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Athletics: Talking females in sports with Salo

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Former Brainerd High School graduate Mikinzee Salo talks to one of her athletes on the Gustavus Adlophus men's tennis team. The former Warrior studied women in sports leadership roles at the University of Minnesota. Submitted photo

Mikinzee Salo had the benefit of having her mother, Lisa, as a high school tennis coach, but many female athletes don’t.

It’s one reason Salo studied the topic of women in sports and specifically in leadership positions. The current assistant director of Tennis and Life Camps and assistant coach for the Gustavus Adolphus men’s tennis team took time from her busy schedule to talk about the subject of women in sports.

Q: You recently graduated from the University of Minnesota with a masters of science from the school of kinesiology. What is that?

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MS: The School of Kinesiology at the U of M is an interdisciplinary school which is focused on enhancing human health and quality of life. The specific discipline that I focused on was sport sociology, which focuses on human behavior and tries to identify, describe and explain the role and relationship of sport in society.

Q: You were part of the Tucker Center for Research on girls and women in sports at the U. What was the focus of your research and what did you learn?

MS: The Tucker Center has three primary research areas which include women in sport media, women in sport leadership and girls in physical activity. The area of research that I primarily focused on was women in sport leadership. There are a limited number of female coaches in sports and those women who are in coaching face numerous and complex barriers that their male counterparts do not. My research team and I focused primarily on finding ways to recruit and retain women coaches.

I learned so much over the course of my graduate work. Before starting graduate school, I was not really aware of the barriers women coaches encounter throughout their career. I never really thought twice about who was coaching and did not realize that it was a profession dominated by men. Graduate school opened my eyes to how women are marginalized in sport and society. It helped me find my passion for advocating for women, particularly in sport. While I learned a lot about research and statistics on women in coaching, the most valuable thing I learned was how important your voice and how you should use your voice to support women in sport. Many women are conditioned to not use their voice and speak up for themselves and my graduate work helped me learn to value my voice.

Q: The Tucker Center is an interdisciplinary research center leading a pioneering effort to examine how sport and physical activity affect the lives of girls and women, their families and communities. We know physical activity is important in our lives. Why are young women so reluctant to lead the charge in many of these areas?

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MS: What we know from research is that girls and women are interested in sport and physical activity. There are a record number of girls and women participating in sport and physical activity today, but the number of women coaches has been stagnant for many years. I don’t necessarily think that young women are reluctant to lead the charge, but believe that young women are conditioned and told that they can/should go into other professions. They are brought up to believe that sports are for and about boys and men, which leaves those girls and women on the outside.

The media impacts some of these narratives. Young girls and women often times see female athletes in the media portrayed as being pretty or highly feminine versus strong competent athletes which reinforces that girls need to be feminine first and foremost versus competent athletes. That coupled with the very limited amount of media coverage women and girls receive (2-4% of the total coverage) add to the narratives that sports are for and about men.

When society constantly tells you that you need to think and act a certain way, you are going to think twice before you decide to go down a path that seems unconventional. Girls and women who are interested in sport often times do not see people like themselves, therefore it makes pursuing a career in sport or physical activity daunting which ultimately leaves sport a domain dominated by men.

Q: I did a Q&A with Shelly Breen earlier this year and she couldn’t say enough about the female coaches and women she had as role models growing up. Sure she learned a lot from her male coaches, but to have that female role model leading a group of athletes toward a common goal has to be inspiring. How do we articulate that to women that being a coach or leader is extremely important to the younger girls.

MS: First and foremost, I think supporting young female athletes is an important thing to do. Going to their games, reading or asking about how they do, telling them they did a nice job lets them know that they are valued as athletes. Beyond that, encouraging and supporting women coaches to continue with coaching so they know they are valued. Same sex role models matter, if a female athlete sees a female coach, she is more likely to believe she can be her one day. This is not to say that there are not good male coaches out there, because there are many male coaches who do an amazing job. But having strong female role models, such as coaches or athletic administrators, visible for young female athletes to see shows them that they are very much capable of coaching or becoming an athletic administrator themselves. I think it takes current coaches, male or female, and athletic administrators targeting people they believe would make great coaches and recruiting that talent to join their athletic community.

