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Unpacking the invisible, gendered labour of women coaches

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August 23, 2023
By The Conversation

Photo: Adobe Stock
By Jesse Porter, Brock University and Kirsty Spence, Brock University

Despite a positive shift in sport culture towards prioritizing athletes’ mental health and well-being, the crucial work of coaches in supporting athletes — and the resulting emotional toll — remains taken for granted.

Referred to as emotional labour, this often-overlooked part of coaching requires coaches to manage their emotions in order to influence or mediate the emotions of their athletes.

This situation is particularly pronounced for women coaches, who are consistently striving to establish themselves in a male-dominated space driven by competition and mental toughness.

Gendered division of labour

There is preliminary evidence from sport scholars of a gendered division of labour among coaches at Canadian universities. This divide affects expectations about the types of work men and women coaches engage in and how their performance is evaluated.


Research findings also indicate that athletes place greater expectations on women coaches to provide a higher degree of emotional understanding than they do on men coaches. Men coaches are also praised for the same emotionally supportive behaviour women coaches are expected to provide.

The gendered assumption that women have an innate capacity and responsibility to care for people is even embedded within Canada’s federal gender equity policy. It reads:

“The leadership, skills and perspectives of women are lost to the sport system at a time when, because of the ongoing identified need to build human resource capacity, the system can least afford to do without their involvement.”

Implicitly and explicitly, women coaches are expected to prioritize others, and be nurturing and supportive — all while being measured against a male coaching standard that expects self-sufficiency, and demanding and assertive behaviour.

Emotional labour

Women typically engage in more emotional labour than men in both their professional lives and at home. This is because women are often socialized from a young age to develop emotional skills and manage their expressions and feelings.

This trend also extends into the world of coaching. Our preliminary research with nine Canadian women intercollegiate coaches revealed that all used emotional labour to navigate displays of emotions typically associated with both masculinity (e.g., courage, confidence, authority) and femininity (e.g., empathy, compassion, positivity).

The coaches received negative backlash when they failed to meet either set of gendered expectations, placing them in a double-bind and leading to emotional exhaustion and burnout.

One coach said:

“There’s very low tolerance for meanness … they won’t take that from a woman, but they’ll take a lot of it from the men. And they’ll just call that, ‘well, he’s just, you know, he expects a lot from us,’ or ‘he’s demanding’ or ‘he’s a tough coach,’ but it’s really hard for women to get away with it.”

The coaches also said they were required to engage in emotional labour to create supportive spaces, meet their athletes’ needs and build relationships with many stakeholders.

One coach said that as a woman, she was expected to “take care of all the motherly stuff and like nurture the athletes if they cry … or be the positive push.”

Invisible, gendered labour

All the coaches we spoke to said they considered emotional labour to be work. One coach said:

“I’m not resentful at all of that labour, and I’m not unwilling to do it. But I would never deny the toll it takes or the amount of work that it is.”

The coaches said that while university administrators idealized athlete-centred culture, they felt their labour for fostering such a culture was largely undervalued.

When one coach advocated for a raise and demonstrated the additional work she did to support student-athletes, she was told: “don’t go above and beyond, just do as much as you get paid.”

Another coach recounted that, during a staff meeting, all the coaches were told they were on one-year contracts because “they wanted to keep the coaches competitive.” Such examples demonstrate how the emphasis on competition impacts how coaches’ work is measured and evaluated, while ignoring the emotional burden coaches assume.

One coach spoke about the stress of this impact:

“I was lying to myself to be like, oh, like mental health is really important to me. But meanwhile, I’m only worried about the mental health of my athletes and my coaches … I’ll get to mine when I get, if I get a chance. And then I wasn’t getting a chance at all.”

Broadening the definition of coach’s work

By acknowledging gendered biases and stereotypes that impact women coaches’ working realities and the standards they are held to, we may be able to advance gender equity in the coaching field.

The emotional realities experienced by women coaches are impacting their ability to thrive in a sport culture that doesn’t recognize or support key parts of their work.

Emotional labour is currently not recognized, nor valued enough, in coaching to be included in job descriptions or job evaluations, making it largely invisible work.

A crucial next step towards gender equity in coaching is broadening the definition of coaching to acknowledge its emotional realities. Doing this will ultimately enrich the sport experience for all involved.The Conversation

Jesse Porter, Research Assistant, Faculty of Applied Health Sciences, Brock University and Kirsty Spence, Associate Dean, Teaching and Undergraduate Studies, Brock University

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