Little League: Let Women Coach!
September 26, 2021. As many of you who follow the Shattering Glass blog know, sports have played an important role throughout my life. My childhood dream job was to be the first female professional major league baseball player. Even though it was never realized, I have found new ways to stay connected and active in the world of baseball and other sports through my roles as both a parent and a coach.
This summer, I had the honor of serving as the manager of my son’s 12U Little League All-Star baseball team, leading the team on the road to Williamsport, Pennsylvania and the Little League Baseball World Series. Although this was an incredible experience to have shared with my son and his teammates, I found myself on the receiving end of rules that kept me from being an effective team leader. My tenure as a Little League coach revealed the pervasive gender discrimination within the organization that desperately needs to be addressed, not only for the good of the women who could provide vital leadership in the organization, but also on behalf of the impressionable kids who play the sport.
My hope is that by recounting my unique experiences as a female coach and team manager, and thereby identifying the inherent issues, I will help facilitate the needed changes to make Little League a better and more inclusive organization reflective of our changing society.
My Little League Experience
My involvement with Little League goes way back.
Despite the fact that my dream of going pro was crushed before I was ten (when I realized I was not even allowed to play baseball), I played travel and recreation Little League softball throughout my childhood. I had some amazing Little League coaches, the most inspirational was the mother of one of my teammates. Little League was there for me at a time when I needed it most, so it holds a very special place in my heart.
Fast forward three decades, and my son fell in love with baseball as a toddler. As soon as he was old enough, we registered him for Capitol City Little League (“Cap City”), our neighborhood Little League in Washington, DC. That is when I fell in love with coaching.
I started as an assistant coach for his tee ball team and continued to serve as an assistant on his teams for four years and then on my younger daughter’s teams when she started playing baseball. (Sadly, she no longer plays — more on that later).
As an assistant coach, I saw very few coaches in the mold of either my childhood coaches or the coach I wanted to become. Consequently, I dug in, studying how to teach the game to young kids – researching drills, conveying proper mechanics, pitching techniques, and the mental/emotional aspects of the game – and attended countless coaching clinics.
When my son was eligible to play in the Majors division, the highest division on the Little League small diamond, I applied to be a manager, which is the head coach. Because I was a woman who never played baseball, my application was not taken seriously by some. To say Little League Baseball is male-dominated in all ranks – players, coaches and leadership – is an understatement. In fact, in seven years, I can count on my hands the number of female coaches and managers I have encountered.
Nonetheless, I was awarded the position and have been a manager for the last three years. I also served as an assistant coach on two Cap City All-Star teams, as well as the manager of the Cap City 12U All-Star team this summer.
My devotion to Little League and the children we serve did not stop with coaching. Five years ago, I joined Cap City’s Board of Directors, first as Treasurer, then as President, and I am currently finishing my final term as Vice President. Wanting to help even more kids, I joined the Board of DC Little League, which acts as the liaison between Little League International and all of the Little Leagues in DC, two years ago and I continue to serve as a DC Little League Board Member.
During my tenure on the Cap City and DC Little League Boards:
Cap City developed its first formal budget, more than doubled its reserves, and created a sponsorship program;
Cap City established a formal coaches’ training program, which incudes a partnership with the Positive Coaching Alliance, and started a robust player skills development program for all ages; and
DC Little League successfully advocated that DC, which previously was considered a district in the State of Maryland, should be treated as its own state.
To say the very least, I have poured my heart, soul, energy and countless hours into Little League over the past seven years, making many personal and family sacrifices to do so. Truthfully, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Why do I tell you all of this?
In part, I think, because I am a woman and so often feel the need to prove myself in the many areas of my life that are male-dominated. More importantly, because I want to demonstrate both my knowledge of the rules and inner workings of Little League as well as my commitment to an organization that I love. I know what needs to be done on these critical issues, and I will work tirelessly to help Little League make it happen.
The Road to Williamsport
Unfortunately, I cannot adequately convey the significance of the events this summer without talking about the preceding year, Covid-19, and the profound impact it had on all of the players.
In 2020, Cap City did not play any baseball because DC was not issuing permits to use the fields due to Covid-19. When we finally were able to secure field permits this past spring, the vast majority of our kids had not yet returned to school and had been learning virtually, with limited activities, for over a year. Suffice it to say they were suffering socially and emotionally as a result.
