How will the Olympics inspire girls? (from the Gates Cambridge blog, a program that has inspired me)

This blog originally appeared on the Gates Cambridge blog, A Transformative Experience, on July 29, 2012. I was a Gates Cambridge scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2002-2003. It truly was one of the most transformative experiences of my life from a personal and professional point of view. For many years after my time in the UK I was honored and humbled to serve the Gates Cambridge community in different ways (as a member, and later as a co-chair, of the Alumni Association and as a member of the selection committee for US Scholars). Unlike many other fellowships the Gates Cambridge is very inclusive (citizens of every country except the UK can apply, no age limits, no institutional endorsement needed, any graduate degree Cambridge offers eligible, etc.) and scholars go on to pursue different types of research and professions, as the blog suggests. In some ways the Gates Cambridge spirit is similar to the Olympic spirit with its international style, emphasis on achievement, and attraction for those striving to make the world a better place.

The London Olympics are upon us and they are shaping up to be quite extraordinary from the standpoint of advancing women’s athletics.  For instance this will be the first Olympic Games in which every Olympic nation is represented by a female competitor; it’s also the first time that women will compete in every Olympic sport.

As a cultural sociologist and writer who focuses on childhood and athletics among other topics, I believe in the power of sport to effect social change.  I also know that sports are a way to shape the next generation by teaching children lessons about competition and life.  But those lessons are often shaped by gender and class.

In my academic work I find that many parents, especially those from the upper-middle class, realize how important it is for girls to play competitive sports. Why? Parents perceive that there are numerous long-term benefits in terms of adult professional achievement.

What might these benefits be? I’ll highlight three here, but soon you will be able to read a whole chapter on this topic in my book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. (Note: As part of this research I interviewed parents from 95 families with primary school-age kids involved in chess, dance, and soccer. I was especially interested in understanding how parents of girls chose between the two physical activities [dance and soccer] for their daughters.)

1) Learning how to be part of a team- The team element of competitive youth sports was especially important to many parents I met.  Here’s an illustrative quote from one Ivy-League educated soccer (American football) mom:

We have no illusions that our children are going to be great athletes. But the team element (is important). I worked for Morgan Stanley for 10 years, and I interviewed applicants, and that ability to work on a team was a crucial part of our hiring process. So it’s a skill that comes into play much later. It’s not just about ball skills or hand-eye coordination.

2) Learning how to strive to win, be the best, and be aggressive- This same mother went on to explain why she thought ice hockey was such a good choice for her daughter. Her daughter actually played two travel sports– soccer and ice hockey.  Her comments also highlight what additional skills children acquire when they make the jump from recreational participation in team sports to competitive youth sports where the emphasis on winning and being aggressive becomes amplified.

When I was interviewing [job candidates] at Morgan Stanley, if I got a female candidate—because it’s banking and you need to be aggressive, you need to be tough—if she played, like, ice hockey, done. My daughter’s playing, and I’m just a big believer in kids learning to be confidently aggressive, and I think that plays out in life assertiveness.

3) Learning to use sports to connect across social boundaries (like sex and class)- You may notice that this mother is a professional who is highly credentialed.  This was true of many of the soccer parents  that I interviewed.  We can think of them as part of the American upper-middle class.  Sports are quite important in American upper-middle class culture because athletics celebrate and promote many of the values that are valued in professional work environments. In the past these values (like learning to win, for example) applied more to men than women.  But today parents expect the same sort of achievement from their sons and daughters, and see sports as a way to teach this lesson to their daughters.  They seem to be on the right track. Recent economic research has found that participation in sports while in secondary school increases the likelihood that a girl attends university, enters the labor market, and enters previously male-dominated occupations.

These classed lessons in femininity are an unexplored way in which gender and class reproduction occurs, beginning in childhood.  While we root for athletes from our home nations, and those whose stories resonate with us, during this Summer Olympics it’s important to understand the various social forces that shape these athletes’ past and future achievements, and those who they inspire.

An Olympic-Sized Achievement: Scholar-Athlete Amanda Scott (from BlogHer)

I know Amanda Scott as a fellow Gates Cambridge Scholar. But I can't run like her! A very impressive person. CLICK HERE TO READ THIS ARTICLE ON BLOGHER SPORTS!

