DOVER, MASS. — For all the strides made by girls and women in playing sports, females - and most notably mothers - still are underrepresented as coaches of youth teams.
This may not be readily apparent during the current Women's World Cup soccer tournament, which is drawing record crowds in the United States, including thousands of girls who dream of being the next Mia Hamm.
But do the "soccer moms" who transport these very girls to the games imagine themselves coaching the powerful US squad, a job currently handled by a man, Tony DiCicco?
Although women are the minority in coaching jobs on every level, few of them seem to notice or make an issue of this. In youth soccer, moms who do participate say they value the opportunity to get closer to their children and be role models for both girls and boys on the teams.
Chris Fleskes knows firsthand that men far outnumber women as soccer coaches in the Boston suburbs, a hotbed for the sport.
As the registrar for the joint Dover-Sherborn (Mass.) town soccer club, she handles the administrative details for about 60 teams and 1,100 youngsters. Only half a dozen women are involved in coaching the 35 upper-level teams, and she is among them.
With three daughters, she's tried to plug in where needed and this season that's meant serving as an assistant coach to a man for 13-year-old Jessica's under-14-years-old traveling team. Coaching is an activity she finds not only richly rewarding, but also beneficial to being a good parent.
"When your kids are between 11 and high school age is when you want to have a real close eye on them, and coaching lets you do that," she says. "You get to know them a lot more in-depth than you do just as a parent."
Patricia Herlihy, who assists with her son's under-12 soccer team in Dover-Sherborn (see story below), confirms that familiarity is heightened through frequent interaction.
With weekly games and twice-weekly practices, she says it's possible to get beyond surface conversations and posturing. "I get to see these guys under pressure, in good times and bad. This helps me parent my child better and that's why I do it."
Leann Crawley, the youth sports coordinator for the Tulsa, Okla., Park and Recreation Department, is grateful for any parent who steps forward to coach, regardless of gender. Nonetheless, she'd like to see more women involved because of what they often bring to the table.
"I think they can be more nurturing, and at times they seem more organized," Ms. Crawley observes. "They seem to be a lot friendlier toward the kids in some respects."
Crawley views with concern studies that show boys staying in organized sports an average of just 3.1 years and girls 2.8 years. Given such a limited window of opportunity in which to engage many children, she says a mother's loving, caring, sensitive ways can help address the dropout problem.
While cautioning against being alarmed by short-term participation figures, which don't always reflect the numbers of children dropping one sport to specialize in another, Marty Ewing of Michigan State University's Youth Sports Institute still thinks children would benefit if more mothers were involved.
"One thing I hear people say all the time is, 'I don't care what the sex of the coach is as long as they know what they're doing,' " Ewing says. "Children like to play for coaches who know the sport and more important, know how to coach. That means being empathetic to kids who are learning and struggling with skills."
Mrs. Fleskes says nothing is more fulfilling to her as a coach than igniting a youngster's interest.
"If you can teach a child to want to learn then you've taught them everything," she observes. "So if you can teach them to love the game of soccer then, wow, you've just passed on a tremendous gift."
The good news when it comes to women and American soccer is that many are already serving as "soccer moms," the label popularized in recent years to describe on-the-run suburban mothers kept busy chauffeuring children to games and practices, and supplying them with snacks, meals, clean uniforms, and cheers.
Gloria Averbuch, the mother of two serious soccer-playing daughters and a staff member of a soccer camp in Montclair, N.J., says she enjoys this role, but is hopeful that the World Cup tournament might prompt other mothers to follow her lead, and deepen their involvement.
"I cherish the soccer mom role, which is about being a good parent, providing unconditional love, the snacks, the hugs. I don't want to lose that," she says. "but I'd like to fill out the role, embellish it, and see women coach."
As the author of a new book ("Goal: The Ultimate Guide for Soccer Moms and Dads"), she's studied youth sports and learned that parent role models are the No. 1 factor in a child's continuing participation.
Youth soccer, she contends, is an ideal environment for mothers to realize their full potential as role models by acting as coaches. Gender-wise, it's an egalitarian team sport, with nearly as many girls as boys among its 12 million under-18 participants. Ms. Averbuch calls it a "family movement."
Although not burdened by some of the old-boy networking that discourages them in other sports, women still trail behind men in coaching soccer. "We're waiting for a generation of women who've grown up trained in the sport to become involved," Averbuch says.
One factor holding women back, Marty Ewing says, is simply that much youth sports activity occurs during the family rush-hour period, namely between the hours of 4 and 7 p.m. She urges youth leagues to be more sensitive in scheduling games and practices, while recognizing that support for a mother's participation begins at home.
"The husband in the marriage is a critical piece to women coaching," Ms. Ewing explains. "Somebody has to be responsible for the other kids and the things going on at home. Therefore husbands have to be willing to take on some of the responsibilities at home, for child care, mealmaking, chauffeuring, and grocery shopping."
Unfortunately, however, fathers who are supportive of their daughters often neglect to support their wives in a way that would allow them to coach, Ewing says.
The other inhibiting factor, she adds, is the ingrained perception that men are inherently more qualified to coach sports. "Men don't even have to know the sport to consider themselves qualified to coach it," she says. "Women seem reluctant."
To build their confidence, Ewing suggests pairing women with seasoned coaches of either sex as apprentices. Many moms, especially those with a built-in love and appreciation for sports, view coaching as an altruistic act. They may need only a nudge.
Take Cynthia Lynn, for example. The mother of two young boys in Dover, Mass., she checked the "willing to help" box on a basketball-league sign-up form. She agreed to coach a team since her husband's schedule as an assistant coach with pro football's New England Patriots didn't allow him to do so.
"He was unable to coach teams that my sons had been on," she says, "so coaching was sort of my way of doing our family's part in giving back to the community."
Women who've played sports are often willing to transfer their general athletic knowledge if encouraged to do so. Mrs. Lynn was a high school swimmer, Fleskes a competitive tennis player.
Women like these serve as bridges to a new era, one in which women who enjoyed greater athletic opportunities may be more eager and confident about coaching youth teams.