Mentoring Black women coaches: Developing confidence through relationships and learningApril 22, 2022
Photo credit: Conestoga College Condors Athletics
- Some coaches are the “only” in their organization: the only woman, only racialized person or only racialized woman. Being the “only” relates to feelings of otherness and isolation, threatening coaches’ confidence.
- Social support and environmental comfort can build coach confidence. Racism and sexism in sport in Canada can make support and comfort harder to achieve for Black women coaches.
- Mentorship offers a way to develop confidence in Black women coaches, fostering professional development and personal growth, encouraging coaches to be their best selves.
- Providing opportunities for (racialized) women coaches to learn from others can build confidence and competence in coaches, and encourage more women to enter and stay in coaching.
Anyone involved in sport knows that confidence is key. Whether coach, athlete or participant, the importance (and fragility) of confidence can’t be overlooked.
The vital and tenuous nature of confidence means steps must be taken to safeguard the confidence of racialized women coaches, who are sometimes the “only” in their organization. They’re facing isolation and otherness that can hinder their confidence and wellbeing.
Mentorships are shown to enhance confidence in racialized athletes (Brandon, 2012) and women coaches (Allen & Reid, 2019). Yet, no current research details the benefits for Black women coaches in Canada. This article builds on previous research (Joseph & McKenzie, 2022; Joseph, McKenzie, & Brown, 2021; Joseph, Razack, & McKenzie, 2021) examining barriers faced by and resilience of racialized coaches in Canada.
Here we share findings on the importance of building knowledge and nurturing confidence for sport coaches who identify as Black women. We also offer best practices for optimizing bringing in (racialized) women coaches across sport and retaining them.
Race, gender and confidence in coaching
Sport coaches aim to build confidence in their athletes. Coaches need self-confidence to optimize the support they can provide. To this end, confidence is among the most influential, extensively studied psychological concepts (Machida et al., 2017).
Confidence has been shown to be associated with many positive attributes and outcomes, including goal orientation (Vosloo et al., 2009), lower cognitive and physiological anxiety (Cresswell & Hodge, 2004), and ultimately, optimized performance (Moritz et al., 2000). Improving confidence has been identified as a pivotal component of sport performance for athletes, however, coaches must also have self-confidence.
Because coach self-confidence and performance are important parts of athlete self-confidence and performance, programs that support coaches can be critical to the success of an entire sport organization. Coach confidence can be built through social support and environmental comfort. This can be harder to achieve for Black women coaches, given racism and sexism in sport (Fielding‐Lloyd & Mean, 2011; Joseph, Razack, & McKenzie, 2021).
In the U.S., gendered racism has been found to influence the access, opportunities, retention, promotion and overall experiences of racialized women, specifically in sport leadership roles (Cunningham et al., 2021; Nesseler et al., 2021). This body of research emphasizes it’s important to provide more opportunities for racialized women to coach, so they can learn from others who share their experiences. And also so that they can influence more women to enter and stay in coaching.
There’s scarce research on the intersections of race, gender and confidence in Canadian coaching. What little research has been done shows that coaching leadership is predominantly white and male in Ontario University Athletics (OUA) (Joseph, Razack, & McKenzie, 2021). For example, only 22% of OUA coaches who responded to a survey identified as racialized (Joseph, Razack, & McKenzie, 2021, p. 8). Another study of university athletics across Canada showed only 17% of head coaches and 22% of assistant coaches identified as women (Donnelly, Norman, & Kidd, 2013).
The major takeaway is that more work is needed to make Canadian sport coaching more equitable and diverse, from grassroots to high performance. Mentorship programs can be a buffer against cultural norms and social inequities affecting the confidence of underrepresented sport stakeholders, such as women and people of color.
Research with the Black Female Coaches Mentorship Program
Mentorship is designed to enhance the recruitment, retention and promotion of coaches across sport by advancing coach skill, comfort and confidence. In 2020, the Black Female Coaches Mentorship Program (BFCMP) began as a way to address the gap in mentorship for Black women coaches in Canada. We aimed to further understand Black women coaches’ experiences through research with the BFCMP.
As part of this research, we observed 3 mentorship sessions and conducted semi-structured, 1‑on‑1 interviews with 15 of 27 inaugural mentors and mentees. One of our objectives was to determine what role mentorships play in building confidence among Black women coaches.
As the only woman coach or only racialized coach in their organization, most participants in the BFCMP described feeling alone and unable to connect deeply with other coaches in their organization. However, there are dozens of Black women sport coaches who share their experiences across many sports organizations in all provinces. And there’s significant potential for the coaches to learn from each other. They just needed an opportunity to meet.
Coaches joined the BFCMP wanting to network with other people of their racial background and gender. An unexpected outcome for many participants was the range of knowledge they acquired by interacting with other coaches. Even seasoned mentors learned from mentees. Knowledge about self-care, navigating racism and sexism, and understanding how sport systems operate was imperative to improving their coaching.
