Male or female? For many elite basketball recruits, coaching choice more about personal confidence than personality

Photo: Doug McSchooler/ IndyStar
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When Becky Hammon was hired as an NBA assistant coach it served as a glass ceiling moment in basketball, albeit a low one. For the first time a female coach was hired as an assistant for an NBA or men’s college team. Two years after, Hammon has hit her stride and is now being whispered about as a candidate for some collegiate men’s head coaching positions.

The real question should be what took so long. After all, men have been coaching girls and women’s basketball for decades without a second thought.

According to data compiled by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports for the most recent year available, 2016-17, 55.9 percent of NCAA Division I women’s basketball coaches were female. Amazingly, that percentage is high in women’s basketball than in other women’s sports in DI. Those statistics appear to be echoed in high school basketball, where teams are almost as likely to be helmed by a man as a woman.

In fact, men coaching women and girls basketball teams has become so pervasive that it’s assumed every elite girls basketball prospect in the modern game has played under both male and female head coaches and some point. As a result, they all have some opinion about which gender serves as a more effective coach, even if their answers are extremely nuanced.

“In some ways it’s extremely different but in others it’s just about what kind of person they are,” Liberty Hill (Texas) post star Sedona Prince said. “What are their coaching aspects? I’ve had girl coaches I didn’t like at all and others that I love. Same with men.”

Notre Dame signee Jordan Nixon was similarly focused on the content of her coach, not the style in which that direction was delivered.

“I’m pretty flexible in that regard,” Nixon, a point guard for Mary Louis Academy in the Bronx, told USA TODAY. “As long as I know the person coaching me has my best interest at heart I’ll roll with the punches. People have different coaching styles regardless of their gender.”

Even for players like Prince and Nixon, who feel comfortable “rolling with the punches,” there are significant differences between accommodating a male and female coach. Those differences can be obvious — “Men are more loud,” Duncanville (Texas) guard Zarielle Green said — and far less clear or even understood. While it may not have been directly expressed, there is a sentiment that women who coach girls have a more empathic connection with their players, even if they approach the sport with the fire and brimstone of the late, great Tennessee head honcho Pat Summit.

In that respect, perhaps the best hope is for a teen to have one of each on the court?

“You always have a problem that you might want to talk to the female coach about,” St. Francis Prep (N.Y.) wing Emily Engstler said. “But male coaches tend to be a little harder on you and push you harder. I think it balances it out which helps a player play better on and off the court.”

At best, girls basketball coaches would be able to embody both of those teaching traits, which could lead to a place where all players approached their coaches as Lovett School (Ga.) point guard Jenna Brown does:

“I’ve never looked at my coaches based on gender, it’s whether they can coach or not coach. I haven’t really been paying attention to whether it’s a man or woman because my approach has not changed. I try to be observant and I’ve been treated equally by them. To me their gender has nothing to do with it.”

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