Ask the average person what special day is celebrated in May, and most will say Mother's Day. Ask sports fans who athletes most often thank when they are interviewed on television after a big win, and they are most are likely to say their moms. Now, ask someone in what month does the country celebrate National Sports Moms Month, and I bet you would be met with a lot of quizzical looks.
Fact is that there hasn't been such a month, at least one that I could find. So, in 2012, I decided to declare May to be Sports Moms Month.
Why? Because ever since I started MomsTEAM and began writing about youth sports sixteen years ago, I have made it one of my primary missions not only to recognize and celebrate the critical role that sports moms play in keeping our kids safe, in fighting to make sure they are treated fairly, and to helping sports mothers juggle the many 'hats' they don every day - as chauffeur, child psychologist, safety officer, nutritionist, or what one survey aptly put it, the "Chief Everything Officer" - but to encourage and empower mothers to take a more active role in youth sports.
While the sports landscape has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, with the sandlots of yesteryear replaced by multi-million dollar youth sports complexes and highly organized programs, what has not changed is the hardwired instinct of mothers to want to nurture and protect their children from harm.
But instead of continuing to serve as the primary guardians of our children at play - hanging out a city window to check on their kids playing stick-ball or kickball in the street below, or looking out into the backyard to monitor a group of ten-year old kids playing touch football - today's sports mothers are still found, far more often than not, sitting in the stands, working behind the concession counter selling snacks and raffle tickets, working as team administrators, or chauffeuring their kids to and from practice and games.
Although youth sports organizations say they want more women involved, the simple fact is that far fewer women coach youth sports than men. While the numbers vary, available research suggests that between 75% and 85% of volunteer youth sport coaches are still male, that nearly all of the team parent positions are held by women, and that very few head coaches of boys' teams (around 5% in one study) are female. The percentage of women on the boards of national sports organizations, with a few notable exceptions, is similarly paltry.
What I said ten years ago in my book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, remains true today: "The low numbers of women coaches at the youth level [persist] despite factors that would otherwise suggest a greater number, including the greatly expanded opportunities for girls in sports, the fact that ... today's women came of age in a post-Title IX world in which many of them played sports, and that women vastly outnumber men in every other volunteer activity involving their kids (PTA, Scouts, special events at school etc.)."
Persistent gender gap
What explains this persistent gender gap? I argued in Home Team Advantage that the "absence of women coaches and administrators is a vestige of the sex-segregated sports system that existed before the passage of Title IX. The old-boy network in sports is still very much alive and well. ... Too many men still hew to the gender stereotype that males are more competent and authoritative."
In a 2009 study, researchers at the University of Southern California, led by sociologist Michael Messner, essentially agreed with what I, and no doubt many mothers, know from our own experience: that it is simply the "natural extension of gendered divisions of labor in families and workplaces, ... not simply from an accumulation of individual choices; rather, [but] produced ... and shaped by gendered language and belief systems [that] are seen by many coaches as natural extensions of gendered divisions of labor in families and workplaces."
As Messner and his USC colleagues observed, sports are framed as a "realm in which girls are empowered to exercise individual choice (rehearsing choices they will later face in straddling the demands of careers and family labor), while continuing to view boys as naturally 'hard-wired' to play sports (and ultimately, to have public careers).... In short, [youth sports] initiates kids into an adult world that has been only partially transformed by feminism, where many of the burdens of bridging and balancing work and family strains are still primarily on women's shoulders. Men coaches and 'team moms' symbolize and exemplify these tensions."
I have been arguing for years that the dearth of women coaches in youth sports is problematic because it translates into fewer role models for female athletes and fewer future coaches. The problem is compounded by the fact that female athletes, having become used to being coached by men and having only rarely been coached by women, seem to favor male coaches and perceive them as more competent and authoritative.
Not surprisingly, the USC study reported that many of the men surveyed scoffed at the thought of women coaching youth sports teams and simply assumed that it was the job of men to coach and take leadership positions and for women to work behind the scenes in a supporting role as team moms. (This is precisely what I experienced when I offered to coach a boys' soccer team).
Writing in the April 2015 online edition of the Canadian Journal for Women in Coaching, Nicole LaVoie, Associate Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, and Sarah Leberman, a professor at the Massey University in New Zealand, echo these same themes. The "lack of gender balance in the youth coaching ranks," they say:
sends the wrong message to children and youth about power, gender, and leadership and reinforces the notion that sport is male-dominated, male-run, and male-centered. For children, who are impressionable, seeing mostly men in positions of power in a context that matters a great deal to them, does little to challenge and change the status quo. A lack of women coaches also means girls have few, if any, active female role models, therefore making it less likely that girls will view coaching as a viable and available career pathway.
Missing piece of puzzle
I have long argued that mothers are the missing piece in the youth sports puzzle, and advocated in favor, not only of more women as coaches, but more women on the boards of youth sports organizations, from national governing bodies all the way down to the local level, even in such boy's sports as football, baseball and hockey. I continue to believe that it will only be when gender parity is achieved in positions of power in youth sports that its full potential will be realized for all our children.
It is long past the time for such change. As I wrote in Home Team Advantage:
"The ... million[s] of mothers of kids in sports represent an incredible resource. [They need] to reclaim their natural role as guardians of [their] children at play and confidently step onto the out-of-control playground of today's youth sports to assume whatever role they choose, whether it be as parent, coach, team administrator, member of the board of directors of the local youth soccer club, or community activist. ... The ... climate in sports will inevitably change for the better when more women take an active role in youth sports and roll up our sleeves to work for change. From my work deep in the trenches of youth sports, I know that there is a solution-oriented community of mothers in this country ready and eager to take a much more active role in youth sports."
So, as the nation celebrates Mother's Day this year, we should give a special thanks to all the mothers who play such a critical role in youth sports, and commit to valuing their contributions, not just for one day or one month but all year long, and to working to create a youth sports environment that is more inclusive and welcoming of women, particularly mothers, and gives them the opportunities to take leadership and coaching roles.
Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Youth Sports Safety Institute, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, Producer/Director of The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer, and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins). You can follow Brooke on Twitter @brookedelench.
Originally published on Huffington Post on Friday, May 1, 2015.