Another essential area of learning was in building confidence. Because of the discrimination they had previously faced, some coaches doubted their skills, abilities, decisions and even self-worth. By seeing others in similar situations who have succeeded, the coaches in BFCMP could shift their lens from diffidence to confidence.
Below, the 3 main themes of our findings (friendship, learning and speaking up) point to the importance of building knowledge and confidence in Black women’s communities.
Theme 1: Friendship
Many BFCMP participants have few sport coaches in their communities who look like them. Mentors and mentees expressed learning through the experiences of other Black women was the biggest boost to their confidence. The learnings ranged from coaching best practices and communication techniques to styling hair and sharing home-cooked recipes.
“[The] best part was connecting with women [who] look like me, learning best practices, and celebrating everyone’s accomplishments.”– Tiffany, mentor
Mentee Nika echoed a similar sentiment: “That was super cool, learning about other people’s experiences. … I realize that a lot of things that I have been feeling, everybody [in that] group has felt. … On the calls, I would see some girls in bonnets. I would see some girls in braids, twists. … We talk about ‘How do I make fufu?’ … It was great vibes. Then we had [a mentor] talking about what it’s like having two kids and being a successful coach.”
Participants felt they really got to know other women through the power of storytelling. For example, mentor Jolene and mentee Ella both thrived because the program was one of the first opportunities they’d had to connect with other Black women coaches to support their learning. They emphasized the interpersonal support gained through individual and group mentorship. For example:
“I loved meeting with my mentees because we got to really talk … really dive into understanding who they are, not only as a coach but as a person, … giving them the objective view of what situations [they] are going through and giving them a different scope to look through. I loved going through that with my mentees and they’ve taught me a lot in return.”– Jolene, mentor
Ella noted, “The best part of the program for me was the conversation and mentorship I had with my mentor in particular. … [Monthly sessions] provided an opportunity to reconnect with the other mentees and see how they were doing.” Knowing the mentees “as a person” with a regular “opportunity to reconnect” was critical to the program’s success.
By reflecting, connecting and offering advice, mentors and mentees can impart knowledge to each other. Mentor-only sessions were part of the training for the mentorship program. But Ariel reveals that mentees would have appreciated “a better opportunity to connect with other mentees to socialize on our own on a zoom call and ask each other questions and get to know each other our own way.”
The importance of spaces to connect can’t be understated. Combating loneliness is a key way to build confidence. Learning about others allowed for learning about the self.
Action items for coach educators and sport administrators:
Theme 2: Learning
Participants in the BFCMP discussed the ways their confidence soared through learning. Many anticipated they would expand their knowledge of coaching tactics and techniques through the program. Instead, they were surprised to learn a wide range of self-directed soft-skills, important components of professional development (PD).
“Because my mentee was actually in my sport, I thought, OK, it’s going to be technically focused … and it wasn’t at all… There’s so much beyond that’s self-development, self-perspective, self-confidence.”Lisa, mentor
The skill Jolene taught and reinforced with her mentees was positive self-talk: “I taught them to make sure they’re reflecting on their self-talk because, as Black women, we often have self-deprecating thoughts. And that made me check myself. How often do I check-in with … how I think about myself or how I talk to myself?”
It can be difficult to navigate barriers related to becoming a certified coach. The process can also be costly and confusing. Sarah believed Black women coaches can be discouraged by the complex National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) process. However, she suggests mentorship as a way to gain comfort and confidence. “[I needed] a little bit more understanding of the NCCP process and how you get your levels, and I know that other women were more comfortable with it because … they’ve probably done the coaching stuff. … I worked with a [mentor] so I could feel more comfortable with it.”
When rules and practices are confusing for some outsiders, systemic discrimination can follow. Hauck (2020) found that the NCCP is inherently racist as inequitable policies including expensive training, on-site education and complicated websites disadvantage some excellent Indigenous coaches who are unaware of how the system operates. Mentorship is a way to help overcome barriers to coaching entry presented by lack of certification. Mentors and mentees noted both formal PD sessions and informal PD conversations were a valued part of the program that increased coach learning and understanding.
“[BFCMP] changed me tremendously through the wonderful conversations I had with the mentees and mentors as it gave more understanding and comprehension about myself, the world and perception of the world towards Black women in sport. Through their mentorship, they assured me with great words of wisdom on how to tackle the negative perceptions and how to leverage my identity as a Black woman in sport to get through the doors of opportunity.”Ella, mentee
Participants of mentorship programs clearly benefit from a wide range of knowledge about self, about processes, and about navigating racism and sexism in sport. All are important aspects of coaching and self-confidence.
