Men on the Practice Court?

By Staff

Coaching Management, 13.11, November 2005,

When the playoffs loom and the next match is against a front line of All-America candidates, who wouldn’t relish the chance to scrimmage against a stronger, higher-leaping scout team to simulate the formidable impending challenge? And if the best female players on campus are already on the team, why not recruit a corps of male practice players to stand in for the opponent? Who could argue with that?

The NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics (CWA) could. Members of the CWA, while acknowledging the motivations for using male undergraduates as practice players for many women’s teams, agreed this past summer that doing so may violate the spirit of gender equity and recommended that institutions limit the practice.

CWA Vice-Chair Janet Kittell, Associate Director of Athletics at Syracuse University, says male practice players take participation opportunities from the rightful members of a team. “The women on the team are not getting the same amount of practice time when you have a team of men practicing against your first string,” she says.

While the NCAA doesn’t count male practice players toward scholarship limits because they don’t receive athletic financial aid, administrators should view the male athletes as participants that count toward Title IX, Kittell says. “If the women’s basketball team has five male practice players, I’ve got to have five more women—that’s a whole golf team—to balance them out in terms of gender equity and compliance if I’m looking at participation rates, which we all should be,” she explains.

The CWA didn’t propose banning male practice players, but wants input from other groups. The NCAA Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee recommended limits, such as caps on the time males can participate in a practice session and tying their number to how many team members are out because of injuries. The American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) hasn’t spoken on the issue, nor has the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Committee, but the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee have endorsed continuing the practice.

Beth Launiere, Head Coach at the University of Utah and NCAA Division I Representative to the AVCA Board of Directors, does not use male practice players, but would like to. She has approached Utah’s men’s club team and men who want to coach after college, but has not gotten any takers.

“The advantage of male players is their ability to play the game strongly and higher above the net,” Launiere says. “The downside is that those players are sometimes taking practice opportunities from female players. I have 16 players on my roster, and it’s difficult getting that many players practice opportunities later in the season when we’re in scouting situations—that’s also when we would use the male player more often because he can replicate the stronger opponents we’re going to see.

“But we’re also here to win volleyball matches,” she continues. “That’s our job. If having male practice players is going to help, then I’d be willing to have to find practice opportunities, maybe on court two, for some of my other players.”

Russ Rose, Head Coach at Penn State University, doesn’t see the two or three men he uses during part of practice sessions as reducing opportunities for his players. “I feel comfortable that every player in my gym has the opportunity to make progress because they are allowed to come in and get individual instruction anytime they want,” he says. “I always tell my players, ‘We practice four times a week, and we play two times a week. You have twice as much time to improve your game and show us why you should play.’”

Rose typically assigns male practice players to the front line to simulate an upcoming opponent and raise the bar for the first team. He finds them especially valuable when preparing for particular match-ups. “If I have one guy who’s left-handed, I might say, ‘Make sure you’re here because we’re playing so-and-so this weekend, and we need to get some looks against a lefty,’” he says.

“I think it would do more damage to my second team to have the first team beat the heck out of them every day,” Rose continues. “Now, the second team has a chance to beat the first team on a daily basis, and some of those second-team kids get a chance to elevate their play. You can’t spread all of your good players across both sides of the net and develop a team. You need your starting team on one side and a formidable opponent on the other.”

Stanford University Head Coach John Dunning does not normally use male practice players, but says he understands the appeal of practicing against a team made taller and stronger by some men. “Good coaching is learning how to balance: to create in players a sense of self esteem balanced with pushing them to get better,” he says. “If you can create a setting in practice that’s harder than games by having better people on the other side of the net—as long as that’s managed properly—then that certainly makes sense. I think that can be done if there are talented people in control of it. But there’s also a chance it would not address the needs of everyone if not done properly.”

NCAA rules currently state that males who regularly practice with women’s teams must meet the eligibility standards of intercollegiate student-athletes, but they can’t receive athletic financial aid or be paid by the athletic department. They can get minimal gear such as practice uniforms, but they can’t travel with the team. The CWA hopes to revisit the issue after it receives more feedback.