We discuss our views on the WTA’s on-court coaching policy in this edition of Changeover Chat, a back-and-forth exchange between the writing staff at The Changeover.
Following some fireworks over an on-court coaching incident with Garbiñe Muguruza and her coach Sam Sumyk in Miami, I wanted to have a discussion about on-court coaching here at The Changeover.
Since the WTA made on-court coaching permissible in 2008 at its tournaments, setting itself apart from the ATP on that rule, the tennis community has raised clashing opinions on the concept. Some vehemently disagree that it should be allowed because they believe tennis is a solitary sport that would be tainted by allowing mid-match coaching. Others have strongly objected to the “optics” of showing on-court coaching in the WTA because it makes women look like “damsels in distress” being saved by their male coaches.
Personally, I’ve changed my views. I used to be strongly opposed to watching on-court coaching mostly because of the “optics” argument. However, after examining what that argument is really saying, I don’t feel the same way.
Whenever we feel uncomfortable with something, it’s helpful to examine what exactly is causing that discomfort. When we are uncomfortable watching women receive coaching from male coaches on-court during changeovers, are we actually uncomfortable with the idea that a tennis coach might have feedback to give in a changeover and the idea that showing these coaching moments might be interesting to viewers? Or are we actually just uncomfortable with the fact that WTA players are almost exclusively coached by men, and some of the advice given by these men infantalizes women?
Judging from the strong reactions, it seems very much like the latter. Our visceral discomfort comes from experiencing an uncomfortable truth about women’s sports: that women still struggle to gain footing in coaching women’s sports. While men generally hire other men to coach them on the ATP, women on the WTA still generally believe that they need to hire a man to provide them guidance. And many times the reason they believe that is because that’s how they have been raised — to believe that the feedback of men matters more than the feedback of women.
A male coach might be able to physically hit the ball harder than a female coach because of their physique, but they have no innate special insight that sets them apart from their female coaching colleagues about how a woman should hit the ball harder. Men are no more equipped to strategize about women’s tennis than female coaches.
To sum up, I think showing on-court coaching has simply exposed an uncomfortable truth about women’s tennis. But you can’t address the underlying issue by just sweeping it under the rug. The only way this will actually be fixed is if women gain more parity in coaching women’s sports and if male coaches are more conscious of whether their feedback is condescending or sexist.
What do you think, Anusha?
I also started out opposed to the WTA on-court coaching, for the same “optics” reason. But as I’ve thought about it more, optics aside, I think it comes down to preferences — on what skill sets you want to see. Matches without on-court coaching tend to promote more self-reliance, whereas with coaching, the theory is that you might get better overall execution. I guess I’d liken it to a closed book test versus an open book test — I always preferred the closed book, it forces you to summon up whatever is within you in that moment and execute, whereas open book seemed a bit looser, with more chances to get things right.
And, if it actually resulted in better play, I would come around on coaching, but I don’t think coaching has done much to improve play In addition, it does bother me to see often emotional scenes played out, for what seems like mostly entertainment value — it feels exploitative to me. I still don’t see how helpful many of these coaching time outs are — more often than not, think they don’t change the outcome of matches much, and they tend to be unflattering to the players.
How many times have we seen a player call a coach down, and then make no eye contact with said coach, and walk back on court with no change in strategy? It has often felt more like a sideshow than a genuine source of improvement in tactics over the course of a match. It’s a rare thing that a coach is going to come up with something in a coaching timeout that hasn’t already been hashed out in practice many times. I just don’t think it has much value as a means of improving play during the match. So then, what you’re left with is entertainment — and, sure I enjoy Madison Brengle’s wisecracks, or hearing Sharapova’s coach diss Ana Ivanovic from a pure gossip level, but is that really how we want to promote the sport? I’m not so sure.
Also, I do think that one of the great things about tennis is that it is a solitary sport. Some of the greatest triumphs have come from players mastering their own demons and fighting onwards. Whether it’s Serena or Sharapova coming back from a break down in the third set, or Federer finally holding his nerve against Nadal in that final set in Australia, the glory of those victories would be diminished if there had been on court coaching in those matches. Sure, you might end up with a lower “quality” match overall, but the drama you get there is the kind of drama I enjoy seeing in sports.
