Many women lead boys volleyball teams, but for how much longer?
By: John Keilman | Chicago Tribune reporter
May 10, 2009
The high school gym grew humid with testosterone as two boys volleyball teams warmed up. The teens hooted, slapped hands and clubbed spikes so violent that the sound overpowered the heavy metal thundering from the public address system.
But when it was game time, the boys silently formed a pair of huddles and awaited their orders. At the center of each circle was a woman.
“Serve aggressively,” commanded one of them, Lyons Township High School coach Joann Pyritz. “Identify their short blockers and hit over them. Are you with me? Yes or no?”
In any other high school sport, seeing a woman take charge of a squad of towering, hyped-up males would be striking. But it’s routine in boys volleyball, a sport that serves as a unique laboratory of gender relations.
Women are head coaches at about a third of the state’s boys volleyball teams, according to data from the Illinois High School Association. No other boys sport comes close to matching that level of female leadership.
The anomaly has benefits for both sides. The players often receive a more democratic and supportive style of coaching than they’ve gotten from men. The coaches get a chance to train athletes who tend to be more powerful but less skilled than girls and who turn volleyball into a faster, more explosive game.
Some observers question whether this arrangement could ever become widespread in other team sports, such as basketball, where males are the bulk of the athletes. And some women think their days of leading boys could be numbered, as more men take up volleyball.
For now, though, the women and boys alike seem to appreciate their unusual athletic bond — when they notice it at all.
“There’s a lot more swearing [with a male coach] but the message is the same,” said Ethan Goldsmith, 18, who is coached by Sue Ellen Haak at New Trier High School.
Longtime coaches say women gained a foothold in this boys sport for one simple reason: Females make up the vast majority of volleyball competitors.
Girls usually start playing before boys, through clubs and school programs that start as early as the elementary years. At the high school level, girls’ teams outnumber boys’ 4 to 1 in Illinois (the disparity is 12 to 1 among NCAA programs nationwide).
That long exposure allows women to develop the well of knowledge every coach needs, and goes a long way toward winning over a male team.
“Women have so much experience, and to us, it’s a new game,” said Sam Thimmig, 17, who plays for Lyons Township coach Joann Pyritz.
Some women say that yawning knowledge gap prompts them to be more lenient with boys in practice. Others say they drive their boys harder because they tend to take criticism less personally than girls.
“I don’t have to worry about them crying, the whole, ‘You don’t like me’ thing,” said Becky Leman, who coaches both sexes at Argo Community High School in Summit.
Still, many female coaches display a lighter touch than their male colleagues. Kathy DiGregorio, of Montini Catholic High School, has a collaborative style that leadership experts say is closely associated with women but that can be refreshing to boys reared on old-school coaching.
“I do everything through a question-and-answer-type deal: ‘We did this, but how did it go wrong? What do we need to improve?’ “DiGregorio said. “I think they enjoy it when they can give you feedback, because sometimes they notice things I don’t.”
Haak, who led New Trier to a second-place finish in the state tournament two years ago, also takes an analytical approach with her boys, but she’s not averse to motivating them in ways Bear Bryant would understand.
Consider one recent practice, when she calmly but bluntly questioned her team’s heart the day after a disappointing 2-1 loss.
“I thought of an analogy today,” she told her players, most of whom towered above her. “Maine South was ready to fight us in Game 3. Did we fight back? No. We punched ourselves in the face.”
That was followed by a caldron of competition designed to strengthen the teens’ battling spirit. Scrimmage followed scrimmage. The losers ran. The winners had to cheer their teammates or run themselves.
“This is a nice team, quiet and reserved,” Haak said when it was over. “I’m trying to get them feisty. I like that calmness, but they have to get a little fire, so they’ll fight when we get down.”
James Knight, 17, said Haak has had no trouble getting messages across.
“In the huddle she’s fiery; she gets in your face if you do something wrong,” he said. “She’s a really good coach at getting her team fired up. I don’t think any man could do a better job of that.”
Such success raises the question: Why aren’t more women coaching boys in other sports? Only 6 percent of all boys teams in Illinois have a female head coach, according to the IHSA, while more than half of all girls teams have a man in charge.
Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the Lexington, Ky.-based American Volleyball Coaches Association and author of a book on gender and competition, said men continue to enjoy a presumption of expertise when it comes to sports.
“Socially, there is still a traditional perception that men know more about athletics than women do,” she said, “so a guy who may have some playing experience collegiately but might not have been a star has credibility coaching women. Even a woman who was a star would not have the same credibility coaching men.”
Some women believe the beachhead they’ve established in boys volleyball eventually will disappear. They expect that males, who are taking up the sport in ever-larger numbers, will create a pool of coaching candidates so deep that women might no longer be considered for the jobs.
“I think people still tend to want to have male coaches for male teams,” said Pyritz, a former three-sport athlete at Valparaiso University who has been coaching boys volleyball at her school since 1994.
That preference could be due to sports’ traditional role as a male rite of passage, where boys are taught to be men. Yet Pyritz’s players say what they’ve learned from her has been an excellent preparation for adulthood.
“We’ve got to be on time, dressed correctly … and she expects us to take responsibility for what we do,” said Dan LaLonde, 17. “Coach P. is just a great coach. She’s a great coach no matter what.”