Many of the kids on my spring 2021 Majors team, the BlueSox, had not picked up a ball since the fall of 2019. They were beyond frustrated with themselves. Crying after making errors. Slamming bats after strike outs. They were emotionally raw after spending a year in isolation. It was a challenge.
It became readily apparent that it was in the kids’ best interests for me to spend more time managing their minds and emotional needs than on developing their baseball skills. To that end, we always spent the last 45 minutes of our weekly two-hour practice on a fun competition, such as an intrasquad scrimmage that would enable them to practice unknowingly the skills we worked on that day, while having fun. I also held optional hitting practices each week to give kids another opportunity to get out of the house and bond while I worked on their confidence and helped them recover. There were no real mechanical issues to explain their struggles; it was simply mental.
This approach paid off. The BlueSox all improved and were back to themselves by the end of the season this past June, which concluded my son’s final season in Little League. As an added bonus, the kids were successful on the field, winning the Majors Division Championship and the prized Cup that comes along with it.
During our regular season, I was appointed the manager of Cap City’s 12U All-Star team. To say the very least, this is a coveted gig in the Little League universe. And to be able to share this with my son, who has dreamed of going to Williamsport since he started playing and was selected as an All-Star, was a dream. Their peers and all managers and coaches voted nine of the All-Star players onto the team, and the other four were selected by me. Unfortunately, one of my initial selections, a girl who is tough-as- nails, was not available.
The day after the regular season ended, we got right to work, implementing the strategies that worked for the BlueSox – bonding, boosting confidence, and taking lots of reps. The social/emotional challenges caused by the pandemic were exacerbated by the additional pressure of being an All-Star and wanting to go to Williamsport. The kids put a ton of pressure on themselves.
We practiced one or two times a day for seven weeks, had numerous scrimmages, attended a Washington Nationals game for the first time since the pandemic started, and held our share of team and family events. When the DC State Tournament started, the team had come so far, and we were ready.
The team went undefeated (7-0) in the DC State tournament, outscoring their opponents 75-10, which earned them the right to advance to the Mid-Atlantic Regional tournament in Bristol, Connecticut, where the two best teams would earn a trip to Williamsport for the Little League World Series! We were beyond thrilled.
We went 1-2 in Bristol, finishing our run in fourth place, two wins away from qualifying for Williamsport. Our pitching and defense were superb. While we did not get the hits we needed, our team proved that we certainly deserved to be there. Although the pain of elimination was intense at first, the boys have bounced back, just this past week enjoying an on-field celebration of their Championship at a Washington Nationals game.
The ride for my son and the other boys on the team was incredible. They made lifelong friendships and memories, have a ton to be proud of and will look back fondly at the amazing experience.
A Female Manager in Bristol, Connecticut
Unfortunately, my experience as a manager was far from the positive one that my players enjoyed. To be clear, Little League should be all about the kids, and I have been preaching this for years – as a parent, assistant coach, manager, and Board member of both Cap City and DC Little League. That is why I waited until now, after the dust settled from the competition of the Little League World Series, to share my experience, despite the fact that it likely would have reached a far larger audience had I done so upon my return from Bristol.
However, my story needs to be told, not for me, but for the good of the kids, the good of Little League, and the good of the game.
After we won the DC State Championship, our team started to garner attention as no one could remember a woman serving as a 12U All-Star manager, either locally or in Bristol, Connecticut, the home of the Eastern Regionals. Apparently, Little League does not keep the demographics of managers or assistant coaches. However, we do know that there has never been a woman manager at the Little League World Series in Williamsport.
Shortly thereafter, we started receiving information from Bristol, where the kids, managers and coaches stay in dorms at the facility. I learned that Little League was putting me in a hotel. At first, I was incredibly grateful as it would have been uncomfortable bunking with my two male assistant coaches. I would just go back to my hotel to sleep at the end of the day and return for breakfast in the morning. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Unfortunately, that was not what Little League had in mind.
When we arrived in Bristol on a Saturday, as instructed, all of the families, with tons of gear and equipment, lined up outside the black metal gate surrounding the compound while I checked us in. I learned then that my access inside the compound was limited to the dining hall, so I would need to leave after dinner – at 5:00 or 6:00 pm, depending on the daily schedule.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it turned out to be huge.
