How Does Gender Affect Coaching In Women's Basketball?

Christian Petersen

While scanning through an alumni publication from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), I came across an anecdote about former Michigan diving coach Dick Kimball that I found compelling and relevant to women's basketball:

After an embarrassingly slow start, the University has reached a level of compliance with landmark Title IX legislation that impressed 1972 Olympic springboard diving champion Micki King (’66) enough to say, “I couldn’t be more proud to be a graduate of Michigan.”

King may be the most accomplished female Michigan student-athlete never to have competed for the University during her years at Ann Arbor. There were no varsity sports for Michigan women in the 1960s, nor could they join the marching band or become cheerleaders. King perfected her craft at the Ann Arbor Swim Club and by training with Wolverines men’s diving coach Dick Kimball.

Kimball recognized King’s talent when he saw her working out at Michigan’s women’s pool, where the springboard was only one meter high instead of the regulation three meters.

“Coach said, ‘This is for the birds; I want you training in the men’s pool,’’’ King recalls. “I was told there was only one rule: I would not date any male swimmers—ever. But I was the social contact for setting people up, and some of them are still married.”

King became a national Amateur Athletic Union champion, qualified for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, and barely missed a medal when she broke her arm on her next-to-last dive and fell to fourth place.

Kimball, however, encouraged King to take another shot at the ’72 Games in Munich. The combination of his coaching and the start of her 26-year career in the Air Force provided the background for a gold-medal run for King, who eventually attained the rank of colonel.

“I should split my gold medal in half, half to Dick Kimball and half to the Air Force,” King says. “Kimball was asked what it was like ‘to coach a girl,’ and he said, ‘I don’t coach girls, I don’t coach boys. I coach people.’’’

As it so happens, I read this the same day I watched part of the UConn vs Stanford game. Among many other ways this matchup could be characterized, it was a contest between a team coached by a man and a team coached by a woman. The statement I had read earlier about coaching "people" rather than "girls" or "boys" made me wonder how the gender of players and coaches impacts the way a team functions (or doesn't).

Obviously there are far more important matters when it comes to coaching and playing--like rosters, strategy, schedule, etc--but it would be obtuse to assume that gender makes no difference in the dynamics of a team both on and off the court.

Kimball's statement can be interpreted in two different ways: either he had no awareness of what women were facing in sports during the 1960s, or he was completely aware of that but set it aside so Micki King could have the same opportunity men have always had: to compete for their university.

Even the most casual of women's basketball fans understands that the experience women players have is vastly different from the opportunities available to men today, both on and off the court. Salaries, opportunities to play at home vs abroad, norms for style of play, fame, respect--those things all vary according to gender. And that carries over into coaching, where most of those same differences apply. There is a prestige associated with coaching men that coaching women simply doesn't garner.

All of which caused me to wonder: in what ways does gender matter within the world of women's basketball? Should coaches, whether male or female, treat their players as people (players like any other) or as women (with an understanding of the disparities present in the sport even today)? And how are women's teams affected when coached by a man as opposed to a woman? Obviously the personalities involved matter a great deal apart from gender, but are there gender-based factors that come into play?

These are open-ended questions of course, food for thought rather than anything that can be answered concretely. I'm curious as to what experiences and thoughts people in the Swish Appeal community may have to share on the way gender dynamics amongst players and coaches shape teams--or don't matter at all.

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