What’s the Difference?

By Bill Olin, Associate Head Coach, Cornell University  @CornellWLax

When people learn about my past life as a Division III head coach of men’s lacrosse at Capital University (Columbus, Ohio), it is usually followed up with some variation of one question: What’s the difference between coaching men and women? My typical answer is that, while I am incredibly grateful for my time in the men’s game, coaching women has made me a more efficient and effective coach – and that I wish I made the switch sooner.

Photo courtesy of Cornell University Athletics.

Allow me to dive a little deeper. The first major difference is in how male athletes approach mastering lacrosse strategy versus female athletes. While coaching at Capital, my team (for the most part) would buy in to anything I said, even if it wasn’t articulated particularly well. My men were more motivated by completing the tasks I challenged them to do.  I knew that I could roll out to practice, bark out some instructions with a few colorful words sprinkled in and get a halfway decent result. Their approach was a “macro” approach to the game. It didn’t matter if I told them to take five shots, run five miles, or give me $5, they wanted to prove that they were up to the challenge, without ever being concerned about the “why.” At the time, I felt like I had this coaching thing all figured out – but coaching women has proven that belief to be quite wrong.

Fast forward as I enter my fourth season as a women’s coach at Cornell. Now, if I don’t have my coaching points concisely dialed in, if my reasoning for a particular drill is not fleshed out or if an offensive concept that I want to install is in a trial phase more so than a game-ready phase, I know I am starting behind the 8-ball. I absolutely love that our team craves the “why” behind our strategy and our drills. Their “micro” approach to the game is shown through their curiosity to know the “why.” This challenges me to fully develop my strategy points and to consider the big picture of how different drills, concepts and skills build into a finished product complete with the details they need.

The second major difference I have experienced is that our women are willing to work through failures in order to advance their skill set. Their excitement to try something new to push the game forward creates an environment in which attacking failures with a solution-based mindset is the norm. In contrast, my former men’s team would experience one unsuccessful rep or drill and would abandon the concept, reverting back to their own way of doing things. This wasn’t a product of a lack of coachability – it had to do with the men seeking instant gratification. A female athlete’s openness to allow novel concepts to breathe and become second nature has been a welcome surprise in my time as a women’s coach.

On a more personal note, all of my Cornell teams have enriched my life in a manner that I never thought possible. For anyone who hasn’t had the unfortunate fate of listening to me talk about my kids at a tournament or watching my Instagram story, I am an extremely proud father of a 5-year-old daughter, Findley, and a 2-year-old son, Brooks. I couldn’t ask for a better group of role models for both of my children, but most importantly for my daughter. Watching her interactions with mature, well-versed and strong Ivy League women are some of my best memories. Many times after games, Findley doesn’t want anything to do with me, because she would rather tag along with the Cornell players as they head back to the locker room. I can’t express the value of Findley and Brooks seeing these student-athletes model the behaviors and values that I want to impart on them. It is a nice safety net in case I mess up this parenting thing.

Working at Cornell and for head coach Jenny Graap has shown me a simpler way of getting an entire group of individuals from “me to we.” Absolutely, this is a testament to the impressive culture that Coach has built during her 20-plus years at Cornell. In fact, I equate my time in Ithaca to receiving a PhD in coaching with Jenny as the professor. I find that our whole team is more willing to buy in to a common goal than any of my men’s teams were. I found that the majority of the men played for individual pride and achievement, which is neither good nor bad. But personally, I have found it more rewarding to coach a team of women who respect each other unconditionally, display authentic gratitude for each other and their coaches, and who admire each other’s accomplishments. Our women understand that there are bigger things to accomplish on the field than their own personal goals.

With that in mind, the move to the women’s game has allowed me to experience a joy in coaching that wasn’t present early on in my coaching career. For a while, it was tough to pinpoint where this source of joy comes from. In his book, Road to Character, David Brooks put this newfound joy in better terms than I could ever imagine.

“There’s a joy in freely chosen respect to people, ideas, and commitments greater than oneself.”

Without my experience in the men’s game, I am not sure if I would feel this same type of joy – the kind of joy that comes from a group of people putting aside their own baggage and competing as one. This is the type of joy that keeps us going as coaches and gets us excited to be on the sideline year in and year out.

2 thoughts on “What’s the Difference?

  1. Appreciate the insight and very well written. Since the women’s game is moving towards the mens game it is great that the Cornell women’s team is being coached by someone with your experience!!! Good Luck and GBR.


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