My daughter comes bursting through the door after soccer practice and exclaims, "Mom! We had so much fun! Maya and Natalie and I got to be on the same team!" "Did you win?" I ask. She replies, "I have no idea."
What a difference that is from when my son comes home from practice or, even more so, from a game. He can recite every well-executed play and missed opportunity in excruciating detail. But when I ask whether his best friend was on his team for the scrimmage, he replies, "No, but who cares? My team won!"
In a nutshell, these two scenarios capture the essence of how boys and girls approach sports differently. Of course, there are always exceptions -- the supercompetitive girl, the boy who would rather sit on the bench and chat with his buddy than be on the playing field -- but, in general, most of the coaches and parents I talked with agreed: For girls, the social interaction and the experience of being on a team with friends is No. 1. And for boys, it's much more about the end result.
So how can coaches apply this conventional wisdom to improve their coaching -- and get the best out of their players, whether they be girls or boys? Here's what I heard from a few longtime coaches who have successfully coached both genders, from elementary through high school.
Work with not against the innate gender differences
Girls are more concerned about having their friends on their team rather than winning. Sure, they like to win, but it's more important if they do so while playing with their friends. As one longtime coach told me, "I've never had to tell the boys to stop holding hands during practice, but I have had to ask them to quit jumping on each other or wrestling."
Given this, when you divvy up your team for squads, make sure you put at least two girls who are buddies together from the get-go, and you'll avoid the whining about who's on whose team later on. Boys -- because they're concerned more with winning -- won't worry about friendships on the team, but will worry about "fairness" or the "evenness" of the teams athletically.
Encourage the natural strengths and develop the weaknesses of each gender
Girls are experiential and process-oriented. You'll see that girls work just as hard as -- or even harder than -- the boys, but the girls care more about the overall effort than simply counting the numbers in the win and loss columns. With girls, if you spend time talking about their improvements, they'll work even harder and you'll quickly see a direct correlation to the overall win/loss record.
On the other hand, boys are much more results-oriented. It's not that they can't be focused on the journey, it's just that their DNA is geared toward winning and losing. With boys, you need to guide them to put effort into improving skills and getting something out of the experience -- encouraging them to understand that the journey, not just the number of Ws, is the reward.
Resolve problems collaboratively for girls, one-on-one for boys
Girls and boys approach problem-solving differently. Because of this, when you have an issue with a specific player -- or there's a problem with the team dynamic -- you should take gender into account.
With girls, yelling simply doesn't work. Coaches who approach girls as they would boys find this out the hard way. When you are upset with the attitude or effort of your female players, the best way to handle it is with a team meeting. Start by asking them what they think the problem is. Nine times out of 10, the girls will have already pinpointed the problem and have several solutions to propose. Girls work things out collaboratively -- as a team. It might be painful, but the results you see in the end will be worth it.
In contrast, boys need to be listened to and heard. If a boy on your team is acting out or needs help focusing, you should address it with the player, one-on-one, clear the air, and move on. You might have to get the boy's attention by raising your voice and making an example of him in front of his peers, but once you do, and you clearly explain your expectations, you should be on your way to a better team dynamic.
(Emily Cohen is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, Calif. She is the mother of a son, 12, and a daughter, 9, who both play multiple sports. She has been a team manager for her children's soccer, baseball and softball teams.)