The 3 Percent: Women Coaching Men
By Kate Hoit | Contributor | 27 June 2014
US Department of State
Fewer women coach today than 40 years ago. While the majority of women’s sports teams in the U.S. are coached by men, only 3 percent of men’s teams are coached by women, according to Brooklyn College researchers. This disparity doesn’t surprise Susan Polgar, a Hungarian-born American chess grandmaster who coaches Webster University’s chess team — ranked Number 1 in the U.S. She is the only woman collegiate chess coach.
“When I first started out in chess I was asked, ‘How could any woman go on to become a grandmaster?’” said Polgar. “How could a woman coach a Division 1 team?”
Polgar was raised to believe that “geniuses are made, not born.” Her father was intent to teach her mathematics when she was just a toddler, but around this time she stumbled upon a chess set. He taught Polgar the basics, until she began to beat him.
At 4, Polgar entered and won her first competition. Too short to reach the tabletop, she spent the first years of her career propped up on telephone books or pillows to reach the chess board. She went on to win championship titles and Olympic medals, and she became the first woman to earn the title of grandmaster.
Polgar took the lessons she learned in a male-dominated sport into the world of coaching. Her 15-person team, comprising mostly international male students, studies a trove of 7 million games. They train together in a large room or one-on-one with Polgar.
“Throughout my career, I’ve worked with only male coaches, none of which are as strong as Susan,” said Wesley So, who became a grandmaster at age 14. “She teaches us the importance of discipline, physical stamina, psychological thinking — all of which have helped our team succeed.”
From repetitive drills to dissecting opponents’ moves, Polgar requires players to come prepared for any match. Year after year, Webster’s chess team has won championships. Nine students are grandmasters, and one female player has been named woman international master.
Gender stereotypes are hard to shake off. Some male athletes are afraid of losing to a woman. Aspiring women coaches are up against the belief that a lack of experience and a failure to play sports, like football, to the same standards as a man make them unable to coach. The pool of applicants for leadership positions in sports needs to grow larger. “Just because it has never been done before, doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” said Polgar.