For Young Female Athletes, Selection is Personal

I had a disconcerting phone conversation with a friend and fellow “soccer parent” the other day.  She said her daughter is “on the bubble” between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ team.  They are waiting to hear which team she will be playing for.  The parent told me that it is likely she won’t make the ‘A’ team because her daughter has chosen to listen to her body and not run the fitness mileage ‘until she’s nauseated’ as has been prescribed by her coach.  The coach is a successful local college coach.  The athlete is 11 years old.

“She’s done all that’s been asked,” pleads the Mom.  “Followed the ‘party line.’  She has attended all practices, worked hard at all of them, shown good sportsmanship, acted as a team leader.”  “But,” says the Mom, “she is not reaching her potential on the field.”   She fears her daughter will be passed over because, in real life, we give lip service to the qualities we admire but recognize and reward talent and successful skill.  And already, this real life is playing out in U13 travel soccer.

I assured the mother that what she was doing and the choices her daughter was making, to take care and listen to her body, were the right ones.  That they would pay dividends down the road.  That when other girls were burned out or getting injured, her daughter still would be there.  Still standing and, perchance, smiling. 

But then came the reality.  “Yes, I know,” sighed the Mom.  “But she will be devastated if she doesn’t make the A team.  She thinks she’s no good if she doesn’t.”

And therein is the truth that this ultracompetitive and ultra-selective environment is creating for our very young women: that what is to be desired and celebrated is maximizing and not growth, outcome and not effort.  It’s professional sports trickling down into the youth sports environment.  Character has only minor value if you don’t also have the best shot, most speed and great moves.  We say we want a team player when what we’d rather have is a star with tolerable team skills.

This is especially devastating, in my experience, with young women who are so eager to please.  Who find their own value in the eyes of others who commend and admire them.  Who feel they must be the best in order to deserve our love and praise.  This, I fear, is coming from our culture.

Girls are breaking into all the realms of sports that formerly only were men’s and they are playing the games as well and as successfully.  But they are bringing the women’s perspective which has trouble separating success and self-worth.  If they fail, they fear, something must be wrong with them.  Their effort too little, their skills lacking, their mental toughness needing work.  Men dismiss losing quickly: the sun was in my eyes, the other team had a ringer, or even those other guys cheat.  For girls, it is different.  If they win, they are good.  If they lose, they are worth-less.

We must recognize this female mindset in our young women athletes.  Call it out.  Help them separate the two things: their game and their value.  And perhaps, given this, introduce a new mindset to developing girls’ teams.  One which banks on effort and growing potential which is free from the fear of being replaced when the younger, faster, better-looking kid comes along. 

Let’s leave that for the grown ups…who might be well-served taking a hard look at this themselves.

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