On our schedule, we had an hour of practice, an hour of batting practice in the cages and maybe a game each day. At all other times, the team, which was not permitted to leave the compound, was hanging out in the dorms, the recreation area, outdoor courtyard, or pavilion with ping-pong tables – all areas where I was not allowed.
There was some good news at check-in – I learned that there was another woman manager! She led the Delaware team. More telling, however, was how I learned of this awesome fact. At check-in, a Little League employee stumbled and caught herself from saying that she had women managers for the first time ever.
After helping the team unpack and get settled, I received word that our initial manager’s meeting was moved from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm. With nothing to do (sense a theme?) while the boys were hanging out in the dorm, I went out to move my car, which I had left by the front gate. Outside the black metal gate, I saw a woman just walking around. I went up to her and said “Hi, are you the manager from Delaware?” Sure enough, there we both were, meeting on the outside. Waiting for our meeting to start in two hours. Turned out to be fitting.
Throughout my stay at Bristol, I was treated differently than the male managers. On multiple occasions, I was questioned for being in the few areas in the compound where I was “allowed” to be, despite wearing a large lanyard, which was clearly visible, identifying me as the DC Manager. It was suggested that one of my assistant coaches handle the coin flips for home or away prior to each game, as the managers meet at night in the courtyard to do so. I was precluded from being with my team – when I should have been gauging and managing their mindset, watching video with them to prepare for the next game, bonding, strategizing with the assistant coaches, and leading the team.
These are all things the male managers were permitted to do, and which fell to my assistant coaches, because I am a woman. These policies, based on archaic gender stereotypes, created an unwelcoming and — with respect to certain Little League employees — outright hostile environment.
For example, after our first game, a hard-fought match against Pennsylvania (the eventual Mid-Atlantic Champion) that we lost in extra innings, the boys were down and missing their parents. I suggested that the parents meet us at the drop-off location for a visit.
As the team and coaches walked over to the meeting spot, I was talking with one of the assistant coaches about the game and strategy going forward. Just as we crossed the dorm courtyard and approached the meeting spot by the office and parking lot, the same Little League employee who checked me in, a woman no less, started yelling “I told you that you are not allowed to be here!” When I explained that we were walking to meet the parents in the parking lot, she said, “You have to walk on the outside. It’s for your own protection.” That would be one of a few times in Bristol that I heard that the policies were “for my protection.”
There is no doubt that at least two of the players heard this exchange. I said nothing and continued the 20 feet to the meeting point. When we got there, instead of standing with my team, I opened the gate and stood outside with my husband, daughter and the other parents — outside, looking in and at the very same spot that I met the other female manager. I was devastated and could not wait to get into my car, but I had to have my game face on to try and pick-up my players from the other side of the black bars.
Sadly, the next time we met up with the parents to celebrate our exciting, walk-off win to avoid elimination, I walked around the compound and stood outside the black gate looking in as my team celebrated. It was demoralizing.
Another notable example of differing rules for women and men, was when one of our boys was injured and needed to go to urgent care. One of the assistant coaches was required to accompany him; I was not permitted to do so. That left the other assistant coach with 12 boys because even under these exigent circumstances, I was not permitted into the compound common areas to help. We had practice from 3:00 to 4:00 that day, and our team did not arrive at that practice until 3:25 due to the chaos. I had to sit waiting, not able to go into the area to help get them to practice. This was beyond frustrating, not only for me, but also for the assistant coaches and the team.
Even more mortifying is that the boys quickly picked up on the disparate treatment and unwelcoming/hostile environment.
On Sunday morning, at the end of our first practice, one of the boys asked: “Coach Nicole, are they going to let you come to our game today?” I was floored. I had not said a word to the boys about any of this, and they were never within earshot of me or the assistant coaches when we discussed this. Trying to make light of the situation, I responded, “What? Are you kidding? Of course, I will be there. They would have to pull me out of there to keep me from the game.” Unbeknownst to me at the time, the same player had called his mom and said that he thought it was unfair that I was not with the team.
Consequences of Little League’s Policies
As a result of the policies and overall environment, I lost the ability to lead the team effectively.
Think about it, how can a CEO lead an organization if they are not allowed in the Boardroom?
I could only speak to the team briefly after the games or in the dining hall with five other teams present.
I could not head back to the dorms for nightly pizza and bonding time, which had been an essential part of our team culture prior to arriving at Bristol.