2012 is not only a leap year, it’s an Olympic year. That means that in the next few months thousands of hopefuls are gearing up for Olympic Trials to try to secure a spot to represent their country at the summer games, to be held in London.  How many of those who have qualified to compete can say that they were also one of the top collegiate scholars in the world? Or that they managed to combine Olympic-level training with Olympic-level academics, studying for a PhD (in Chemical Engineering to boot) while logging in hundreds of training hours?

Amanda Scott can.  This 24-year-old Boulder resident will compete at the Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston this Saturday, January 14th. Many train full-time to run at such a high level, but over the years Scott has managed to combine high-level running with high-level achievements both inside and outside the classroom.

Growing up in Virginia Beach, Scott started playing soccer around age four.  It wasn’t until her sophomore year of high school that she started running competitively, unlike many younger kids today.  But she quickly excelled and ended up pursuing cross country as a collegiate sport, instead of her childhood sport of soccer.

Scott selected Vanderbilt University for its academics, but also for its sports opportunities.  She recommends, like Jennie Finch, that girls be proactive about the college athletic and recruitment process. One specific tip is to reach out to coaches via email to establish your interest and a personal connection.A few months before graduating from Vanderbilt in 2009 with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering, Scott traveled to Annapolis, MD to interview for a prestigious post-graduate fellowship at the University of Cambridge.  Even at such a stressful and crucial time in her academic and professional career, she had to make time to do a workout.  Just before her interview for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship (a program that generously supports full-time graduate study through an endowment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), she squeezed in a training run on the U.S. Naval Academy track.  This actually came up while she was being questioned by a panel of world-class scientists, showing she was more than a one-dimensional chemical engineer.  That year Scott was one of only 37 Americans selected as a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

While in Cambridge, Scott acquired a Master’s (MPhil) in Advanced Chemical Engineering, and a newfound love and appreciation for running as a sport.  Organized, university athletics are far more social and less competitive in England than they are in the United States.  Running without any pressure actually led to more races.  Scott recalls, “I was having fun just running without any pressure from myself (or coaches or teammates).”  In this more relaxed atmosphere she decided to try a marathon as “something different and just for fun.” After completing the London Marathon that year, she was hooked.

A move the following fall to Boulder to pursue her PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder brought new academic challenges and exposure to a new, outdoor-inspired running community.  During the always difficult first year of graduate school with non-stop work she found time to run and train with friends, running another marathon. It became apparent that she might be able to make the qualifying time for Olympic Trials.

To young runners and scholars, Scott offers the following wisdom and advice based on her own experiences: “The more that I enjoy running, the better I do at it.  Whenever it becomes too stressful or too much like a job I don’t do as well.  You have to do what you are passionate about and then you’ll succeed.”  She cautions that you also have to pursue your interests for yourself, and not be too competitive, which can lead to burnout and injuries.  Scott credits her parents for being supportive, and not pushy, particularly at a young age.

Following her own advice to follow your passion and find what you enjoy, Scott decided to take a break from academics and work at Crocs.  She had previously spent a summer at Nike analyzing materials used in running shoes.  Working on performance and recovery shoes allows her to combine her two passions—running and chemical engineering.Shortly after starting her new job she traveled to Indianapolis where she ran a personal best to qualify in 172nd to run in the Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston.  Scott knows that this will be an experience of a lifetime.  She hopes to run another personal best and meet some of her running idols, like Desiree Davila, Shalane Flanagan, and Kara Goucher.While it’s unlikely that we’ll see Scott running in the Olympics this summer, her remarkable accomplishments both inside and outside the classroom maker her an excellent role model for young girls, showing them that athletic achievements at the highest level are possible while still achieving academically at the highest level, both in the US and abroad.  And, who knows, maybe at the next summer Olympics in 2016 the next generation of elite female runners will be wearing a performance shoe designed by runner and chemical engineer Amanda Scott…

Congratulations on your new credential!

