When Choosing a Collegiate Water Polo Coach You Should Be Gender Blind!

Richard F. Hunkler, Ph.D.
Slippery Rock University

I cannot believe some of the negative statements about female coaches that I have been reading on our Message Board. Here is a sampling of some:

  • "I don't know a whole lot of female athletes in any sport who have been happy with their female coaches."

  • "I have a son and daughter, both playing collegiate wp d1. feedback from my laughter and also her friends as I posed the above question: 'we would not play for a female coach, period.

  • "For whatever it is worth, this was the response. I don't know if I agree, but can appreciate their comments."

  • "No temper-tantrums allowed on deck. No crying in public. You can get angry, but then get over it and act like an adult. "

  • "Especially, no pouting allowed. Be a good role model, not a poster child for vindictiveness."

  • too emotional

  • too moody

  • loses their composure

  • always focused on proving that they can do what men can do

  • transfixed on the above

Before World War II it was believed by many males and females alike, that females couldn't do labor intensive jobs, and why couldn't they do them because they were too emotional , too moody, and if things didn't go their way they would cry or have temper tantrums. Oh yea we can't forget, "They are not strong enough either physically or mentally to do these kinds of jobs."

The advent of World War II and the draft created a scarcity of males for these types of jobs in defense factories. Because of a national emergency and a desperate cry for survival this country decided to use females to fill all these male vacated, critically needed, positions. You may not be old enough to remember Rosie the Riveter, so I will tell you about her. There were a lot of Rosies, and the Rosies not only managed to do these types of jobs but they also managed to excel in them. In fact after the war some males couldn't get their jobs back because females were doing them better. Maybe that's what some people are worried about - job security?

I am so doggone tired of ethnic and gender groups, or for that matter any group, being held back because of peoples petty prejudices and their stupid stereotyping that I could cry - whoops, could that get me fired from coaching a water polo team? True some women cry more than some men, but that doesn't mean all women cry more than all men. Some men yell vociferously on the deck; does that mean all men will yell vociferously on the deck? You see what I am trying to say, "If some people will do something you don't believe is appropriate that doesn't necessarily mean that all people will do it." Even if something is not true, I promise you, if you say it enough times on the Message Board then there are going to be some people who are going to believe it. The moral of this old and sad story is simply, "Don't say it if it isn't true, or, in this case, don't write it!"

This gives me the opportunity to quote my main man, George Santayana, when he said something similar to "If you don't learn from the past stupid, then you will make the same stupid mistakes over and over again." I have strayed somewhat away from the topic of this article, similar to an assistant coach on the deck who strays away from the current water polo drill to tell the coach something he or she thinks is important and something he or she believes might help the team

When you are hiring a water polo coach for your college, what are some of the characteristics you should you be seeking. Since I don't know who "you" are, I don't have the slightest idea what you are seeking, but I know what primary characteristics I would want and you are about to read them. The six minimum characteristics that I think a collegiate coach should have are as follows: 1) knowledge of game tactics and strategies, 2) knowledge of game fundamentals, 3) leadership skills, 4) motivational skills, 5) salesperson skills, and 6) people skills. (From this point forward "coach" is to mean "collegiate coach".)

Game Skills

It goes without saying that I would want a coach to have a good knowledge of game tactics and strategies and an excellent grounding in the fundamental skills of the game. There is an old saying, "Offense wins games, but defense wins championships." What does that mean any way? Does it mean that in a championship game there is no scoring; therefore, you don't need any offense you just need defense, but then you wouldn't need any defense either? No, I think it means that in big pressure games you need your offense but you need to rely on your defense to cause the opposing team to make a few major mistakes from which you can create a few easy scores -- scores that can easily determine the outcome of a close game. Anyway another saying concerning fundamentals is as follows: "If you want any chance to win then you better know your fundamentals" or "Fundamentals wins games and Fundamentals wins championships."

Leadership Skills

Leadership is another given. By leadership I mean the ability to guide a team of players with diverse backgrounds and experiences toward a set of selected goals. In a sport where winning and scores means a great deal a coach has to be able to create not only a set of goals but also a plan to achieve those goals. Remember: If you don't know where you are going then how do you know you are there when you get there? Also I would prefer a coach who leads by example rather than one who leads just by words. Some of the goals could be of an ethical or a life-skill nature such as credibility, tolerance, acceptance, work ethic, punctuality... Since less than one tenth of one percent of players, who have finished playing, can make a living off water polo, it behooves coaches to incorporate some positive values in their goals because they are helping to educate the next generation of college graduates and citizens for this wonderful country of ours.

Motivational Skills

The ability to motivate is another must have characteristic, but motivation, similar to a taper in competitive swimming, works sometimes and sometimes it doesn't. I am from the old school of coaching, so I place a great deal of stock in the rah, rah, type of motivation. This is but one of many different types of motivation, and I think the type of motivation a coach uses has more to do with his or her personality than with any other of the coach's characteristics. Usually a coach with an introverted personality tends to try to motivate the team with private talks to individuals on the team, whereas, the extroverted coach tends to motivate the team as a whole with rah, rah speeches and slogans given to the entire team.