I was not allowed to be present when players watched a replay of our games on TV in the dorms, losing valuable opportunities to teach them and strategize for the next game.
Most importantly, the forced exile resulted in me not having the pulse of the team’s mental state and prohibited me from “managing the players’ minds,” which in my view is the most important aspect of coaching, to the best of my ability. Simply put, Little League did not let me coach.
Do I think this impacted the outcome? I am fairly certain the answer is no.
Having watched the entire Little League World Series, we were not going to win it all. Could we have won another game? Maybe. However, the outcome is not the point.
The terrible truth of these policies is that they created a negative atmosphere that had a profound impact on our team and our experience. It was blatant and unfair, so much so that 11 and 12-year-old boys noticed.
The message that adults were conveying to the children is an unhealthy one that they could then replicate in their schools, and later, their workplaces. They all watched the unwelcoming treatment. They felt it throughout. They knew I could not have pizza or play ping pong with them. Think about the player who asked if I was going to be allowed at the game. Or the kids who heard me get reprimanded for walking through the courtyard with them. Or all of them celebrating while I was outside the black metal gate looking in with the parents.
For the last seven weeks, they had been with me mornings and afternoons. I was their fearless and goofy leader who guided them and picked them up. The mastermind behind the operation. Present at every event, and even calling them at home if I thought they were struggling. Now, I was not allowed to be there for them and with them, simply because I am a woman.
These policies sent the message that I was less than a male coach. That is not the message we should be sending to young boys. Or to anyone for that matter.
But why? Why did it have to be this way?
Woman Managers and Coaches and Gender Bias
One thing is clear – this treatment and these rules had nothing to do with Covid-19. I was allowed indoors at the dining hall, where masks were worn upon entry and exit, with our team and five other teams. What’s more is that after dinner each night, I was sent out into the general public only to return the next day — policy which clearly concerned me more than anyone else! We had four kids who were not fully vaccinated and subject to additional Covid-19 testing every other day. I was even wearing two masks when I was in the crowded hotel lobby to be as safe as possible!
Since Covid was not the impetus for these policies, what was?
I kept going back to the “it’s for your protection” party line. The risk of allegations of sexual misconduct? That made no sense to me. First and foremost, all Little League volunteers are subject to annual background checks. I, and every man permitted to stay in the dorms, passed one, and I have passed one each of the last seven years.
Also, I, like all managers are, was with the boys alone quite frequently. I would always be the last one on the field, packing and cleaning up and/or waiting for every boy to be picked up. There were never any concerns.
If this was truly Little League’s reasoning, it could (and should) have permitted women to stay with the boys all day, leaving at 9:30 after pizza, and instructing the women not to be alone in the dorms with the kids. Alternatively, Little League could have allowed women everywhere in the compound except the sleeping quarters. The common areas, such as the courtyard, ping pong tables, and recreation center should not have been prohibited.
Sadly, that leaves gender bias as the driving force for the policies.
It is no secret that Little League baseball coaching and leadership is predominantly male. And it is not just Little League; it is all of youth sports. According to the Positive Coaching Alliance, women only represent 15% of leadership in youth organizations. On average, women account for approximately 27% of youth sports head coaches, with greater percentages in sports perceived to be “feminine,” such as gymnastics, and far less in sports perceived to be more “masculine,” such as baseball, football and basketball.
Despite increased participation in sports by girls and women, the number of women coaches has drastically declined. For example, according to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, from 1971 – 2019 the percentage of women head coaches of women’s college teams decreased from 90% to 41.8%. With respect to youth sports, the Aspen Institute found that, as of 2017, the number of number of women coaches fell to 23%, down from 28% in 2016.
Little League coaching data is scarce, and Little League has indicated that it no longer keeps demographic information on its coaches/managers. However, I found a study of Little League coaches between 1999 and 2007, and women made up a mere 5.9% of baseball and softball managers. I suspect the baseball managers are far less than that as women tend to coach all-girls teams more than coed or all-boys teams.
A recent study by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that 35.7% of youth baseball and softball managers and coaches were women. Again, there was no breakdown for baseball versus softball or managers versus coaches.
Regardless, it is safe to say that women are grossly underrepresented as baseball coaches, and even more so as baseball managers. In my seven-year experience with Little League coaching, I have encountered three other women baseball managers, one of which was the manager of the Delaware All- Star team, and three women baseball assistant coaches (all in All-Stars).