Many children today are being raised to play to win (hence the title of this blog). What does this mean? Kids are taught, from a young age, skills that will help them compete and achieve in their adult lives.

These (largely upper-middle class and middle class American) children are molded, both inside and outside the classroom, to perform well at all of the credentials bottlenecks through which they must pass-- like succeeding in high school, navigating the college admissions process, applying to graduate schools, etc.  The particular skills that make up what I call competitive kid capital (or the "competitive habitus" in my academic writing) include: internalizing the importance of winning, bouncing back from a loss to win in the future, learning how to succeed in stressful situations, and being able to perform under the gaze of evaluators.

Last weekend I had the honor of helping to select the new Gates Cambridge Scholars from the United States.  I myself was a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2002-3.  It was one of the best years of my life as I met some of my dearest friends (including my husband), traveled, and generally expanded my view of the world and what is possible within it.  This was my fifth year to be involved with the selection process and over time I have been struck by the connections between the primary school-age children I study and these highly accomplished students pursuing graduate degrees.

1) Passion- One of the characteristics that unifies Gates scholars across varied research subjects is passion.  The students interviewed have found a project that is worthy of graduate study, but what often elevates those who are selected is, what psychologists call, intrinsic motivation.  I have thought deeply about differences between children who are intrinsically and extrinsically motivated (for great research on this subject see, for example, Mark Lepper or Carol Dweck).  Children who are only motivated extrinsically by the lure of a large trophy will likely not succeed in the long term.  Sure, a trophy can be a way to get a child hooked, but those who go on to pursue an interest for many years and succeed at a high level are not driven by the lure of a prize (or a line on their résumés).  Passion is a proxy for this important intrinsic motivation.

2) Perseverance (or, as I prefer, stick-to-it-tiveness)- Things don't always work out the first time around in life, and Gates Scholars seem to have learned how to stick to tasks that they have that passion for and pursue those interests.  On a basic level, panels have interviewed applicants more than once and some of these applicants ultimately have been successful in being awarded a Gates the second time around.  On a deeper level you can see in their application materials the willingness to try, and sometimes fail, at hard tasks (whether it be a course, a research project, or organizing a public service event to promote a specific change in the world).  Gates Scholars, like the elementary school-age children I study, have stick-to-it-tiveness in myriad situations.

3) Grace under pressure-  Over the years Gates applicants have had to perform under sometimes less-than-ideal circumstances.  Weather immediatelly springs to mind.  When I interviewed in February 2002 I took an all night train from Boston to Baltimore after my flight was canceled due to a blizzard; I simply was not going to miss my chace to interview in person (yes, I even figured out a way to make sure my hair was curled and styled!).  Last year's applicants braved "Snowmageddon" to interview, and this year was also no easy trip for many.  In addition to weather snafus we have interviewed applicants with disabilities and unexpected injuries.  Finding the poise to perform under pressure is difficult, but it helps when one has been placed in high pressure situations from a young age (like the children I studied), so there is a reservoir of experience to draw upon.

4) Authenticity- Here I rely upon the somewhat-clichéd ancient Greek aphorism, "Know thyself." While being judged it is crucial to be authentic and tell your story. This is deceptively simple.  Knowing what you know, and knowing what you don't know, and creating your own authentic self and specialty are crucial not just for the Gates credentialiing process, but for the credentialing process of life.

I don't know if any of the children I studied will end up facing a fellowships selection panel someday-- though I suspect they will, as in many ways being groomed for that kind of success.  You don't have to be groomed from a young age to be a Gates (or a Truman, or a Marshall, or a Rhodes, for that matter), as I certainly wasn't.  But it helps if you, or someone close to you, knows about these skills and lessons when you are still young in chronological or intellectual years. And, if no one does, well, this is partially at the root of cultural and social inequality.  Which Gates Scholar will address this inequality in the future?

In any event, a hearty congratulations to all new scholars, but especially those I interviewed with the always wonderful Arts panel-- Bianca, Margaret, Kevin, Nicholas, Jennifer, David, and Michael!

[Note: These are my own personal observations, not endorsed by the Trust or other members of my interview panel. On some practical level they could be read as advice in any fellowships selection process.]