Out with the Old-School Part 3: Focus on Hockey or Fight for Equality?

The ‘Out with the Old-School’ series is based on the findings from Donna Cumming’s MA thesis. The study involved interviews and focus groups with 11 Canadian varsity women hockey players about their hockey leadership experiences, perceptions, and intentions.

In my last post, I talked about the potential for a more inclusive hockey leadership culture. But what does that actually look like? And perhaps more importantly, why is it taking so long for the culture to change? Let’s take a deeper dive into these questions through the lens of my research participants’ experiences with their current and past coaches.

Resistance to gender inequity

“[Our coaches] always say you’re not only playing for yourself or for the team but you’re playing for the next generation and you’re showing that it’s possible to be able to play hockey in an inclusive environment.” (Participant 8)

Let’s start by looking at what inclusive hockey leadership can look like, using examples of varsity coaches who were proactive and actively resistant to issues of gender inequality and inequity.  

At its most explicit, the athletes in my study shared stories of their coaches engaging in gender advocacy by openly discussing gender issues with the team. For example, one participant talked about how her coaches made “absolutely sure” that there were equal opportunities between the men’s and the women’s team at their university, including facilities, equipment, and promotional resources. Another reflected on the team meetings they had through COVID where their coach initiated open conversations about issues of sexism and racism in hockey, at their school, and in sport broadly.

Photo by Donna Cumming.

Some people say actions speak louder than words though, right? Several of the athletes’ university coaches facilitated opportunities for their teams to work with community organizations, particularly young girls’ teams. This type of action has an implicit advocacy, with multiple benefits for women in hockey leadership. Not only does it increase the visibility of women in hockey leadership roles for young girls in the sport, but it simultaneously provides opportunities for women athletes to develop their coaching skills.

By creating these spaces for women in leadership, advocating for their team to the university or by educating their players on issues of discrimination in the sport, some coaches embodied this shifting leadership culture by passing their values on to the next generation. However, the coaches that engaged in explicit gender advocacy were a small minority. Most participants reflected that issues of gender inequality were rarely or never discussed between the team and their coaching staff.    

Maintaining the status quo

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some coaches encouraged their athletes to accept issues of gender inequality in hockey. Some players observed that their coaches were aware of gender inequalities between the varsity men’s and women’s teams but were apathetic towards these issues. Sometimes this meant issues were downplayed by the coaches, or players were told to essentially ignore issues of gender inequality and focus on hockey. When players noticed discrepancies in equipment budgets and access to facilities, one participant explained that the message from the coaching staff to their team was that “we’re here to play hockey and not worry about stuff like that” (Participant 7) while another described their discussions around gender inequality as “not from a stance that they’re going to try to change things” (Participant 10).  

Some women even shared instances from different points in their hockey careers where coaches perpetuated gender discrimination. These instances varied from the privileging of boys’ hockey to negative comparisons between boys’ hockey and girls’ hockey. For example, one player observed that “the way they treat us sometimes, you can tell they’re just like ‘let’s get this over with’ and then you see how they love coaching the guys…” (Participant 6). Others who played boys’ hockey growing up noticed that their coaches expressed a negative attitude towards girls’ hockey, “almost looking down on girls’ hockey” (Participant 10).

“Cornell Women’s Hockey vs RPI” by Mark H. Anbinder by licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Overwhelmingly, coaches who perpetuated gender discrimination were either boys’ hockey coaches, coaches who were involved in both boys’ and girls’ hockey, or coaches who had recently made a switch from coaching boys’ hockey to coaching girls’ hockey. These attitudes often impacted participants’ perspectives on the girls’ game to the point where they had to actively unlearn negative assumptions about girls’ and women’s hockey. It’s pretty sad when you think about it…that many high-level women hockey players have these unconscious biases against their own sport because of the way it was portrayed to them as they grew up.

The cyclical nature of hockey leadership

The findings from my study demonstrate what a strong impact hockey leaders can have on the next generation, both positively and negatively. As an example, let’s re-visit Participant 8 who described her coaches as advocates for gender equity between the men’s and women’s university teams and exhibiting values of inclusion. This player went on to share how her teammate, with the help of their coach, developed and led an eight-week ‘Try Hockey’ program for Indigenous girls that several of their teammates were involved in coaching. This is a pretty clear indication that the advocacy and support of their coach helped inspire their team to build and uphold an inclusive leadership culture.

On the other hand, when coaches reproduce gendered discourses and lack of critical reflection on gender issues, this can prevent athletes from challenging gendered assumptions (De Haan & Knoppers, 2020; Hovden, 2010). Many of the athletes seemed to mirror the tone set by their coaches in relation to gender issues in hockey. For example, if their coach carried the attitude that little can be done to address gender inequalities, they would express the same belief.

It’s interesting to consider the contrast between the coaches who demand equality between the men’s and women’s program, and those who accept the status quo and encourage their players to just focus on hockey. Think about this in relation to recent pay equity and funding disputes in Canadian and American women’s sport. Anyone who follows women’s sport knows that milestone changes such as the US Soccer equal pay agreement do not come without a fight. The current situation between Canada Soccer and the Women’s National Team is yet another disappointing example of the incredible burden on women athletes to fight for equal rights. And while they shouldn’t be forced to bear this burden alone, one thing that is clear is that very little progress would be made without the tireless support and leadership from their captains and coaching staff.

At the end of the day, athletes are influenced by their environment, as well as their sport leaders. In De Haan and Knoppers’ (2020) research on gendered discourses in coaching, they contend that:

Coaches draw on their experience as a coach and as a former athlete as an important source of knowledge. Thus, coaches may be reproducing the discourses about gender and other social power relations into which they were disciplined during their athletic careers… (p. 633)

In other words, each generation of athletes may go on to be the next generation of sport leaders, bringing both their values and assumptions along with them.

This brings us back to the initial question of why the dominant leadership culture in hockey has been so slow to change. When so many leaders are reluctant to advocate for women in the sport, it becomes more difficult for the next generation to initiate change. While many continue to actively dismantle their own gendered assumptions, there were times when the athletes I spoke with reproduced assumptions of male athlete superiority. And keep in mind, this is just on the women’s side of the sport! You don’t have to look very hard to see that issues of misogyny and sexism are running rampant on the men’s side.

With that being said, of the athletes I spoke with, most were beginning to challenge gender stereotypes and assumptions, despite the societal narratives they grew up with that devalued women’s hockey. As a result, they have the potential as future leaders in hockey to contribute to a cultural shift by advocating for the next generation of women. The problem is access to that leadership platform, which we’ll explore in the final installment of this series.

Keep an eye out for the next and final installment of the ‘Out with the Old-School’ series, which will discuss varsity athletes’ perceived access and intentions to pursue hockey leadership roles after graduation.

Works Cited

De Haan, D., & Knoppers, A. (2020). Gendered discourses in coaching high-performance sport. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 55(6), 631-646. doi: 10.1177/1012690219829692

Hovden, J. (2010). Female top leaders – prisoners of gender? The gendering of leadership discourses in Norwegian sports organizations. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 2(2), 189-203. https://doi.org/10.1080/19406940.2010.488065


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