Little League must do better. We need more women managers and coaches. Not only for women and girls, but for all of the kids, the organization and the good of the game.
First, women baseball managers and coaches serve as a role model for girls. Many girls start playing baseball and then stop, either switching to softball or leaving Little League altogether. According to Baseball For All, a non-profit fighting for gender equity in baseball, 100,000 girls play youth baseball, but only 1,000 continue to play in high school.
My ten-year old daughter is one of the girls the game lost. She started playing at the age of four, and there were five girls on her team then. One by one, they dropped out. In 2019, she was the only girl on her kid pitch team, and she was becoming quite the lefty-pitcher; we worked on it regularly. Sadly, she decided that she no longer wanted to play after the pandemic.
Frankly, the coaching environment was not very inclusive. How do I know that? My daughter told me - just last week she said, “Mom, I want to play baseball again if you will be my coach.”
We know that women managers and coaches have the effect of making girls feel more included, boosting their confidence and self-esteem and combating gender stereotypes.
Surely, Little League must know that the public wants to see more girls playing baseball. Look no further than Ella Bruning, the All-Star catcher from Texas who won the hearts of Americans at the Little League World Series this year. Ella is only the 20th girl to ever play in the Little League World Series. As noted by a perceptive Ella, “On-the-field, they don’t treat me any differently . . . Off-the-field, it's a little different because I can’t stay with them in a room. I have to stay in my own room."
That is unfortunate and unwarranted – there are plenty of girls qualified to play. Think about the tough-as-nails girl (who also plays catcher!) that I wanted on our Cap City team. Unfortunately, she was not available as she was going to be playing in an all-girls baseball tournament. If Little League was more inclusive and demonstrated that it values girls as baseball players, maybe she would have played with us.
And it is not just the girls who benefit from having women managers and coaches; women coaches serve as role models for the boys as well. Having a women manager shows young boys that girls and women belong in sports, and that women can lead, breaking down long-standing gender stereotypes.
Finally, having been involved in running a local Little League for the past five years, I know that volunteers are hard to come by. Little League should be recruiting women to tap into a much larger pool of potential volunteers.
However, Little League has a bigger problem in all of this. It must do more than add additional women managers and coaches. It must address systemic gender bias. Baseball is not a game for just fathers and sons. To start, it needs to change the narrative.
Women are not less competent. Women are not less competitive. Women want to coach, but the environment needs to be welcoming, and women need to have a voice and be valued.
Same goes for the girl baseball players. They are not less competent. They are not less competitive. They are not less tough. Girls want to play baseball, but they need to feel welcome and valued and cannot be treated differently, on or off the field.
In doing so, Little League will be sending the message to all, including boys and men, that women and girls are equal and deserve to participate in the sport and lead.
Where Do We Go From Here
In 2019, Little League International started the Girls With Game Initiative, to honor “all the girls and women who have made the Little League program what it is today, and those who inspire the future generation of female participants at every level.” Unfortunately, it appears to be limited to shout-outs in March (Women’s History Month), and predominantly dedicated to softball. Although I believe the intentions were good, the program is merely performative.
To effectuate the necessary changes, Shattering Glass and I are committing to doing the following in the next four months prior to the start off the spring Little League season across the country and around the world:
Send this blog to my contacts at Little League International (Pat Wilson, the Chief Operating Officer of Little League International, Corey Wright, Operations Managing Director for the Central and East Regions, and Kiley Johnson, Regional Director of the Eastern Region) and request a meeting to discuss the issues identified;
Request that Little League International (1) immediately change the policies at their baseball tournaments as applied to female managers, coaches and players, (2) expand the Girls with Game Initiative, (3) actively recruit (and encourage all of its participating Little Leagues to recruit) women managers and coaches, and (4) change the narrative surrounding women and girls in baseball;
Meet with DC Little League and its participating Little Leagues and encourage them to recruit women coaches and managers and change the narrative; and
Volunteer to help Little League International, DC Little League and the eight DC Little Leagues implement each and every one of these suggestions.
Not only will women and girls benefit from these changes, but the entire Little League community will. In addition, this is an incredible opportunity for Little League International to grow its brand, which will enable the organization to help even more kids.
Little League holds a special place in my heart, and I will do everything in my power to help the organization better itself.
Stay tuned for updates.