A recent story in The New York Times about women missing out at the workplace, because they know less about that ultimate water-cooler subject – sports – comes at a time when Andy Murray has caused a stir at Wimbledon with his new female coach, former French star Amélie Mauresmo.
Reaction has ranged from the supportive (Maria Sharapova) to the cautious (Novak Djokovic) to the sexist (Ernests Gulblis, who said, “I am waiting for a couple of good-looking players to also quit so I can have a new coach.” Ernst, stop splitting your infinitives.
At least Ernests was, well, earnest. At Sarah Lawrence College’s recent “Publish and Promote Your Book Conference,” the reaction to my series “The Games Men Play” included the typical, “So, you’re into sports.” And it’s not said as “So – you’re into sports!” but rather with a quizzical, skeptical tone. I then find myself explaining that as a former senior cultural writer for Gannett Inc. and now editor of WAG, I’ve always had to be interested in culture with a capital “C,” which goes way beyond the arts and entertainment to include religion, the media, sports, gender, politics – you name it. But stupid me, why didn’t I remember my hero Benjamin Disraeli’s famous dictum: “Never complain, never explain”? I don’t owe anyone an explanation. I had an idea for a book series that drew on the depth and breadth of my knowledge and experience, and you know what?, I ran with it. Period. End of that story.
But there are two other stories here about where the genders come together and where they divide. Even if, like me, you know a lot about sports and could ace the baseball fantasy league, that doesn’t mean that men are ready to welcome you into the boys’ club. For many men, sports are the way they bond with their own sex. Even if you can hold your own with the water-cooler conversation that begins, “How ’bout those Mets?”, you’re just a reminder of the wife or girlfriend they have at home. So regardless of what you know, you still may not be able to work your way into the group and use it to your corporate advantage. More important, you may not want to. There’s no law saying you must like sports. It’s up to the corporate honchos to provide a level playing field for both sexes at work.
Coaching, however, is another matter. Many male tennis players and swimmers start out with fine female coaches, often their mothers. They then segue to male coaches, because growing boys are thought to need male role models and men are often considered better at dealing with male adolescents. (No one bats an eye at male coaches for girls, because men are the default mode of our society.)
A female coach for a mature male player like Andy – who was coached by his mother, Judy, and most recently, by Ivan Lendl – is less heard of. But Andy has struggled with doubt and his emotions. So has his new coach. Often women are better at the affective side of the game than men are. Amélie may be able to get him to open up about his fears, which might make him a better player. It’s not just strokes, you know. It’s the head game.
When I think of great female coaches, I think of the wonderful Jelena Gencic. How I wish I had been able to have a cup of tea with her. She not only identified a 5-year-old Nole as a golden child who would one day be No. 1. She ensured that would happen by also teaching him classical music and poetry. She didn’t just coach an athlete. She molded a man.
When she died last year in the midst of the French Open, Nole’s team waited to tell him. The letter he wrote that was read at her funeral brought tears to my eyes.
That’s what you want in a teacher, in a coach – someone you can learn from, look up to and yes, love.
And in the end, it shouldn’t matter if that person is male or female.