As women's athletics evolves, successful veteran coaches focus on athletes' personal growth

As women's athletics evolves, successful veteran coaches focus on athletes' personal growth

GLIAC – From eliminating six-player basketball to incorporating rally scoring in volleyball or composite bats in softball, the evolution of women’s athletics since Title IX’s inception in 1972 has been mostly positive and dramatic relative to where it was 50 years ago.

Title IX’s 50th anniversary afforded veteran Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference coaches an opportunity to compare life when they were student-athletes to today’s student-athlete experience. They agree that "good old days" weren't so bad. And while today's female student-athletes are performing at an increasingly higher caliber, their lives are exceedingly more complicated than the average college students of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Common themes among Ferris State volleyball coach Tia Brandel-Wilhelm, Grand Valley State softball coach Dana Callihan, Wayne State tennis coach Sheila Snyder, Northern Michigan track and field/cross country coach Jenny Ryan and former Saginaw Valley State athlete/coach and long-time Central Michigan coach Sue Guevara are that today’s female athletes are bigger, faster and stronger, have a higher sports IQ, yet face repercussions due to the pressures of sport specialization and social influences. All five coaches noted that the coaching profession faces a shortage of elite-level females.

Each coach has raised the competitive bar in their respective sports, while stressing that the most important work they do is simply caring for today’s student-athlete.

Snyder, a multi-sport athlete in high school and college and the mother of three collegiate athletes, including one who is playing professional volleyball overseas, is in her 34th season as the Wayne State women’s tennis coach. She was an All-GLIAC tennis player and basketball team captain at WSU.

“When I played tennis, it was an eight-week season and started the first day of school,” Snyder said. “We were done with our season at GLIAC Championships. We played two months a year, then went on to basketball. I practiced 2-4:30 for tennis and 5-7 for basketball. I don’t know who could do that right now. Now it’s a year-long sport. That’s huge.”

“When I was in middle school, not too long ago, my mom had to fight the school board to even add sports,” said Brandel-Wilhelm, a Whitehall, Mich., native who played volleyball and ran track at Alma College. “We only had track and basketball, then added volleyball and softball and bunch of other sports. It doesn’t feel like that long ago, and now they have national championships that are televised. Volleyball is now the biggest sport for high school girls in participation. With that, we’re getting a higher-level athlete, a higher level of play and competition…The coolest thing is we’re now seeing really good volleyball players whose kids are now playing volleyball.”

Snyder built one of the top DII tennis programs in the Midwest with a simple formula that has less to do with the latest technology and more to do with old-fashioned team building.

“I just care,” Snyder said. “Kids want to go to a program where they see stability, consistency. Kids don’t leave my program. I just do my best. That’s all I can do. And the better you get, the better players you attract. They city of Detroit is thriving now and more attractive to recruits. It’s a great academic school. If you provide an environment where kids are happy, you get results. I’m very selective when I pick my kids now. A cancer just kills a program. I like diversity too. I like to bring in people from different places so they will see what you will see in the work force. They need to learn how to make things work with people from other cultures.”

Ryan, an All-America skier at Montana State, was named NMU’s head track and field coach in 2014-15 after joining the Wildcats’ ski team coaching staff in 2000. She competed in a half dozen sports as a youngster before focusing on skiing.

“When I was younger (in Minnesota) I played all kinds of sports -- soccer, softball, baseball,” Ryan said “My parents will always remember when I was in second grade and my sister in fourth, we went to sign her up for softball. The boys could start playing baseball in second grade, but girls couldn’t start until third grade. I went up to the people and asked why. They didn’t have an answer for me. My mom would tell me about when there were only a few sports they could play.”

Guevara was a GLIAC softball player and GLIAC Softball Coach of the Year at SVSU before embarking on a stellar basketball coaching career at Michigan State, Michigan and Central Michigan. She recently spoke during a CMU Tile IX panel with other veteran coaches, staunchly supporting multi-sport participation and the importance of women giving back by coaching.

“Back in the day, we played three or four sports in high school,” Guevara told the audience. “We were pretty well-rounded. We didn’t have as many back problems. We didn’t have as many ankle problems. We got to develop all the various muscle parts of our bodies and learned how to relate to different types of teams…Now kids are playing basketball when they are six, and they’re not doing a whole lot of other stuff. They’re being forced to make a choice…You’re 15 years old. You don’t even know what you’re going to do when you grow up.”

Ryan mentioned NMU's former associate athletic director, the late Barb Patrick, being instrumental in the rise of Wildcat women’s sports. Patrick told Ryan about the days of limited travel and equipment budgets, including a desperate move to use maxi pads as shin guards in field hockey.

“I do feel like I was kind of lucky,” Ryan said. “I was able to compete in the sports I wanted. I didn’t notice any difference. I skied at Montana State. (The men’s and women’s teams) had the same coaches. We traveled together. Now, the women athletes have much more in the budget for equipment, travel, everything.”

Callihan coaches a sport that saw the last three Division I World Series average 1 million television viewers per game. Softball ranks fifth in high school girls sports participation behind track and field, volleyball, soccer and basketball. Adding more offense to the game has helped to make it viewer-friendly.

“The visual part is out there a lot more than it used to be,” she said. “People are understanding our game a little bit more. Even baseball fans are being converted over, which helps with the growth. There have been lot of good changes to add more excitement.”

