Leveling the playing field: female coaches prep women’s sports teams for season and for life


Photo courtesy Becky Hilgert

Coach Hilgert preparing her team for a game.

Well-acquainted with the gender bias on life’s playing field, it’s second nature for women in sports to fight for what they want. Leading the charge are female coaches, who bring on-the-ground presences and representation to their sports. Calvin is no exception. Here on campus, the female coaches in softball, volleyball, soccer and triathlon keep their athletes on the grind, pushing them to express their passion and drive, achieve their goals and succeed at life. 

“Winning championships is always the end goal in each sport and the ideal coaching candidate is whoever can get the job done,” said Amber Warners, head coach of Calvin’s women’s volleyball and kinesiology professor. Yet, according to Warners, denying women the opportunity to prove themselves as worthy candidates undermines that common goal.

Coach Warners has been head coach of volleyball for the last 20 seasons. For many of those years, she was the only female on the Calvin coaching team, which is reflective of the gender distribution throughout athletics on a national scale. Although Warners considers her experience mostly positive, due to her supportive colleagues and a responsive administration, her road was not without its obstacles. 

Three more women have joined the head coaching team in the last nine years — women’s softball Head Coach Becky Hilgert, women’s soccer Head Coach Emily Ottenhoff, and Kattie Carpenter, head coach of Calvin’s recently added 22nd varsity sport, triathlon. The foursome each described their experience as a dance between teaching and practicing self-advocacy, confidence, assertiveness, hard work, excellence and balance. Each one of these coaches emphasized these as values required not just for their students’ athletic careers throughout college, but for their futures in the workforce as well. 

According to these coaches, the primary goal is just to have space for women to pursue their sport. “My athletes consider themselves ‘athletes.’ They don’t ask for anything different because they’re female,” said Coach Hilgert, who also serves as Athletics Director. “But, I also think they’re aware of … discrepancies between the two.”

According to Coach Carpenter (women’s triathlon), in her experience, there is an even greater disparity on the coaching side of the field. “In sports, it’s considered more of a male trait to be competitive … there is a little more expectation on the female to be more nurturing,” she said.

Coach Hilgert had one keyword for her coaching experience: self-advocacy. 

“What I’ve learned is that … I just have to fight for what I want. And I might not always get it, but if I don’t say anything, I certainly will never get it,” Hilgert said. This is a lesson she wants ingrained in her athletes.

Hilgert’s path to coaching was unconventional. Before coming to Calvin, Hilgert majored in political science, worked on campaigns and started a business. Now, three years after taking on the role of assistant coach for Calvin’s softball team, she serves as the head coach. The current softball season will be her ninth.

Coach Ottenhoff, head coach of women’s soccer and former Knight herself, believes that now more than ever, women in sports are becoming visible to the public and their achievements getting recognition. “I can tell you that I see more women than I ever have and I have been doing this for ten years,” she said. 

This is especially true for Ottenhoff’s field, where women’s soccer dominates at both college and national levels.

Succeeding on the field is a major goal for Coach Ottenhoff, but she also takes pride in creating a memorable experience for the women in the soccer program, one that equally involves the students.

“For me, it’s about mentoring. It’s about achieving, guiding, leading. I think those words can be kind of synonymous, but like, guiding my women in life through soccer.”

Photo courtesy Amber Warners

Coach Warners likewise aims at a comprehensive sense of coaching, preparing her athletes for life as well as for the court. “My favorite part is being a part of a group that achieves something so incredible and going through the journey with them,” Warners said. She strives to teach her girls “to really try to become the women that God wants us to be.” At the start of each fall season, Coach Warners and her team guide their athletes to set personalized measurable goals to which they are held accountable. 

When it comes to coaching philosophy, Carpenter teaches her athletes to strive for their best individual performance in order to inspire teammates to perform at a similar level, thus setting a common high standard for the team. “I don’t believe in lowering a standard,” she said. “Some people may find this hard, and harsh, but I do it because we’re only going to get better.” Calvin is the first university in Michigan to have an official National Collegiate Athletic Association triathlon team.

“I always want them to leave knowing they can achieve more than they thought they could,” Carpenter said.

According to the coaches, their individual and collective experiences at Calvin have been enriched by the distinct sense of camaraderie among the coaching staff, regardless of gender.

“When you come across male colleagues who are really respectful of the work that you do and how hard you work and … treat you as a peer, you hold on to those people. And you are really thankful for those people,” Coach Ottenhoff said.