Helping Our Female Athletes Be Confident, not Cocky

John Daly flanked by W&M soccer standouts

Talk about being surrounded by beautiful women… John Daly is loving this. He would tell you so; the ladies would just nod and smile – and defer to their teammates.

Here’s how I know. I got to enjoy the company of four of these young ladies over brunch at the William and Mary Celebration of Women’s Athletics event this year. The keynote speaker was Erica Walsh, W&M ’97, and current women’s soccer head coach at Penn State and assistant coach with the US Women’s National Team. These young ladies all were current W&M soccer players, soon to be graduated. Of course I, being in the sports and fitness business, struck up a conversation. They humored me.

They were delightful. Bright. Smart. Friendly. Well-spoken. Some of William and Mary’s finest for sure. And, oh yes, the cream of the crop athletically. That’s a given when you play for a championship Division I soccer team. All these girls had been top recruits from their high schools. They were sought-after commodities because they had the brains and the game to succeed at W&M.

So, frankly I was a bit surprised when they had trouble answering this question: “What is the thing you do best for the team?” They stumbled and stammered. Er… “I have leadership qualities.” “I always work hard.” “I never give up.” Everything sounded to me like it came from an ‘approved’ list of media quotes. Well, except the one girl who, with apologies said, “I never do anything half-assed.” We all agreed she took the ‘full-assed’ approach.

I challenged them then to give me more than the answer everyone else gave. “But how? What do you have that no one else has? What is different about you?” They didn’t even consider that “I play for a DI Soccer program” was a satisfactory answer.

This question seemed even harder. They didn’t have any words for this. I’m not sure they’d ever thought about it. Standing out as an individual was something they had not aspired to. Turn away praise was a way of life. ‘Team’ was what was preached. ‘Be what the team needs.’  ‘Give your all for the team.’

This sits great with women. Just listen to the gold-medal winning US WNT. “It wasn’t my great header, I just got under a great serve by HAO.” “Our defense played great.” “We created lots of chances.” And those t-shirts they donned after the Championship match that read “Greatness Has Been Found.” – they only worked when the whole team put them on. Wearing them individually isn’t part of their DNA. (Well, perhaps Hope Solo’s DNA. But I don’t know Hope and I don’t want her angry with me, so I won’t speculate. She did have a great championship game.)

My point: for women, even the best women, it’s all about the ‘we’ not about the ‘I.’ That’s Mia Hamm’s theme, right? There’s no “I” in team.

But, here sitting around the brunch table, we were having a different sort of conversation. They were about to venture into the workplace, full of hope and potential, but they needed to toot their own horn a bit. To speak up about their own accomplishments, not just the team’s. Firms were not going to be hiring the team, after all.

The question went around the table, and girl after girl deferred. Refused to standout. Why? Because, talking about their accomplishments and abilities sounded too much like bragging. It was unattractive, aggressive, conceited, cocky. The best they could do was come to each others’ rescue. One pointed to her teammate who had just described her summer internship and told me, “That internship was really competitive.” So I guess traveling in pairs might help the truth come out. We women can toot each others’ horns.

Okay guys, call me a liar, in my experience most men just don’t have this problem. They are happy to take credit. Bring it on. Be a one man show. Let every body look up to you. Aggressive is a-okay. Why not name a building or two after yourself, eh Donald?

But we are raising our girls in an environment that discourages self-aggrandizement and celebrates cooperation and humility. Nothing wrong with that. But these girls have plenty to be proud of, plenty to put on their resumes. They should be confident about what they bring to the table as well as the field. How can we help them speak confidently without being cocky? How can we help them be proud of what they have accomplished without being ‘prideful?’

We need to teach them how to tell the truth about themselves.

  • I have done/received/earned/been awarded these:__________.
  • I have contributed this: __________________ consistently and effectively.
  • I bring ________________ approach to what I do.
  • I am willing to try ______________.
  • Here is a story which illustrates me at my best….

And maybe the last is the most important of all. We need to help our girls tell the story that shows them at their best; it will feel less like they are saying they are the best. Women rarely believe they are the best; we’re always looking around at everyone else and figuring we fall short. What if we helped our girls tell the story that starts:

“My team is better when I __________ and my teammates are better when I ____________.”

That sounds like truth and it fits into their vocabulary. Confident. Capable. Competent. Who wouldn’t hire that young lady?

And oh yeah, she’s a real ringer on the company soccer team.

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