As Andy Murray appoints Amélie Mauresmo his new trainer – can a woman coach a man?
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
The appointment of Amélie Mauresmo as Andy Murray’s new coach shook the sporting and tennis community.
Male tennis players revealed their disdain for the women’s game by questioning whether men’s tournaments are much more demanding. Could even a past world number 1, and winner of two women’s Grand Slam tournaments (such as Amélie Mauresmo), advise male players?
Others have speculated that psychology may be involved in a decision to hire a woman, given it was another supposedly dominant female – Andy Murray’s mother – Judy – who has been so influentially steering his career from an early age.
But then again, how will two women, used to prevailing, battle with each other, when differences arise?
Yet behind all the doubts and speculation, appears to be deep hostility in the very macho world of sports, to the proposition of female coaches at the most senior level.
The absence of women on the touch line is notable in most athletic competitions, outside of female only sports. It seems OK for men to coach women, but it looks like many don’t think it’s possible for women to train men?
Laura Burton, John Borland and Stephanie Mazerolle from the University of Connecticut and Springﬁeld College, United States, recently surveyed female US athletic trainers at elite college level, to examine this question. Within Division I intercollegiate athletics, the authors report that women hold 47% of assistant athletic trainer positions, yet occupy only 18.8% of head athletic trainer positions.
The study entitled ‘‘They cannot seem to get past the gender issue: Experiences of young female athletic trainers in NCAA Division I intercollegiate athletics”, also reports data that in 2010, the percentage of women holding the head athletic trainer position was 18.8%, a mere 2.7% increase from 1996.
Enormous chauvinism against female coaches was uncovered by the study, including the common prejudice that some women only go into athletics training to gain an intimate relationship with attractive male sports stars. One female athletic trainer working full-time with baseball, protested to the researchers; ‘I’m not there to just sleep with the athletes or anything like that’.
Another female trainer complained to the researchers about the athletes she trained, ‘‘Any time they want to criticize me, I am either compared to a ‘girlfriend’ or a ‘mom’! They cannot seem to get past the gender issue.’’
A key finding from this study, published in the academic journal ‘Sport Management Review’, is that the stereotype of women as more nurturing, caring and sympathetic, seems to particularly count against female coaches. They are perceived as not being tough enough when the male athlete basically needed a kick, and would benefit from harbouring some fear of their trainer. This view seems to arise from the ‘Alex Ferguson’ school of sport psychology.
Ivan Lendl, Andy Murray’s former coach, sports a famously intimidating persona, introducing ‘power tennis’ to the game, when he was rising to the top as a player. It’s difficult to think of a more manly figure in the whole world of tennis. Perhaps it’s particularly apposite that the Scot’s complaint of the American is quoted in the press as “you can’t just be pushed extremely hard every single day”.
But the appointment of a woman trainer could be particularly canny precisely at a moment when the male game is dominated by such brutal hitters as Djokovic and Nadal.
Women historically have adapted to facing adversaries of superior physical strength by deploying thoughtfulness, patience and calculation, as winning strategies. It may therefore be precisely the feminine emotional intelligence touch, that Andy needs as a key secret weapon, if he is to overpower such domineering opponents.
It therefore may be no coincidence that Amélie Mauresmo joins team Murray just after the French Open at Roland Garrios, when Andy was blown off the court by a forceful Nadal, losing in straight sets.
Ross Lorimer and Sophia Jowett, sports scientists from the University of Abertay, Dundee, and Loughborough University, have recently published a study contending that whether a coach is a man or a woman can be important. A neglected issue in elite athletic success might be the coach – athlete relationship. In particular the ability of the coach and athlete to understand each other emphasises the essential role of empathic accuracy – how accurately one can perceive the other’s thoughts and feelings.
Their study entitled ‘The inﬂuence of role and gender in the empathic accuracy of coaches and athletes’, investigated the empathic accuracy of ﬁfty-six coach-athlete dyads using actual recordings of training sessions. The investigation published in the academic journal ‘Psychology of Sport and Exercise’, found that female coaches were more accurate than male coaches in grasping the thoughts and feelings of the athletes they were training.
An intriguing further finding (with some possible implications for Jenny Murray and Amélie Mauresmo’s future relationship), was that the least empathic accuracy in a relationship occurred when female athletes were working with female coaches.
Ross Lorimer and Sophia Jowett question why some particular combinations of coach and athlete work well, speculating a particularly deep intense relationship develops as bonding occurs during a succession of high-stakes contests. They point to the similarities with the traditional parental-role in caring and nurturing children. In various ways coaches ultimately unseat parents as central characters in athletes’ lives.
Could this appointment of Amélie Mauresmo therefore represent something much deeper in the psyche of someone like Andy Murray?
Loughborough University Sports Psychologist Sophia Jowett commented on the specific issue of why Andy Murray has chosen a female coach: ‘The motivation between selecting a female coach is an interesting one and only Andy can answer this question. What our research has shown is that the coach-athlete relationship (like any type of relationship) evolves/changes. In terms of coaching, the relationship is very instructional in the beginning, and very supportive in the middle/end. What I would imagine Andy requires at this stage of his career is someone who is wholly supportive and believes in his abilities and acts as a “mirror” that reflects errors, weaknesses and shortcomings… but also strengths, abilities and powers. It is the looking glass self phenomenon, someone that validates him… and helps him overcome his demons. His new coach may be the person that he needs to overcome obstacles by supporting, energising and motivating him’.
Many have puzzled as to why Murray has abandoned Lendl right now, given that relationship appeared to take the tennis ace to new heights. Might it be that if the central relationship in his life was always with his mother, rather than his father, that an athlete was always going to struggle with such a masculine coach as Ivan Lendl?
Could Amélie Mauresmo represent the essential transitional moment in Andy Murray’s life and career?