Salesperson Skills

Salesperson skills mean to me that the coach has the ability to sell his or her school and his or her water polo program to recruits because today it's impossible to have a winning season without good players - the days of home-grown players is about over! It means that the coach has the ability to sell the water polo program to the Athletic Director, so the AD will want to increase the coaches' budget and number of scholarships. It means that the coach has the ability to sell the water polo program to the team and school alumni because if a coach can't sweet talk these cash cows and avid water polo authorities then a coach could find his or her program in financial and/or support trouble. Finally, it means that the coach has ability to sell the water polo program to players' parents because these dedicated people not only lend financial support to the program, but more importantly they are the ones who provide moral support. The parents are the ones who help spread "the good news" or "gospel" about the program.

People Skills

People skills, I think, are those skills that allow the coach to communicate with a very diverse population which involves young people, peers, and players' parents. If a coach does not know how to converse with this contingent of the population then he or she can be in deep doo-doo. In communicating with players the coach has to know how to, among other things, listen, correct, cajole, sympathize, support, discipline, motivate, teach, and help. The coach has to do all this with empathy and/or pizzazz in his or her demeanor. An alienated or an unhappy player is similar to a nagging toothache that won't go away and keeps hurting the team until it is pulled.

Moreover, in any profession it is important for a person to know how to interact with ones peers. Especially, if one wants to get things done. For example, if one doesn't learn how to communicate with his or her peers then he or she might alienate the referees. Alienated referees do not like to give this coach's team any 50-50 calls -- calls that could go either way. Without these skills a coach might alienate other coaches. If a coach alienates other coaches then the other coaches are not going to discuss strategy and tactics with this coach, and this coach could be ostracized by all the coaches in the conference in which he or she plays. Remember that old song's refrain, "One is loneliest number."

If a coach doesn't learn how to communicate or interact with the parents of his or her players then he or she will lose a large base of both moral and financial support. Alienating parents is a very dangerous thing to do because a disgruntled or unhappy parent can cause more havoc to a coach's program than the TV bear can do to the inside of a mini-van when it is looking for cookies. In one of the above paragraphs I said a parent can be the Good Samaritan and spread the good news about the coaches program. Well, the alienated or unhappy parent can also be the devil who convinces other parents that their daughter or son would be better off to be in hell rather than to be in a particular coach's school and playing in the coach's program.

An Old Coach's Pep Talk

A famous mathematician Rene' Descartes wrote in his book on coordinate geometry, Discourse on Method, that he left out numerous theorems because he wanted the reader to have the pleasure of discovering some of them on his or her own. Yea, sure he did; I am really sure that in the 16th century he new every possible analytical geometry theorem. I have probably left out some primary characteristics that cause a coach to excel, but I left them out because I didn't think of them or I haven't heard of them or I just plain didn't know them. With that said, let's consider the six characteristics I just discussed: 1) knowledge of game tactics and strategies, 2) knowledge of game fundamentals, 3) leadership skills, 4) motivational skills, 5) salesperson skills, and 6) people skills.

Can you name just one of them in this list that a male could do better than a female. I can't! In fact one would have to be a misogynist to even think that a female could not do them as well as a male. Consequently, I hope that there is no more trashing of female coaches on the Message Board, and that school AD's can chose coaches with a blind eye towards gender. It would have been unconscionable for me to not have written this article because I have nine granddaughters, Chelsea, Bailey, Kiley, Jordan, Kendra, Sami, Ashlyn, Gracie, and Everly, and to think a Message Board I support could in anyway thwart any of my granddaughters from becoming just about anything they please would have completely defeated my purpose for supporting the Message Board in the first place.

A Coach Is a Coach Is a ...

Let's end on a much lighter note with a story about one of my female players who became not just a good coach but who became a great coach. While Lynn Comer-Kachmarik was in graduate school at Slippery Rock and still playing on the National Team, I made her the Assistant Coach of the Men's Team and the Coach of the Men's JV. With her coaching help the Men's Team did exceedingly well and the Men's JV went undefeated. The JV probably did better than the varsity team because I didn't help her with the JV Team.

One time when we were playing Bucknell, the male Bucknell coach asked me why I had a girl as my assistant coach. I told him I picked my assistant coach on the basis of knowledge and performance not on the basis of gender. I told him she knew more water polo than 90% of the coaches on the East coast, and that is why she was chosen. He just shook his head and walked away mumbling to himself.

When Lynn finished her Master's degree she became the Women's Swimming Coach at Bucknell, and the first year she was there the male players tried to get their coach to make Lynn the assistant men's water polo coach. The Bucknell coach said no way, so the next year the seniors went in mass to tell the Bucknell coach that the team needed Lynn as the assistant coach. He begrudgingly made Lynn the assistant coach, and after several more years the Bucknell coach decided to retire. He highly recommended that Lynn be appointed to his position. Of course she got the position. Thus, Lynn Comer-Kachmarik became the first ever female to coach a NCAA Division I Men's Water Polo Team. While she was still the Bucknell coach's assistant, I never did ask the Bucknell coach why he had a woman as his assistant coach!?

Email Coach Hunkler at [email protected]