Action items for coach educators and sport administrators:
Theme 3: Speaking up and public speaking
Participants supported each other by providing strategies to improve their experiences and their representation as knowledgeable experts. Mentee Nika discussed how Black women can become siloed within society
“[We talked about] creating more spaces for minority groups to speak out, not just on topics about Black Lives Matter. There’s so much knowledge that [we] have that I feel we are kind of boxed in … You’re only reaching out to me for this [anti-racism work]. It’s not for the other things that I have knowledge on … In a sense, [mentorship built] up my self-worth … I’ve learned to stay true to myself, stand in my own shoes, and speak up for myself more too.”– Nika, mentee
Nika believes that if more Black women coaches are invited to share their knowledge, that will elevate how they’re seen in the broader sport community. For Black women coaches, being heard and seen in public means that they can be role models for others. When Black women are the only ones in their organization, and are doubting themselves, they may see their inclusion as tokenism. When they’re confident, they see their inclusion as merited and an opportunity for the next generation of coaches to imagine their own potential and future inclusion. This aligns with what mentor Jolene stated:
“I’ve been turning the idea of tokenism into a chance for me to open up as a representation, a reflection of those who maybe need me in that space to know that they too can take up this space and be confident in it … Playing at the national level and coaching at the provincial level gives those kids who look up to me a chance to think that hey, I belong here too. See it, believe it, achieve it.”Jolene, mentor
Nora mentions the advantage the program provided her in speaking truth to the experiences of Black women coaches because she finally understood her situation wasn’t unique. Now, she has a network of people to use as a sounding board: “I [was] stressed out like, ‘OK, how do I do this? I wonder if people understand this?’ … When dealing with a man, ‘Is [he] gonna take it the wrong way because of my race or because I’m a female?’ I was always second guessing myself. But now I have the confidence to … bounce this idea off of someone else, or ask a coach or another female [who] might have gone through the same thing and get her point of view. I feel more comfortable attacking these situations and it’s giving me more confidence. Now I speak out against stuff. [I’m] more vocal about my passions and the things that I believe in.”
Through the program, coaches built their confidence in speaking up and speaking out about their shared experiences. They came to understand the benefits of being seen and heard.
Action items for coach educators and sport administrators:
Practical takeaways for putting research into action
- Safer spaces: Create safer spaces that promote belonging and community, particularly among racialized women, given the isolation and otherness to which they’re susceptible and to which they’re subjected. Opportunities for knowledge exchange can prevent the loss of great talent and can stimulate peak performance and retention.
- Sponsorship: Provide opportunities for professional development and coach licensing, assisting coaches in overcoming the financial and systemic challenges of becoming a certified coach. Information sessions and discussions about how to navigate certification processes are essential, especially if the aim is to promote equity and inclusivity.
- Platform for dialogue: Provide a platform for racialized women coaches to speak up and speak out on various topics inside and outside of sport. Black women coaches are capable of being subject matter experts on conversations outside of anti-racism or sexism. Holding space to engage in many topics benefits the confidence of women coaches, both personally and professionally, and demonstrates that organizations value their voices.
Mentorship programs offer Black women coaches a one-stop shop: a safe space, sponsorship, and a platform to dialogue and deliberate. These factors all greatly contribute to enhancing coach confidence. And, making them available through mentorship is a win for all stakeholders involved.
“What it’s done for me? It’s just I, I can’t put it in words. It’s amazing, an amazing program.”– Nora, mentee
The Black woman mentor “goes beyond the institutional goal of solely promoting cognitive growth and focuses on the socioemotional well-being … understanding the marginalization and invisibility that Black [women] face” (Greene, 2020, p. 2). Through mentorship, the development of relationships among Black women can nurture self-confidence to better position them to navigate society. If sport is to be more equitable, feminist and anti-racist, then increasing opportunities for building confidence and relationships must be a focal point.
Based on their lived experience, women participants understood the profound effects of racism and sexism in sport. Through their conversations, the participants gained knowledge of how to address trauma and pain through self-care and self-confidence, how to conceptualize their goals and ambitions, and how to resist systems of domination. Having obtained that combined knowledge, they can help close the gap between anti-racism and feminist theory on one hand, and lived practices, speech habits, and ways of occupying space in sport coaching on the other.
Mentorship offers a methodology to develop the confidence of Black women coaches, fostering professional and personal growth through formal and informal means. Race-specific and gender-specific mentorship programs protect and promote the confidence of racialized women coaches, cultivating optimal performance in both athletes and coaches.
About the Author(s)
Alex I. McKenzie, M.H.K., is a sport psychology researcher currently working at the University of Toronto’s Indigeneity, Diaspora, Equity, and Anti-racism in Sport (IDEAS) research lab. McKenzie conducts research projects aimed at addressing race and gender equity in sport, as well as the gaps within the application of mental health and performance aspects of sport.
Janelle Joseph, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto. She’s also Founder and Director of the Indigeneity, Diaspora, Equity, and Anti-racism in Sport (IDEAS) Research Lab. Joseph’s research includes 3 books related to race and sport, and she’s Director of Research for the Black Canadian Coaches Association.
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