As second and third generation female athletes come along, Brandel-Wilhelm can recruit physically stronger players.

“We’re seeing more women who are stronger,” she continued. “They’re growing as daughters and sometimes granddaughters of women who were athletes…They are playing so much longer and have a better understanding of the game and how to maneuver the ball,” Brandel-Wilhelm said. “It has pushed the sport a long way.”

Snyder, a native of northwest Indiana, was one of WSU's few out-of-state recruits in the 1980s. Today, as a head coach, she recruits world-wide – a trend somewhat unique to GLIAC tennis, golf, swimming & diving and soccer.

“Recruiting is around-the-world now,” she said. “Computers and modern technology have changed how we recruit…Parents will spend $10,000 to services to find them a school. I try to get them on my own. I put in a lot of time getting to know my kids.”

Better equipment and training have helped young softball players develop elite-level skills and understanding of mechanics, according to Callihan, a 1992 GVSU graduate and All-GLIAC catcher who joined long-time coach Doug Woods’ staff in 2001 and became the Lakers’ head coach in 2015. She cautioned there is much more to the game than a bat’s exit velocity.

“I’m torn a bit,” said Callihan, who is admittedly “old-school” in her coaching approach. “There are some things that I don’t agree with at the youth level.”

While technology has helped simplify recruiting, it can hinder young players’ understanding of the game.

“Youth are getting to where they are so focused on these measurables, they’re not understanding the game itself,” said Callihan, who was a multi-sport prep athlete and spent seven years as an engineer in the automotive industry before coaching full-time. “They’re not understanding a pitch that’s moving. It’s creating no base running instincts. They lose a little bit of the game sense.”

“The game is still growing,” Brandel-Wilhelm said of volleyball at all levels. “The number of participants has grown faster than the number of experienced coaches. There aren’t enough coaches at the high school and a little bit at the club levels for kids who want to play and receive good coaching. We’re doing a pretty good job of trying to make that situation better."

Guevara noted some unintended consequences of Title IX, including more men coaching women’s sports. Title IX also led to the dropping of men’s sports at some schools, including GLIAC institutions.

“I wrote a paper – ‘Title IX, An Opportunity for Men,’” Guevara said. “Because of the opportunity Title IX opened up for males in coaching, whether it’s high school or especially at the collegiate level. If there’s one thing that drives me crazy, it’s we’ve got to get more women involved in coaching. You know what, you have to give back. That’s the only way women are going to get into leadership roles.”

“The resources we have now compared to then, and the technology -- all of that has evolved,” Snyder noted of the overall growth of women’s athletics. “Maybe more exposure? I don’t think women’s sports will ever compete with football or men’s basketball in that area. I think I’m the wrong person to ask. Honestly, I think there needs to be more women coaches, but’s extremely difficult to raise a family and coach. It’s crazy. I don’t know I did it. And I had to be intramural director and drive 30 miles to work. It was exhausting.”

Callihan recently returned from the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Convention, which enjoyed its largest attendance ever. While excited about the enthusiasm for collegiate softball, the hot topic was student-athlete mental health and helping them navigate pressures outside of sport.

“The biggest challenge in coaching today is dealing with the pressures youth have off the field,” she said. “All the pressures that student-athletes have – not necessarily from us – and being able to manage that. It makes you wonder if the growth of the game has caused some of that. Back when we played, we just played. We figured out how to manage things a lot better because we didn’t have coaches micromanaging things. We had to figure out how manage equipment, the lineup. Now there’s the pressure of scholarships, recruiting. I didn’t feel that when I was a kid. Although we’ve made some improvements (notably with the recuriting calendar), it’s happening younger and younger. So much more is happening in kids’ brains, in their world, than what we ever felt. I played Little League then joined the women’s league. That’s just what you did. I learned from watching the Tigers. Whatever Alan Trammell did, that’s what I tried to do. The game is the game. We all have a passion for the game. The problem is all these other influences. As coaches, we have to figure out how to navigate that and survive. Every challenge for every person is different.”

“It’s so hard for these kids,” said Snyder, who currently has six international players on her roster. “I’m a mom of three kids. I know what it’s like for these kids who are on their own.”

Ryan partially blames social media for mental health issues, including eating disorders.

“I feel that’s a little more prevalent now,” she said. “Maybe I just didn’t know it was going on when I was in college. We don’t weigh athletes. We don’t talk about losing weight…They are so driven to get good grades, to be so good at everything they do. They put so much pressure on themselves.”

“Today girls have access to so many more opportunities,” Ryan continued. “A lot of them started young and specialized a lot. Especially recently, I’ve had athletes who went to camps when they were young, and they were pretty intense. Now they’re at a point where they’re kind of burnt out and don’t want the consistent training all the time. I know one kid who lived outside of Minneapolis. She lived with another family just to go to camp. Now she’s completely burnt out. They have access to a lot more opportunity and knowledge, but it is interesting. For some it’s too much, and some are still really motivated.”

“Kids love discipline,” said Snyder, whose message speaks to both genders. “They really do. They love being part of something. They’re lost when they don’t have a program. College sports is to me one of the best things kids can ever go through. The values that it teaches. It’s something you have your entire life…Working together for a common goal – you have to work at it every day. It doesn’t come naturally, but the growth is amazing.”