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Women coaches are not only important to girls and women, they are important to young boys and men as well. Something that is even more rare than women coaching women, is women coaching boys and men. Young boys can benefit from strong female role models as well. If boys and men see women coaching, they grow up to believe that women can/should be coaches which would then lead to those boys and men hopefully becoming a male ally in the future. Getting more female coaches in the pipeline coaching both girls and boys would be the goal.

Q: Just in our area, the number of female coaches is almost embarrassing. There aren’t many head coaches that are female and while it gets a little better in the lower levels it’s still not great. Why is that?

MS: A lot of times is starts from the top or the institution a coach works for. Most of the individuals who are in positions of power in sport, coaches and/or athletic administrators, are men and often times those men hire people who are like themselves, men. This process, whether conscious or not, makes it hard for young women to get involved in coaching because women are simply not afforded the same opportunities in coaching that men are.

Men hold about 60% of the head coach positions for women’s teams and hold nearly 100% of head coaching positions for men’s teams at the collegiate level. Therefore, men have a dual career pathway where they can coach either boys/men or girls/women while women on the other hand can really only coach girls/women. You see very few women coaching boys and men. On the other hand, you see a lot of men coaching girls/women. If you do see women coaching, it is often times at the lower levels because those are the levels that are seen as not as “skilled” or difficult to coach.

Those women who do get in to coaching face many different complex barriers that their male counterparts do not, which can make coaching a difficult profession to persist in. Many of them drop out after a few years because they do not feel supported or valued.

Q: How do we get girls and young women to even think about becoming a coach?

MS: Encourage them and tell them that they would make a great coach. A lot of times it just takes someone (coach, parent, friend) telling them that they would make a great coach and ask them if they’ve ever thought of going in to coaching. One of the main reasons I got into collegiate coaching was because my collegiate coach simply asked me if I had ever thought of it. Athletic departments should seek out young talented women who they believe would make a great coach. Current female coaches should look to hire other female assistants. Experienced female coaches can mentor young female coaches and hopefully help them go on to coach their own team one day.

Men can also help advocate and recruit young women in to coaching. Male allies are very important and can help support and advocate for women coaches. They can use their privilege in sport to advocate for women. Whether it is a male athletic director seeking out female applicants for a job or a head coach hiring a female assistant, there are many ways in which men can advocate for women in sport.

Q: It just doesn’t seem like a career path many even think about pursuing. Why is that?

MS: There are many common narratives about women in coaching or the lack of women in coaching, many of which place the blame on those very individuals who are marginalized in sport -- women. Women are interested in coaching, but the common narratives and hostile work environment many women coaches encounter makes it difficult for many of them to persist. Some of the most common narratives we hear is that women do not apply, women choose not to coach, women don’t like sports as much as men, women have to choose other careers, women with kids aren’t committed and have less time, women are not aggressive enough to be a coach. These narratives are damaging and create an environment where women are not valued in sport and where women coaches have to prove themselves in order to be respected as a coach. Many people buy in to these narratives creating a tough environment for those women in coaching to persist. It is not that women are not interested in coaching, but that many

women do not get the opportunity to pursue their passion for coaching and those who do get in the profession often drop out after a few years.

Q: What hurdles are there for women to become coaches?

MS: There are many different barriers female coaches encounter throughout their career. Many of the narratives which were mentioned before along with unequal pay make it hard for many women to persist. Most women coaches are in an athletic culture which is dominated by men, which makes it hard for them to feel valued.

Q: Thanks to Title IX young girls have the same number of opportunities to participate in sports and growth in girls programs is there, but that switch from athlete to coach just doesn’t seem to happen. What is causing that disconnect?

MS: Pre-title IX, the number of girls and women who were coached by a woman was around 90%. Since the passage of TItle IX that number has drastically decreased to roughly 40% of females participating in sport being coached by a woman. It simply does not make sense that as the number of girls and women participating in sport increases, their interest in coaching decreases. It takes looking at your departmental culture to gain a better understanding if it is an environment where women are valued and supported.

Men occupy a majority of the coaching positions and when a male coach leaves more often than not he is being replaced by another man. This makes it hard for those women interested in coaching to get their foot in the door.

Q: What can school districts, athletic programs do to recruit or encourage the development or even foster the idea of young girls becoming coaches?

MS: Tell young girls that they should consider coaching. They can also strive to create a culture where women feel supported, valued, and heard. Athletic departments where women feel like they are valued create a space where women can thrive and persist in coaching. Athletic departments should seek out young female talent when hiring. They can also make it explicit about their belief that women should be coached by women and being unapologetic about that belief.