It’s a separate, but definitely related, discussion, but coaching parity is a huge issue, not only in tennis, but in much of women’s sports. As tennis entourages grow larger, it’s harder to buy the idea that male coaches are preferable because they can also serve as hitting partners. Many top WTA players have hitting partners who travel with them — and many of the most in-demand male coaches are probably not at the point where they’re providing a great hit with the top players anyway. What is interesting to me is that many of the in-demand coaches on both sides have been male players who were at best, top 20, players (Cahill, Annacone), but there haven’t been many (any?) similarly situated female players who have been able to get high profile coaching jobs in the WTA. It may be understandable that the Grafs, Everts, and Navratilovas aren’t going to want to be on tour full time as a coach, but there have got to be players at the next level down who could be excellent coaches. Even accounting for family responsibilities that probably fall disproportionately on women, it’s still jarring not to see any of that next level of talent out there coaching.
All of this being said, I will admit, that if you cloned Lindsay Davenport and had her do all coaching timeouts, I bet there would be little to no opposition to the practice, even from its most vehement critics. So, I do think it’s the gender inequality issue that is driving a lot of the controversy — but there are other, valid reasons to oppose the practice.
One question I’d pose to you, Amy, is how much of the opposition is driven by some discomfort with “emotional” moments in tennis? I mean, is a sulky coaching timeout any worse than some racquet smashing or shirt ripping? And, where does this fit into the gender dynamics driving this controversy?
I think you raise some good points on the solitary sport argument, Anusha. Although I think it’s a much more valid (or at least less problematic) argument than the “optics” argument, I would still push back on that based on having watched other individual sports. For example, I’m a huge gymnastics fan, and when someone talks to their coach in between rotations (vaguely similar to a tennis changeover), I don’t get any sense that the gymnasts are less self-sufficient just for having received a comment or two from their coach between routines. There are a lot of other individual sports where coaching is totally ordinary. I see it less as a performance-enhancing tool, and more of a basic part of sports that is present in almost every other sport.
Now, you could make the argument that that’s why tennis is special, and I can’t argue with that because it is completely subjective. Personally I don’t think that tennis players need to be martyrs in order to make the sport compelling, and I don’t view coaching as something that’s enough of a game-changer to get worked up about. Unless the coach is going out on-court and hitting a serve in the player’s place, I don’t have a problem with coaching during changeovers and don’t see it as an unfair advantage or even necessarily an advantage at all.
Your point about Lindsay Davenport is exactly what I was getting at. I agree that if all coaching timeouts were equally professional and informative as hers, people would object less. But they’re not. There’s a wide variety of coaching that happens on the WTA Tour.
Which brings me to the question of whether our discomfort with on-court coaching has to do with seeing women get “emotional.” To me, the answer seems obvious. Almost the only time I ever see criticism of on-court coaching is when a female player is upset, crying, or having an adversarial moment with their coach.
I recommend that everyone read this excellent piece about the ways that women show their emotion, but I’ll quote a relevant section:
85 percent of women and 73 percent of men said that they felt better after crying, which shows that tears may help remove chemicals that build up after stress according to Frey. Also scientists and sociologists both say that women are more inclined than men to feel the urge to cry when they are frustrated.
This may lead to problems for women in certain situations at work. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that men’s tears are viewed more positively than women’s. This is because men are found crying less frequently.
In Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders, Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli point out that when it comes to showing emotion, the more male-dominated the field, the greater the damage:
…people scrutinize women’s behavior in very masculine environments, searching for any weakness….Given the demands of masculine environments, emotional displays can suggest weakness, and women are advised to avoid crying when upset. For example, professional development advice offered to women engineers made this point: “While crying is expected for extreme situations (i.e. breaking an arm, or a death in the family), it is considered taboo for professional women in response to normal work situations….nothing reinforces the negative stereotype of women being ruled by emotions rather than professionalism like a crying woman professional.”
I think we sometimes react strongly to seeing a woman display emotion by crying, while a man might express the exact same kind of emotion through breaking a racquet or yelling or ripping a shirt and not elicit the same gender-related discomfort for viewers.
There are two issues here — first, how much of tennis’ tradition of self-reliance (such as it is) is worth preserving, as opposed to giving the fans the insights of the coaching time-out, and how do we deal with female emotions as a society. I’ll tackle the first one first, since it’s more discrete.
If on-court coaching were limited to exos or Team Tennis, I’d have no problem with it, no matter who the coach or player were, no matter what the gender dynamic is, even. There are a lot of things that get tested in informal settings — no ad scoring, the multicolored Team Tennis court, super tiebreaks. Some of them even get into the main events — e.g. super tiebreaks in a lot of doubles matches now, and they make sense there.
