In Gender and Sports

When held in the hands of healthy, appropriate adults, competitive sports can provide your girls with some invaluable lessons that will last them a lifetime. We all know about the obvious ones: The value of hard work, facing adversity, disciplining yourself to work towards a far off goal, how to effectively manage victory and failure, good sportsmanship, how to work as a team sacrificing “I” for “We,” etc.

However, in our present day culture, girls stand to learn some far more valuable lessons that will ultimately help them become strong and competent women in the society of their adulthood. These lessons are somewhat interrelated and start with learning how to feel good about yourself as a highly competitive, aggressive individual. Now a lot of people will blanch when they read this as if there is something very wrong about being a strong, competitive female in the world.


Typically girls are socialized to be “feminine,” i.e. pretty, sweet, non-aggressive, non-competitive, sensitive and ultra-cooperative. In general, they are taught that they shouldn’t speak up for themselves, shouldn’t stand out in a crowd and shouldn’t try to strive to be the best, especially if it means that you might outcompete and therefore “hurt” someone else. In fact, girls are “rewarded” when they act in these passive and unassuming ways.

Because of this socialization, girls who play sports have to deal with an unspoken dilemma of trying to strive for excellence but at the same time having to be sure that they don’t become “too excellent.” As a consequence, so many girls and young women are conflicted about really going for it because it makes them feel uncomfortable and somehow “wrong.”

Even with all of the advances in women’s rights today, adult women in our society who are strong, competent and aggressive are still looked down upon and referred to in derogatory terms that start with the letter “B.” For many men, these kinds of strong, competent women are experienced as a threat.

Explain something to me though: Why is it perfectly OK and even virtuous for a man to be competent, aggressive and competitive but not for a woman?

Knowing when and how to be strong in the world, to stand out, to speak up for yourself, to strive to be your very best and to feel good about yourself are all invaluable life skills for young women to have. In the hands of competent adults, organized competitive sports provide girls with a healthy vehicle to develop these critical skills that lead to the development of a healthy self-image.

Unfortunately, far too many girls and young women view their self-worth and lovability mainly by their attractiveness to the opposite sex. Their self-esteem then is totally dependent upon the external and extremely shallow measure of physical appearances. To me, this is a tragedy. Personally it would break my heart to know that my two daughters’ self-esteem were dependent upon their ability to attract the opposite sex rather than on the uniqueness and special qualities of who they were as individuals.

Sports provides girls with the ability to develop special skills, talents and a healthy sense of self-esteem which completely transcends their physical looks. It gives them a way to feel good about themselves for who they are and what they can do, rather than for what they look like.

As far as I’m concerned, our definition of feminine has been terribly distorted. We need to expand it in a healthy way to include the qualities of strong, competent, independent, competitive and aggressive.


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