balance things,” says Benson.

While the steps USATFCCCA and the USATF have taken are certainly strides forward, elite and collegiate running are not the only areas lacking in female coaches.

Building Community On the Trails

Gina Lucrezi smiling on a mountain trail

Women like Gina Lucrezi, the founder of Trail Sisters, have called attention to the lack of coverage and visibility of women and female coaches in trail running.

Lucrezi is no stranger to the running scene. As one of the most decorated athletes in the history of DeSales University, Lucrezi became a successful professional trail runner, where her attention was called to the gender biases of the trail running industry.

“Working in the trail running industry, I saw that women were forgotten in a lot of planning,” says Lucrezi. “If you don’t include us in any of your marketing or your thought process, you’re excluding us from the sport whether you like it or not. I told myself I’m going to either complain about this or do something about it, so I did something.”

Trail Sisters, which was founded in 2016, is dedicated to building participation and creating opportunities for women in trail running. Their website features resources such as race calendars, retreats, community training groups and a coach roster.

“In our resources tab we have a coaches archive with over 100 female coaches. It’s free for them to go on and list their service and anybody looking for a coach can find one. We want to create a platform where more female coaches can get the visibility they need,” says Lucrezi.

Trail Sisters, a women's trail running and advocacy group.

The Trail Sisters coach roster features coaches from all over the country who specialize in trail running and even represent women-led training groups.

“I think the benefit of having a female coach is the fact that she inherently understands everything a woman goes through. It’s hard to fully get that if you’re not going through it yourself,” says Lucrezi.

The growing presence of platforms dedicated to creating visibility and resources for female coaches across all sports offers an essential network to women looking to lead in athletics.

In 2018, the previously named Alliance of Women’s Coaches rebranded to become WeCOACH. The organization was founded out of a professional development program written for women coaches in the NCAA in 2011, and is dedicated to providing networking opportunities, recruitment programs and professional development for female coaches at all levels of NCAA sports.

By empowering female coaches at high levels, a trickle down effect can be felt in high school and middle school programs.

Nurturing Future Female Athletes

Author, coach and athlete Melody Fairchild attests to the power of having female role models at all levels of running in her book, “Girls Running”.

“I wrote it because girls’ teams, the communities we live in and this world, need women who can confidently speak for themselves, advocate for themselves and most of all, know and trust their gut,” says Fairchild.

The book offers guidance for parents, coaches and girls as they grow as individuals and athletes. Through the sport of running, Fairchild teaches positive self-esteem and a drive to pursue excellence in every aspect of life.

In addition to writing, Fairchild founded the Boulder Mountain Warriors, a girls running program, to promote healthy development, self-image, and of course, a love of running, among elementary and middle school-aged girls.

“Girls need women role models because the journey of a woman into adulthood is an important and meaningful transition which needs to be regarded as such—not as an annoying distraction from running fast,” says Fairchild. “Hopefully, women role models would allow this in their athletes, while helping them hone their competitive, fighting spirits that want, need and deserve to win.”

Looking Ahead

In the light of actions from governing bodies and the courage of women in the running industry, the future for female coaches looks increasingly brighter.

The hopeful can take solace in the 40 percent of NCAA women’s teams led by a female head coach. However, it is difficult to ignore the glaring 3 percent of men’s NCAA teams led by women.

“I think it can only help all sports to have women in more leadership roles, but I think by just giving successful female coaches a voice is really important to have a proven product and show, ‘This is how you can manage and balance your life,’” says Benson.

Fixing this discrepancy looks like creating a system that does not discriminate against women who are dedicated to both their families and their careers. Equity in coaching across all levels of running relies on giving women the opportunity to lead, and to see themselves in those positions.

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