Column: Gender on the Ice

Hockey players reveal differences in conduct, culture
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The Michigan women’s club hockey team beat the #1 ranked Michigan State women’s team twice down the stretch to finish second in the league, and earn a spot in the national tournament. Hats off to them.

Although I’ve coached high school boy’s hockey teams for almost a decade, a few years ago, I spent two years helping out the very same Michigan women’s hockey team – and I learned a lot more than they did.

It’s worth noting that I’m comparing only high school boys and college women, based solely on my observations of two hockey teams. Your mileage may vary.

My education started on day one. I dumped a bucket of pucks at center ice, grabbed one for myself, then stickhandled the puck around the rink. But something seemed strange, and it took me a while to figure out what it was.

When I coached boys hockey, I never even finished dumping the pucks before I heard the guys rocketing around the rink. They shot as high and hard as they could, trying to break the glass. So what if it costs a few hundred bucks and ruins practice? You do that, and you’re a locker room hero.

But at my first women’s practice, when I looked back, I saw the pucks just sitting there at center ice. The women skated around, waiting for me to say it was okay to take the pucks. “Um, it’s okay!

When I blew the whistle to give the boys a new drill, they dove right in – and got it all wrong. When I told the women what to do, they would huddle to discuss the whole thing among themselves, up to a minute, but then they did it exactly right the first time.

The boys loved showing up the goalies by whizzing slap shots at their heads and making them look foolish. The women shot the puck right at the goalies’ pads, because that made the goalies happy, and that made the shooters happy – even while it drove us coaches crazy.

The boys loved shooting the puck, being the star, and dominating anybody they could. Getting them to pass the puck was the hard part.

The women loved passing the puck – and passing, and passing, and passing. And really, just passing. They didn’t want to be the star. They just wanted everyone to get along. And that would have been just lovely – except, if we wanted to win, somebody had to score. And that meant someone had to shoot!

How many women does it take to shoot the puck? Five. One to shoot the puck, and four to say it’s okay to shoot the puck.

We had to convince the women they were better than they thought they were. We had to convince the boys they were nowhere near as good as they thought.

When a boy had a birthday, none of his teammates or coaches knew about it, and no one really cared. But the women all knew each other’s birthdays, and told us when they were. The first time, we surrounded the birthday girl in a circle for a drill, then sang Happy Birthday instead. We thought we were pretty sensitive coaches.

Until, that is, I got to the locker room, which was decorated with streamers and posters. They had cake and pop and the birthday girl’s favorite music, and they all danced. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

When the boys had a conflict, one guy might swear at his teammate, and the teammate would swear back – and that was it. It was over. The women never swore at each other – so I gushed to the other assistant coach, a woman who had played at Harvard, about how great they all got along. She looked at me as if I had two heads. “Are you kidding?”

She then proceeded to pull out our white board to diagram the three major cliques on the team, drawing arrows between players who didn’t get along. I was flabbergasted, but then I protested that no one ever argued.

“That’s when they’re really mad,” she said, “and you better watch out!”

I learned to watch out.

But since then I’ve noticed one thing about my male friends who coach women’s sports: not one of them has ever gone back to coaching the boys.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” 

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  1. By Lisa PT
    February 17, 2012 at 8:55 am | permalink

    I tutored both high-level math and engineering back when I was in collage. I had almost the incidental experience in the differences between men and women. Especially:

    “We had to convince the women they were better than they thought they were. We had to convince the boys they were nowhere near as good as they thought.”

    The boys wanted to do most of the math in their heads instead of writing down each step. They kept making mistakes and wouldn’t believe they could make mistakes. The girls never believed they could do it, then, when they did solve the problem, thought they must have made a mistake. Most of my tutoring was convincing the boys to slow down and take their time, and convincing they girls that they had the brains to do it. I’ve actually seen this in the workplace. The male engineers tend to do things “off the top of their head” fast, quick, and wrong. Where the women are more couscous, though, and unwilling to speak up for fear of being wrong. Thankfully, as people age, the women tend to get more bold and the men more calm. Broad generalities, I know, and are all different. But such are my observations.

  2. By Steve Bean
    February 17, 2012 at 10:14 am | permalink

    @1: I agree. Women are more couscous. Men are more garbanzo.

  3. February 17, 2012 at 11:02 am | permalink

    After I got over the involuntary belly laugh at the comments (it wouldn’t be as funny if you used the synonym chickpea), I started wondering if what is being discussed here is the difference between System 1 and System 2 thinking as explicated by Daniel Kahneman. I’ve been reading his Thinking Fast and Slow [link] and the math behavior described sounds like the System 2 version.

    I’m not speculating that women are more System 2 than men. I haven’t given it enough thought.

  4. By Steve Bean
    February 17, 2012 at 1:24 pm | permalink

    @3: Only a woman would think she should think more before speculating. Guys know it’s not necessary.

  5. February 17, 2012 at 9:38 pm | permalink

    Kahneman also writes of the phenomenon of “priming”, which could translate into suggestibility. Even if you think you are being logical and rational, near-term words or events can affect conclusions. Let it just be known that I actually did buy a couscous-garbanzo salad at Whole Foods today (in my first visit to that establishment in three years). Really.

  6. By eric lipson
    February 19, 2012 at 10:02 am | permalink

    Beautiful article. A complete sociology/psychology treatise encapsulated in an anecdote. Still leaves open the question: Nature or nurture?

    I’m going with nature. Of course, individual gender runs along a spectrum from Extreme Male to Extreme Female, but in general, as a parent who tries to raise his kids in a gender-neutral way, it is my observation that if you give a young boy a doll he will turn it into a gun. Give a girl a toy gun and she’ll turn it into a doll. Both genders seem to move toward the center as they age (and have their own kids). There are lots of female soldiers and male child-care workers. But for me, that is where “nurture” and aging begins to manifest more strongly.

  7. By Colleen Ericson
    February 19, 2012 at 10:42 pm | permalink

    Wonderful column! I’ve played with and coached both sexes and John Bacon sums it up well. I contend the two sexes have much to learn from each other.