The real problem for female athletes, and how to fix it
I am fighting a quandary inside myself. There is a voice that whispers, “you traitor.” As though aiming to call out the “female” component of a female athlete is making her less of an athlete. As though I am fighting all those brave women who came before me, who were spat on, ridiculed and shunned for simply wanting to play. As though I am quieting that ten year-old girl inside me that beat all the boys in the school mile. Every time. Every year.
So many girls have fought so hard to play. To be seen. To be considered great.
But here’s the truth. The truth I recall to quiet that whisper: there are still girls fighting to play. To be seen. To be considered great.
The problem is not in the girls. The issue lies in the culture we have created sports to be. And therefore, the treatment we have provided for our female athletes within this culture.
Sport, as defined by Webster, means to “play in a happy and lively way.” This may be the reality of sport when my young sons and daughter are playing their imaginative version of soccer in the backyard, but this definition does not match the seven billion dollar business (1) that is sport today.
Socially, we have established a disillusioned version of masculinity. We have significantly narrowed the gateway to manhood with one of the greatest factors being how strong, aggressive and talented a boy is on the athletic field. Therefore, since men play sports, men coach sports and men talk about men playing sports, sport has become culturally accepted as one that can only be played by the overtly strong, aggressive and talented.
Research highlights (2) the benefits of girls in sports: confidence, physical health, self-esteem, a sense of worth, to name a few. But I don’t need research to convince me; I have gained so many of these benefits and more as an athlete all my life. I have watched, first hand, as the sport experience has changed the trajectory of the lives of the girls I coach.
Yet, I have also seen these benefits shrivel away as girls play inside this mixed up cultural idea of a masculine sport.
Not because girls cannot be strong, aggressive, or talented, but because they are often judged on those characteristics with the opposite disillusioned version of femininity: weight, looks, attitude. Therefore minimizing their athletic ability.
If you google “female athlete” what pops up are dozens of sites about “the hottest female athletes.” If a woman is on the cover of a sports magazine, the likelihood of her wearing her uniform are slim. In fact, media coverage of women in sports (3) is only 2-4% of all sport coverage.
The overemphasis of our female athletes’ physical attributes is under emphasizing the abilities of our girls and devaluing their self worth (4). Our young girls are struggling with the way they look, with the way they feel, with the value they place on their very life. Regardless of how well they play sport. I’ve lived it. I’ve coached it. I’ve seen it far more than I care to admit.
"Our young girls are struggling with the way they look, with the way they feel, with the value they place on their very life. Regardless of how well they play sport."
The current measures of girls’ athleticism are not those that can truly judge their ability, their drive or their talents. The benefit of sport should be equal. It should be happy and lively play. However, when we fail to acknowledge these biased measures that pervade the culture of sport, this narrative we are writing for our female athletes, it makes them feel unseen. As though their individuality, their uniqueness, gets lost in just trying to be as good as the boys who play, judged in a way that will never allow them to be.
Therefore, we must stop trying to erase the female from the female athlete, as by simply not acknowledging the athlete’s gender somehow equals the playing field for girls and boys.
Being a girl, playing like a girl is not weak, sissy, or devoid of talent. It is inspiring. It is empowering. It is life changing. We must allow all girls’ sport experiences to be so.
Here’s how we better our female athletes:
- We need to talk better to our girls. We need to see them. Hear them. Love them for exactly who they are and encourage them to be who they want to be.
- We need to coach girls better. We cannot coach them how we were coached. Or even how the boys are coached. This devalues the exact uniqueness of who they are (5). Challenge your girls. Expect mountains out of them. Just don’t dilute them with the same harm we burden our boys (Don’t cry. Don’t feel. Man up!).
- And girls! Girls, girls, girls: we are our own worst enemies. We need to be kinder to one another. We need to cheer for one another. We must be each other’s biggest fans, biggest advocates, and best supporters. If we tear each other down, no one else will build us up.
- Mostly, girls, we need to love ourselves. We need to learn how to love ourselves better. We must desire personal improvement; What’s better for my body? For my mind? For my soul? If we do not value our worth, we cannot expect the outside world to either.
I was an athlete from the moment I took my first steps. It has always been a huge part of who I am and how I see the world. I was also raised by a father who was a coach, and have been mentored, encouraged, and positively coached by men. This is not a fight against boys in sport or male coaches. This is more the realization, and personal devotion, that we, as a culture are so far off from where the true spirit of sport started. Our boys deserve more, I believe that. But I have a profession and a platform devoted to girls.
Our girls should play sport. Our girls need to play. Our girls deserve to play happily. Let us equip them to play in an environment where they can reap all the benefits sport has to offer.
We must listen. We must learn. It is simple to be an athlete. It is complex to be a girl.
A female athlete cannot be one part without the other. We must recognize and celebrate both aspects of who she is. And then, She will freely Play.
Play Now, Play YOU,
XO, Coach D
Interested in more? Watch:
1.) Prweb. (2013, November 25). The Sports Facilities Advisory Deems Youth Sports and Sports-Related Travel “Recession Resistant”—Youth Sporting Events Create $7 Billion in Economic Impact. Retrieved November 1, 2016, from http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/11/prweb11362596.htm
2.) Women's Sports Foundation. (2016, August 30). Benefits – Why Sports Participation for Girls and Women. Retrieved September 20, 2016, from https://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/advocate/foundation-positions/mental-physical-health/benefits-sports-participation-girls-women/
3.) Good, A. (2015, June 5). When it comes to women in sports, TV news tunes out. Retrieved November 1, 2016, from https://news.usc.edu/82382/when-it-comes-to-women-in-sports-tv-news-tunes-out/
4.) Canada's Centre for Digital and Media Literacy. (n.d.). Body Image: Introduction. Retrieved November 11, 2016, from http://mediasmarts.ca/body-image/body-image-introduction
5.) Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. (2007). Developing Physically Active Girls An Evidence-based Multidisciplinary Approach. Retrieved November 1, 2016, from http://www.cehd.umn.edu/tuckercenter/library/docs/research/2007-Tucker-Center-Research-Report.pdf
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