The Coaching Gender Question

During a recent conversation with a friend who rarely concerns themselves with the world of sports, one thing they asked me about caught me by surprise.

They wanted to know my thoughts on the San Antonio Spurs hiring Becky Hammon as the first ever female assistant coach in NBA history.

I thought it was fascinating that that story, somewhat minor in hardcore NBA circles, had caught the attention of those on the sports periphery. 

Being one of those die-hard NBA guys, I was pretty well-read on the subject and actually knew a bit of Hammon’s background. The WNBA is a secret pleasure of mine.

News of the hiring got me thinking about Berkshire County and the coaches we have out here. During a brief chat with Taconic and Pittsfield Athletic Director Jim Able and I was alerted to some exciting and interesting news in Pittsfield.

For the first time in school history, Taconic High has a female coach overseeing a boys’ sports team this fall.

Former Pittsfield High standout Hilary Smith is coaching the Braves Boys’ Junior Varsity Soccer team and enjoying it. 

“I hadn't thought about coaching a boys’ team initially, but coaching in general was definitely something I was interested in,” said Smith in an e-mail conversation on her way to a game at Minnechaug. “I always have my feelers out for coaching jobs around Berkshire County.”

Smith played four years of varsity soccer at PHS, being named All-Berkshire as a senior, before continuing her education at UMass-Amherst. She first got into coaching while a student-teacher at Springfield Central. She coached softball and has been an assistant for the Generals’ team as well. Now she teaches seventh grade a Reid Middle School.

While there are a handful of female coaches in Berkshire County who do oversee some boys’ teams, most of those are on a joint basis. Sports like cross-country, track and swimming have boys’ and girls’ teams generally practicing and competing together. Smith’s situation was unique and she knew going in that there would be challenges.

“It took a little while for the players to warm up to me,” said Smith. “We've had one small issue, I talked to the players about it and they agreed that they didn't think it was weird at all that they had a girl coach and that ‘girls teams have guy coaches so why can't we have a girl coach’ - which was nice to hear!”

The similarities between boys’ and girls’ soccer have helped ease this transition for her and will hopefully lead to more opportunities like hers down the line for other potential coaches.

Like myself, Smith thinks the Hammon news and these other stories are very positive steps. 

Personally, I am a big proponent of trying new things and getting as many differing view points on a game as possible. I love new coaches getting chances, which is a big reason for the excitement I have for the Mike Maker era at my alma mater Marist.

The act of a woman being hired in this role at that level was a huge step forward, I think. Especially at a time when we are being exposed to some of this scummy activity going on in the NFL, stories like this are important. We should be focusing our attention on Sarah Thomas, not Ray Rice.

Thomas has a very good shot to be named the first permanent female referee in NFL history. She already broke through things like being the first woman to officiate a major collegiate game and a bowl game.

Other names like Violet Palmer, the first female NBA official, or Worcester-native Shannon Eastin, who actually refereed NFL games during the officials’ strike of 2012. The recent press received by Mo’Ne Davis during the Little League World Series was huge in giving young girls the idea that they can compete with boys and men down the line for jobs in and around the world of sports.

“I think having female coaches and officials evens the playing field, so to speak, and it shows kids that sports know no gender,” said Smith. “There aren't many women coaching boys’ sports because it isn't the norm but hopefully that will change soon!”