Female coach a rare sight for boys' high school teams

Coach Kelly Anderson
Ulen-Hitterdal boys basketball coach Kelly Anderson watches the team run drills on Dec. 16, 2009. Anderson describes her coaching style as intense, and says her favorite part of coaching is watching players improve.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

A Minnesota high school coach is challenging gender stereotypes. Heads are turning when the Ulen-Hitterdal Spartans boys basketball team takes to the court this year.

Coach Kelly Anderson says she's always loved basketball and she's always wanted to coach. Anderson played basketball in high school and college. She helped her team at Fergus Falls Community College win a national championship in 2001.

Anderson started teaching at Ulen-Hitterdal three years ago. She was assistant varsity coach last year, and this year she became head coach.

Her presence on the bench causes a little confusion at games.

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"Refs will usually say, 'Where's your head coach?'" Anderson said. "I get a lot of strange looks. People think I'm the statistician or the cheerleading coach, or the manager. I usually don't correct them. I just let them see I'm the coach and they can figure it out for themselves."

Team members also get a few questions from opposing players about what it's like to play for a female coach.

Sophomore starting center Troy Peterson says he tells people it's no big deal. Peterson says he respects the coach because she's made him a better player.

"She knows what she's talking about. She demands respect and she gets it," said Peterson. "I don't think there's any difference, really. Maybe (we) say different stuff in practice. You know how you talk with guys. It's a little different when there's a girl there."

"There are a lot of women who would make great coaches, but we have to figure out a way to get them to the dance."

The Spartans won just one game in each of the last two seasons. The team is off to a 1-4 start this year.

Coach Anderson says she earned the respect of the boys the first year she taught at Ulen-Hitterdal.

"I had one of my eighth grade boys say, 'Basketball's a man's game,'" Anderson recalled. "So we played one on one. I was five months pregnant. Since then it hasn't been a factor."

Kelly Anderson is one of only a handful of women to coach Minnesota boys basketball in recent years.

An analysis of 2008 data by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport found 63 women coach boys' sports teams in Minnesota -- that's 2 percent of the 2,865 boys' teams. The majority of those women coached boys' swimming or tennis.

Nicole Lavoi, associate director at the Tucker Center, says there are many reasons women don't coach. She's studying why fewer women are coaching while more girls are playing sports.

Lavoi says the percentage of women coaching girls sports has declined in the past 30 years. In Minnesota, 17 percent of all high school teams, boys' and girls,' are coached by women. Broken down by gender, just 38 percent of all girls' teams and 2 percent of boys' teams are coached by women.

Lavoi says gender bias is one barrier.

"If a guy shows up for the first day of practice, he's automatically assumed to be competent because he's a male. But when a woman comes, that's the first thing we think of," said Lavoi. "That's another one of the gender stereotypes about leadership. We automatically assume men are more competent than women."

Lavoi says that uphill struggle to acceptance keeps some women away from the sidelines.

"A lot of them are sitting around going, 'I didn't think you wanted me. No one ever asked me,'" said Lavoi. "That's a bright spot to me because I know there are a lot of women out there who are very qualified, who would make great coaches, but we have to figure out a way to get them to the dance."

Lavoi is interviewing women who coach at the youth level, trying to identify barriers that keep other women out of coaching.

Lavoi says another challenge is different societal expectations of women, who often struggle to blend the demands of coaching with family responsibilities.

Kelly Anderson is familiar with that balancing act. During the basketball season she's at school about 12 hours a day. Her husband farms, so during the winter months he watches their 2-year-old son.

"My husband last night brought me supper, and I got to see my son before the game," said Anderson. "But it's hard. I hear the stories about what I missed today and what he did at home. It's hard."

But Anderson says for her, all of the challenges are offset by her passion for basketball and coaching.

"I really just love seeing kids succeed. I love seeing them smile after they do something right," said Anderson. "I love seeing the camaraderie, the teamwork and them growing as a person. I love that part of the game."

Anderson says she won't be satisfied until people are talking about the winning team, not the female coach.