If you are in a position to hire a coach, do not accept a homogenous candidate pool. Look for a diverse group of candidates to bring different perspectives to the table. You should also take chances on rising female talent. Give young women who are interested in coaching the opportunity to continue to grow both personally and professionally. If you have a target of opportunity to hire a female, take it.

Seek out more information about women in coaching and how to advocate for women in sport. The Tucker Center has a lot of great resources and events for people to attend.

Q: And then once we’ve enticed them to try coaching, how do we keep them in it?

MS: Support them and make sure they feel valued. Check in with them on a regular basis so they feel like they have a voice and are supported by their athletic department. Coaches are going to stay in athletic departments and school districts where they feel cared for, feel competence, and feel like they have autonomy.

Q: Your mother Lisa is the head girls tennis coach for the very successful Brainerd program. What are some of the things she’s taught you about coaching, dealing with so many different personalities in order to create a team? Was there anything about what she was doing that may have pointed you into the coaching world?

MS: My mom is one of my biggest supporters and from a young age showed my what

it means to be a strong female role model. We talk with each other on a regular basis about our coaching endeavours and it is so fun that we both have the same passion and can talk about both the ups and downs of coaching. Growing up with a strong female role model in my home definitely impacted my passion for coaching and sport.

My mom taught me how to be resilient, how to be independent and how to build authentic relationships with others. She is one of very few female coaches in her sport and deals with a lot of adversity from time to time. She has to speak up for herself on many occasions and there are times where she feels like she is a lone person on an island.

However, she has navigated her coaching life beautifully and has taught me so much about what it means to be a great coach. Hearing and learning from her stories has helped me grow as a coach. She is such a strong leader and the girls who play for her are extremely lucky to have a strong role model who cares about each and every one of them both on and off the court. She puts her heart and soul into coaching and truly makes sure her athletes have the best experience possible, which is something I strive to do as well.

She is someone I look up to for advice and is someone who supports me in anything I do. I’m so incredibly grateful to have such a strong female role model in my life to help me continue to grow as a person and coach.

Q: You played varsity tennis for a number of years at Brainerd High School. You’re an assistant coach for the Gustavus Adolphus men’s team and you were an assistant at St. Kate’s for the previous three years. You’re also an assistant director of tennis at Tennis and Life camps at Gustavus Adolphus you’re certainly giving back to the sport. How rewarding is that for you?

MS: I am extremely grateful for all of the opportunities that have been presented to me. I’ve grown a passion for coaching and advocating for women in sport and I am so happy that I get to live out that passion each and every day. I love coaching and am so happy to give back to a sport that did so much for me. When thinking back about how I got to where I am today, I cannot be grateful enough for those who have helped mentor and support me throughout the years. Sport is a vehicle that can teach you so many life lessons, many of which are much bigger than sport. Being able to instill in young girls and women that they can be who they want to be both on and off the court is a reward much bigger than any amount of money could give me. I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs over the past few years to lead me to where I am today and the road to where I am today was not always the easiest. It took a lot of hard work and dedication but I am so happy that I can be a strong female role model for current and future

young women who love sport like I do.

Q: Your former high school teammate Briana Rademacher is an assistant coach at Brainerd for both the girls and boys tennis programs. In an area where there aren’t many female coaches, two came out of the same program. What was your experience like as a Warrior tennis player and how key was that to you becoming a coach?

MS: It seems like just yesterday I was on the courts at the high school playing with

some of my closest friends. My mom did a great job of getting my friends hooked on tennis when I was younger and those friends grew up playing with me throughout my childhood and high school career. She ran the summer program in town and at a young age made sure that tennis was fun for us. She didn’t push us to play to win or to be good at tennis, but rather encouraged us have fun and enjoy the game.

While becoming good and winning is also fun to do, I was taught at a young age that I should play tennis first and foremost because I love it and have fun doing so. Growing up in that kind of environment playing a game I love with my friends made my time as a Warrior tennis player an experience I won’t forget. My teammates were my best friends and we all genuinely enjoyed our time on the court together.

The Brainerd Warrior girls tennis program is a reputable program and I’m so proud to say I was apart of it. I am so happy that Briana gets to give back to a program that did so much for the both of us. She no doubt is doing a wonderful job and is making an impact on many young girls and boys.

Covering the Brainerd lakes area sports scene for the past 23 years.
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