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Coaching Girls - Strategies to get and keep girls engaged in sailing

Published Fri 01 Dec 2023

Research shows that girls love to play sport, but they start sport later and leave sport earlier than boys often due to family and community expectations or negative experiences.  

Sport has a huge potential to benefit girls, but it must be done well and whilst many factors contribute to whether a girl keeps playing sport, great coaches are key. The Women’s Sport Foundation found that how a girl feels about her coach is one of the most important factors related to if she keeps playing the sport.  (1) 

There are some basic things that as a sailing coach and/or instructor you can do to make sure girls feel welcome and supported.  

1. Make Sure the Sailing Environment and Team Culture Works for Girls  

Create a safe, welcoming space - as coaches try and make the club environment as safe and welcoming as possible, creating an environment around you that celebrates differences and is free of discrimination and judgment either in the training room or out on the water. As coaches the safety, security and well-being of young sailors should always be your number one priority.    

Ways to create safe spaces is to ensure girls are actively and intentionally welcomed to your space and included in activities. Ensure there is privacy in changing rooms and bathrooms are accessible and appropriately stocked.  

Use inclusive language -  without meaning to, we are all responsible for perpetuating a culture of masculinity in sport through language - one of the common ways we do this is by referring to young people as ‘guys’ try and use more gender-neutral languages such as team, sailors etc. As coaches try and refer to a variety of positive role models across the gender spectrum and acknowledge important women events like the Women’s Soccer World Cup, AFLW etc.  

Think about how you include girls and give them time to reflect– Think about what kind of biases you might have when it comes to girls’ participation and find ways to include sailors and parents in conversations about how they would like to be taught. Allow girls the chance to reflect on their training in formal and informal ways. Give them a chance to provide feedback to you as a coach. Allow girls to see coaches intervene when they hear comments or see actions that minimize girls’ ability to participate in sailing due to negative or bias comments.

2. Create Connections with Girls

A healthy relationship with a caring adult like a coach can make a girl feel like they belong and help fuel their positive development. Coaches can model good decision making, provide support when things are hard and share their own experiences so that girls understand that what they are going through is normal. Peer influence is important, especially during adolescence, and it can be a powerful tool to get girls excited about sports and help girls feel welcome and safe in a sports environment that might otherwise feel new and different.  Fellow crew and teammates can also be a source of inspiration and drive engagement for girls, as well as parent’s involvement. 

Showing other adults in a girl’s life how valuable sport can be for them, the more likely they are to support her when she wants to sail and keep sailing. In other words, the more the family is investing in her sailing journey the more she will likely stick with it.  


3. Let Girls Compete 

Competition has not been viewed as one of the primary motivations for girls to play sports. The myths that girls are there to socialise and lose weight have existed for decades. Whilst it is true that some girls prioritise relationships in sport more than competing, the two are not mutually exclusive. Girls are most motivated by coaches who can do both, create meaningful connections whilst challenging individuals to improve and compete.   

Competition can be motivating for girls and coaches should not shy away from challenging girls to improve as individuals.  

4. Focus on Progress not the Outcome 

Girls want coaches who create positive environments that encourage safety, fun, skill building and heathy competition. They also want feedback that is relevant to their development. Coaches should focus on the effort and process behind learning a skill not the outcome. Focusing on the things that are within a sailor’s control.  

The process of seeing yourself getting better at something is incredibly powerful. That power is wasted though if girls aren’t conscious of the fact that they have improved. As coaches and instructors, you can make sure they see their progress and go from feeling they ‘can’t’ to start believing they ‘can”. Unleashing the power of not being able to do something ‘yet” is very powerful.  Being celebrated for their improvements helps build their confidence and encourages them to try new things and take risks out on the water.  

5. Encourage Girls to be Brave, not Perfect. 

Girls feel a lot of pressure to be perfect from adults who only reward their achievements or social media where you have the perfect look and life is intense. 
For girls to be willing to try something new, creating environments that reward bravery not perfection is crucial.  

Girls must feel safe to take risks, knowing that they won’t be judged and that the courage they use to take a risk will be rewarded. Coaches can do this by setting expectations and praising girls who try new things, even more than those who perform skills well. When everyone understands that trying, even if they fail is among their teams most important values, you see girls feeling safe enough to take risks.  

To summarise some of the above key strategies when coaching girls (2) are listed below: 

Coaching Strategies 

  • Learn names and pronouns of those you coach and try and use them every session. 

  • Circle up - circles create inclusion and safety and puts everyone on the same level even the coach when briefing and debriefing. Girls are more likely to connect with one another and with their coaches when they feel equally valued and heard. 

  • Ask questions - show you are interested by asking questions instead of always giving instructions. When a young girl answers a question, she is building her still developing, rational thinking and decision-making skills. 

  • Celebrate different types of contributions – reward contributions that don’t always get attention. 

  • Let girls set their own goals that are within their control and focus on the progress they have made. 

  • Create a competitive culture- mix up training so girls have the chance to compete against themselves and with and against their teammates.  

  • Praise the right things the right way –coaches have tremendous power to set the tone. The things that you reward will become the things that the sailors will care about. Be sure to call out specific behaviours don’t just say good job. 

  • Prioritise bravery – many girls feel pressure to be perfect at whatever they do, which stops them trying new things.  

  • Let mistakes go. Share your mistakes so that they feel safe to make their own. Encourage girls to move on from mistakes by engaging in a physical gesture that they can use to remind themselves that mistakes are ok and to get ready for the next move.  

  • Make time for girls to talk – coaches should carve out time at the end of every training session where girls can talk. Give them also the chance to be heard and connect with their teammates.  

Key considerations when coaching mixed gender groups. 

  1. Pay attention to groupings.  

  1. A mixed gender group will naturally have a range of skills and competencies, the environment that best supports the development of young people at every level are those that group participants around their skill and experience level not by grade, gender, size, or age.  

  1. Avoid different standards – set similar courses and challenges based on ability not gender.  
    Watch what you celebrate - when coaching boys and girls together it is important that we avoid reinforcing stereo types and praise everyone for the things we prioritize the most. A coach should cheer just as loudly when a female or male sailor tries something new as when they win a race.  

Gender Spectrum  

As norms around gender identity change and young people bring a more fluid approach to identity it becomes even more important for coaches to acknowledge sports history of binary characterisations and male preference. Considering skill and experience over gender identity creates a more inclusive environment for young people on all parts of the spectrum.  


Similarities and differences  

As part of the coaching webinar series Australian Sailing has been running for club coaches, Jaime Swavley, High Performance Coach for Australian Sailing, presented last month on the similarities and differences between coaching males and females.  

The goal is always to coach in a way that enables individuals to be at their best, there are many similarities in how you coach boys and girls however, there are some differences that coaches need to be aware of when teaching different genders and mixed gender/ gender diverse groups. Some of these differences from the discussion are listed in the table below.  

‘Girls need to feel good to perform well – Boys need to perform well to feel good’. 


To listen to the full webinar and recordings of the other coach sessions please click the following link


1 Coaching through a Gender Lens maximising Girls Play & Potential – Women’s Sport Foundation

2 How to get and keep girls playing – strategies to retain girls in sport – Made to Play – Centre for Healing and Justice through Sport