I don’t know that on-court coaching, at least as it’s currently conceived, is an innovation that adds much. First, if it were really about improving play, the microphones are probably not needed. Second, as I said before, I don’t think it actually improves play. It really strikes me as a kind of show for the audience — and you know, it does create conversation and raises the profile of the WTA, I suppose. But, is this how we want to do it? And, if you accept that performance probably doesn’t change, then, as an entertainment vehicle, it is wildly uneven. If the player/coach speak a language other than the one(s) of the viewers/spectators, then the timeout doesn’t add much drama, unless you have a superstar polyglot commentator who can do some translation. And, if it is an entertainment vehicle, I’m not sure I want female emotion to be what is being used to entertain viewers. It’s one thing if something happens, and there’s an emotional reaction, but the coaching timeout seems to want to create those moments for popular consumption. And I find that to be counter-productive at best and exploitative at worst.
I absolutely do think that a lot of the discomfort with the coaching timeouts has to do with (male) discomfort with female emotions being aired out publicly. There’s no reason why crying should be viewed as any less valid a reaction to adversity than shirt-ripping or racquet breaking. It feels like a gratuitous Federer compliment (Fedpliment? can we make that a thing?) to mention it here, but I have to say that his total comfort with his public crying is extremely refreshing. He’s always been a proponent of letting it all out, and tends to compliment his opponents when they break down, rather than making it awkward. Earlier in his career, even Federer faced criticism for his emotional reactions — but by taking ownership of it, he’s managed to de-stigmatize it, mostly for a group that includes Roger Federer (and maybe Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro, and, as of last week, Stan Wawrinka, but only because he made a funny afterwards).
Where (at least certain) men are lauded for being in touch with their emotions, and for having so much desire to win that they’re driven to tears, the same level of emotion in women somehow ends up being a liability. Professor Kimberly Elsbach did a study on this, and noted that many of the women she interviewed found that crying in the workplace had an adverse impact on women in the workplace. For every Sheryl Sandberg telling you to lean in to your tears, there are plenty of colleagues who won’t welcome your tears, especially if you’re a woman.
I think it’s important to distinguish what we’re seeing in a WTA coaching session from the variety of the tear-inducing occasions that we might see in other workplaces. The coaching session tears tend to come from frustration or pent-up emotion. And, that level of emotion is really indistinguishable from shirt ripping, and deserves no greater or worse scrutiny. I would say racquet smash, but players actually do get penalties for those, so perhaps the emotional repression isn’t as one-sided as we think. The discomfort, however, does run in one direction.
And, it’s not like there isn’t precedent for playing with one’s heart on one’s sleeve. John McEnroe’s entire public persona was based on his public display of his emotions, and the same goes for Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase. And many feel that their era was the absolute heyday of professional tennis. While there were some that found their antics unbecoming for such a genteel sport, I think it’s that raw emotion that helped make tennis less of a niche sport, at least for a time, in this country. Affording women the same opportunity to show their desire to win, whatever form it takes, can also be a boon for the sport. I think latter-day Serena, actually, has also been especially open with her emotions, and it’s only added to her legend — the fact that she wants to win that much is seen, as it should be, as the hallmark of a champion.
There’s a lot of what I like to call “too cool for school” out there, i.e. a lot of critique of people being too sentimental, too emotional etc. But, honestly, in life, as in sports, things should start by being emotional and sentimental. If you don’t care, why should anyone else? And, for that reason alone, I’m all for seeing more emotion in sports, and, importantly, more acceptance of female emotion in sports — those are the memorable moments that stay with us forever. I’m just not convinced that the coaching timeout, using the prospect of some kind of outburst as bait, is the vehicle for it.
But, as far as I can see, coaching isn’t going anywhere. Steve Simon just came out in favor of more coaching — not only the one allowed time out per set, but also continuous coaching from the box, noting that it was probably happening anyway. What do you make of that change? It would probably alter the dynamics of matches significantly, but wouldn’t get the same visceral reaction that the on-court sessions are getting.
As someone who isn’t that concerned about the solitary aspect of the game, I would be fine with coaching being allowed during changeovers but ditching the microphones, especially if players and coaches are uncomfortable with being mic-ed up. I wouldn’t say it’s the norm in other sports for these interactions to be broadcast, though we’ve certainly seen it elsewhere. Off the top of my head, I know the NFL and NHL have broadcast games or clips with players mic-ed up, and although the language wasn’t necessarily nice or unemotional or even coherent, I enjoyed watching them to get an idea of what goes on, especially when a coach was giving feedback.
For casual fans, I don’t think it’s deniable that getting a glimpse into a player-coach interaction rather than watching a player take a drink of water or take a bite of a banana in silence adds more than it takes away. So I have mixed feelings, but I do think this adds something interesting to the experience for regular fans.
I definitely do agree with Simon that coaching from the boxes happens regularly anyway (on both the WTA and ATP Tours) and should be part of the sport, so I’m fine with it. But it seems that my views on coaching in general are a lot more lax than a lot of other people’s.
What do you think, readers?