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AUSTIN, Texas, March 19. SHORTLY after USA Swimming released the NCAA Division I Women’s Official Psych Sheet, it began breaking down some demographics regarding the coaches of those teams that qualified.
One stat that jumped out top everyone proved to be the lack of female head coaches of the women’s teams that made the meet.
Updated: Of the 123 schools that entered the Division 1 NCAA Women’s meet 17 have a female head coach (13.8%). Sorry for the error.
— USA Swimming Stats (@USASwimStats) March 6, 2014
Swimming World wanted to get an inside look at why this number might be so low, but knew that we needed to get the thoughts of someone not worried about the politics of keeping or finding a job within the NCAA ranks. So, we had a candid conversation with one of the top female coaches in the business, who has decided to go a different route to pursue her coaching career.
Kim Brackin, who started the personal swimming training company Brackin Elite Swim Training shortly after parting ways as Texas’ head women’s swimming coach, was extremely open and candid in her responses on the subject.
There’s little doubt that Brackin would have landed on her feet somewhere within the NCAA ranks after she left Texas, but chose to grow her own business. Brackin has coached seven female Olympians to seven medals including two gold during her more than 20 years in the business, which included high profile stints at Texas and Auburn.
Here’s her thoughts on gender in women’s swimming among the coaching ranks.
Recently, USA Swimming’s stats department found the number of female head coaches of women’s teams to be low enough (17 out of 123 teams that made NCAAs) that it was notable to send out a tweet about it. What are your thoughts on that stat?
As my responsive tweet showed, I think it is unfortunately low. I’m not sure whether USA Swimming sent that tweet because the stat was notably low, as they were sending tweets about age and other demographics; I think USA Swimming was just finding interesting ways to promote the championship, which I admire!
I think USA Swimming is just now beginning to respond to the disparity of women to men in coaching and have begun to implement some programs to address this – promoting women in leadership seminars is the first that comes to mind.
Funny, there are some coaches out there that question the need for these seminars. But, I think those [NCAA] numbers are tremendous validation for the need.
I don’t believe women have been nurtured, supported or encouraged to take on leadership positions in the sport of swimming. Remember, it was just in 2012 that we had our first female head coach of a women’s Olympic team staff in [California's] Teri McKeever.
You have been an extremely successful collegiate coach, with multiple individual and team championships that can be attributed to your direct work with collegiate swimmers. Yet, you have now decided to pursue coaching opportunities outside of the NCAA. Why is that?
The decision, in part, was not completely mine. Although, I did choose to remain out of the collegiate coaching environment rather than pursue another college coaching position [after leaving Texas]. I chose to stay in Austin because I love the city, my friends and I knew I could continue to be successful coaching here.
I completely enjoy coaching young swimmers and triathletes technically in a one to one environment; I have such a tremendous opportunity to impact that athlete both physically and mentally. I’ve had such a successful year-and-a-half with Brackin Elite Swim Training, and it is hard to ever think about going back into a team environment.
Gender roles in society run deep and breaking them, even for very open-minded people, can be extremely challenging.
I recall a high profile dual meet at Texas where an official called a quick meeting of the head coaches in order to make a change in the program. The official asked UT’s men’s coach Eddie Reese and the head coach of the combined team to meet, made the decision and proceeded with the meet.
Our men’s assistant was finally the one who dialed me in to the missed meeting! I didn’t think for a second it was malicious or intentional, they just didn’t think to include the female team’s head coach because it wasn’t their norm.
I think one of the hardest challenges facing women in coaching is to step out of the role that most humans seeing us occupying – being a mother, the nurturer.
I found more often than not that women on my team expected me to take on more of a nurturing/friendship role. Of course any human being, male or female, wants to help kids grow and support them as they stumble but, our role as a coach is also to challenge them both physically and mentally.
Girls, in particular, in this generation, are used to having mothers that are also their best friend, so when put in an environment with a strange woman, who is supposed to take care of them, it can become a real challenge for both parties to walk that line between coach and caregiver.
I could be way off but, in my opinion, it seems that girls can take constructive criticism from males a little bit more easily, they take it much more personally when coming from a woman. All of this makes it harder to build trust, which is vital in building a strong team environment.
What are your thoughts overall on women in coaching in the sport of swimming?
I love when women have the opportunity to be led by other women. I think that girls coming out of high school should be taught to value, or at the least consider, that opportunity.
Clearly there is nothing wrong with swimming for a male head coach but I think a lot of girls are encouraged to swim with men, and for a male, because they are told they need males to lead or challenge them adequately.
Unfortunately, not many combined programs offer the opportunity to be coached by female head coaches.
Why do you think it is that the sport lacks women at the top of organizations when female swimmers make up a large percentage of the sport’s population?
Women haven’t been placed in leadership positions at the very top – there is no precedent. We just had our first female Head Olympic Coach, there has never been a female executive director or national team director and females are grossly underrepresented on the USA Swimming board.
Sure, we have support roles as assistants but this continues to set the tone that this supporting (nurturing) role is our domain.
Raising a family seems to be the number one reason you see women either avoiding coaching or leaving the profession early – even I took time away while raising Travis and pregnant with Elly.
But, I quickly realized I missed it and I COULD do both well. I think male coaches are faced with that same dilemma these days. They want to be engaged in their families as much as female coaches do so I think you’ll either start to see more men leaving OR changes in the hours we put in. USA Swimming is already thinking about ways to make their team trips more family friendly for coaches AND athletes!
The combining of programs will only take away opportunities for women to lead a program. It is extremely rare to see a woman leading both a men’s and women’s team, and it is an uphill recruiting battle for them every day to overcome the static!
I don’t think women are as collegial as men in supporting one another across the sport. We seem to hold back, maybe in fear that we never want to support the idea that we are vulnerable. But we, all of us, women and men, are to some degree!
For the majority of my career, my most valued mentors were men because they were more willing to share and honestly, they were who I had worked for.
I think this is one of the most important areas that USA Swimming and the NCAA could help to promote women continuing in the coaching profession – establish a mentorship program for young coaches so that they feel comfortable asking for advice and learning from experienced peers. Because there are fewer of us we may begin to feel isolated and not know who to turn to for moral support.