I’m feeling sentimental about sports this week. Blame it on the upcoming Olympics, being sidelined from running for a while due to achy knees (thus, pining to run all the more), or Sunday marking the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the constitutional amendment resulting in greater opportunities and less discrimination for women in high school and collegiate athletics. Whatever it is, it has me reflecting on how a generation of female athletes would be different without ample opportunities to play sports. How would I be different?
Rocking Nike sweatbands way before Rondo. (Can you spot me?).
Because if you grow up a female athlete, with sports as an outlet and source of inspiration, you learn certain life lessons, which isn’t to say you can’t learn these lessons elsewhere, and I’d never suggest that all little girls be forced to play youth soccer if they don’t want to.
What I’m saying is that running around a playing field, with teammates, against opponents; in any and all meteorological, physical, and emotional conditions; for better or worse, win or lose, influences how we run around the world attempting the same. Long since hanging up my uniform (usually donning #24, as in the photo above), I feel inspired by my time playing organized sports. It influences how I approach work and play, how I create community online and in life, build relationships, and gravitate toward leaders, coaches, and advisors I trust. I am who I am because I played sports. Female athletes of all ages will tell you the same.
Before Title IX, 1 in 27 girls played organized sports. Today, it’s 2 out of every 5. Only a few of us grow up to be Olympians, like my friend Kim Vandenberg who’s swimming in this week’s Olympic trials (please root for her!), but all of us know our sport strengthened more than our muscles. We learned things about ourselves that serve us far outside the pool, track, or field. If asked what these are, I have a feeling you’d hear some variation of the following nine life lessons.
Two gals who love wayfarer sunglasses, the sea, and sports: Kim Vandenberg & me.
“I never quit.” Not when it’s raining. Not when it’s a 100 scorching degrees (plus 10 degrees if you play on Astroturf). Not when I’m down by 20. Not when the competition is bigger, faster, or wearing cooler uniforms. This is the credo of any athlete. We do not quit. It’s also the credo of anyone who wants to be successful at anything.
“I’m not a bitch.” Rest assured everyone has bitchy moments, even you, gentlemen (let’s not pretend you don’t). However, the signature bitch move of tearing down other women because they threaten you is not something at which female athletes typically thrive. First of all, female athletes are less easily threatened. Second, cattiness is counterproductive to winning (and happiness). If a teammate is better than you, you’re in luck. She’ll help you win or make you better or both. If she’s smarter, maybe she’ll help you with your homework on the bus ride home from an away game. If she’s prettier, well, then, she’s prettier (now, keep your eye on the ball). The algorithm is simple: If you play sports, you practice cheering on other women, and if you practice something, you develop a knack for it. Thus, female athletes learn to excel at supporting others, not snarking at them in the fashion of a Mean Girl.
“I know how to win and lose gracefully.” In the game of life, we win triumphantly and lose painfully. That’s how it goes. And it’s how we do both gracefully that determines our success and sanity.
“I play fair.” Cheap shots and cheating are desperate functions in the face of defeat by someone who feels outmatched. You don’t cheat if you feel strong and prepared, and these are states of being that athletes cultivate daily.
“I’m not afraid of getting dirty.” Both literally and figuratively, female athletes are willing to put in hours of unglamorous work, sweating, getting muddy, and sacrificing a finely pressed uniform for grass-stains and glory, which is good because glory usually requires a few grass stains.
“I speak up.” If you want the ball, call for it. If you have something to say in a team meeting, say it. If you play sports, you train your voice as well as your muscles.
“I recruit others.” Rallying others is important, and sports teach us how to do this better, how to enlist others for a common goal, how to get people excited, and how to encourage people to take chances they might otherwise miss by sitting on the sidelines.
“I excessively celebrate.” How dull life would be without the fist bumps, high fives, touchdown dances, victory laps, and general demonstrations of levity associated with playing sports.
I think it’s a shame my pal Lisa’s running medals don’t get out more, so I wore them at her Christmas party.
“I refuse to be just a pretty face.” You can try to reduce a female athlete down to her looks. People attempt this with the Hope Solos, Maria Sharapovas, and Lolo Joneses of the world all the time. And each time, they are sorely mistaken. Because inside each chiseled body is the lion heart of an athlete, which knows no limits, gender, or need for looking ladylike. Thank God for that, and maybe Title IX helped, too.
What do you think? What lessons do young women learn from playing sports?