Study on women in sports that can be read in different ways

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Connie Ann Kirk
Writer and Independent Scholar


Joan Steidinger Sisterhood in Sports: How Female Athletes Collaborate and Compete 216 sidor, inb. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2014 ISBN 978-1-4422-3033-0

Joan Steidinger
Sisterhood in Sports: How Female Athletes Collaborate and Compete
216 sidor, inb.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2014
ISBN 978-1-4422-3033-0

At some point it would be nice to get to a place in our culture and thinking where, darn it, we just don’t have to separate the boys from the girls any more. As some of us have experienced first-hand, this utopian fantasy has gotten closer to reality in some aspects of daily life over the last few decades. However, as long as male and female bodies continue to be born with measurably different physical properties and perform different functions in the procreation process, the act of denying there is a difference seems, well, unrealistic. What we can keep working on, of course, is how those different gendered bodies are treated in society as their owners go about living out their lives in them. All of this is a way of saying that, while it might be nice to not have a book titled Sisterhood in Sports, since collaboration and competition ought to cross the gender line in sport as it ought to cross it in other endeavors in life, if one remembers that reality is what it is, not what it ought to be, Steidinger’s book may be read as useful by coaches, parents and others who wish to improve athletic performance in females, as well as the athletes themselves. However, its usefulness may depend on whether readers agree or disagree with what she argues the majority of female athletes need to succeed.

The skeptics among us need to remember that most organized sports still separate the boys from the girls (motor sports among a few others, notably, does not, but then the low number of females driving in the professional ranks of motor racing is just one example of how problematic creating an equitable co-ed environment in athletics remains today). This book may make the reader who sees girls and boys as more alike, or sees fewer differences or different differences than Steidinger does between the genders, let’s say, well, a bit uneasy. There is this opening sentence of Chapter 1, for example: “Talking, talking, and more talking is what most girls, young and old, tend to enjoy—which is what makes talking and communicating so important when one is working with a female athlete” (1). Reading that, all you need to think of are the many quiet girls or women you know, or maybe conjure the worn stereotype of chatty, “no-brainer” females, high-pitched voices bouncing off of locker room walls creating an instant migraine, to feel your shoulders hitch up a little, and notice that your shirt collar needs a bit of adjusting. You, gender-enlightened and utopian-driven as you are, tell yourself to hear this author, a sports psychologist and a female after all, out for a bit longer.

Steidinger is a female athlete herself, and for her book, she talked with dozens of others. Her work is organized into 10 chapters charting females throughout various stages of their lives as girls and women as well as their varied experiences as athletes. Chapter titles are:

    • Sisterhood in Sports: Talking, Relationships, and the Unique Qualities of Female Athletes;
    • Best Friends Forever: Teenage Trials and Building Long-Lasting Friendships;
    • The Family That Plays Together Stays Together;
    • Athletic Moms’ Challenges;
    • Romantic Relationships;
    • Body Image of Female Athletes;
    • Team Spirit: Practicing Collaboration and Camaraderie;
    • Coaches Are Cornerstones;
    • Pioneering Female Athletes Laid the Foundation; and
    • Female Collaborative Competition: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

The book concludes with Notes, a Bibliography, Index, and list of Contributors (Interviewees).

Steidinger’s thesis is that females are not only different from males physically but psychologically as well, and that the psychological differences should be better understood to help bring out the best in a woman or girl’s athletic abilities. Citing studies of the female brain, Steidinger says that some of its unique qualities include “the significance it places on emotional (intimate) connection, one-on-one friendships, empathy and intuition, positive peer-group collaboration and camaraderie, and the desire for fun” (2). Noting what she says are differences in this makeup from males, she argues that females in sports “have different needs” from males and that the higher levels of neurotransmitters from the brain such as oxytocin affect the desire for females to bond at higher levels than their male counterparts. These differences in brains, she says, “directly influence the behaviors female athletes display” (2).

To some coaches and others who work with girls in sports, Steidinger may confirm what they might say they already know from what they’ve observed on the court or playing field, in the locker room, or on the bus rides in between. To some of them, she may be validating through her research what they may be hesitant to verbalize in mixed company – that some of the stereotypes about females are, in fact, innate characteristics of the gender and indeed show up in the behaviors of girls, even when they are playing sports. In saying that it is a biological (brain) fact that girls like to make friends with one another and cheer for each other, even as they also compete against one another, Steidinger is urging coaches to use this notion to foster better team cooperation and effectiveness. If socializing and interpersonal connection is important to a female athlete, for example, then she will perform better, goes the argument, if she likes the other girls or women on her team. Athletes, coaches, and others who agree with this may find the book and its listed “strategies” at the ends of chapters, a practical resource if they agree with its premise.

Steidinger did not depend on scientific studies of the brain alone to present her argument. She also interviewed dozens of female athletes and coaches, including several Olympians such as gold medalist swimmer Donna de Varona, cyclist Karen Brems, road and mountain biker Alison Dunlap, fencer Stacey Johnson, and basketball player Ann Meyers Drysdale. From their accounts and those of many others, she concludes that “[e]ven when we look at high-level competitors, we can see that female athletes struggle with reconciling their desire to caretake and make nice with their desire to compete and win” (163).

This is a conclusion, however, that may be difficult for some critical readers to find entirely convincing, even as Steidinger worked to ground her argument in science and qualitative research. Because of this, the book could have perhaps benefited from including a stronger rebuttal against arguments that would challenge its assertions or more in-depth examinations and accountings of female athletes who do not conform to its generalized theory. That said, the book, read as either provocative or insightful, may well stimulate further discussion or analysis in areas such as gender and sport studies, recreation, sport psychology, and other disciplines concerned with teamwork and competition, such as business.

Copyright © Connie Ann Kirk 2015

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