From Captain to CEO: Young Girls and Sports

Earlier this week Forbes ran an article entitled "The Secret to Being a Power Woman: Play Team Sports." The piece has certainly struck a chord with many women-- and it struck a chord with me as it dovetails nicely with some of my research on girls and competitive afterschool activities. In my 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? Precisely for the reasons suggested by Jenna Godreau in her article: 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, called "Pink Girls and Ball Guys?: Gender and Competitive Children's Activities"). Note: As part of this research I interviewed parents from 95 families with elementary 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.  Here's an illustrative quote from one Ivy-League educated soccer 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 girl actually played two travel sports-- soccer and ice hockey.  Her comments also highlight what additional lessons can come when a child makes the jump from recreational participation in team sports to competitive youth sports. 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.

Learning how to be aggressive/assertive was a skill highlighted by all the parents I met who had daughters playing travel soccer.  Here is another evocative quote from a father, who is an Ivy-League educated attorney:

I encourage her to be more aggressive because she’s a cute little girl, but I don’t like her to be a girly girl… You know, I don’t want her to be a cheerleader—nothing against that—but I want her to prepare to have the option, if she wants to be an executive in a company, that she can play on that turf. And if she’s kind of a girly girl, maybe she’ll be a secretary… There’s nothing wrong with that, but let her have the option of doing something else if she wants.

[I could write pages on this quote alone-- from "play on that turf" to girly-girls being secretaries to stereotypes about cheerleaders (who can in fact be tremendously competitive and athletic), but I'll let you wait for the book to see all that!]

3) Learning to use sports to connect across social boundaries (like sex and class)- You may notice that both of these parents (and most of the soccer parents I met) are highly credentialed and successful professionals. We can think of them as part of the upper-middle class.  Sports are quite important in American upper-middle class culture because they celebrate some of the values that are activated in professional work environments-- though note that this used to apply to men more 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. For example, economist Betsey Stevenson’s work on Title IX finds that participation in high school sports increases the likelihood that a girl attends college, enters the labor market, and enters previously male-dominated occupations.  Stevenson suggests that sports develop skills, like learning how to compete and function as a team, which are especially important as women navigate the traditionally male-dominated labor market. Other researchers (like Bonnie Erickson) find that the ability to converse intelligently about sports can also be an advantage in the workplace, helping connect individuals across classes and social networks (this last point was also highlighted in the Forbes article-- given hope to un-athletic women, like yours truly!).

Historically, elite women were charged with mastery of the arts, and similar forms of cultural capital, so it is a change that at least certain kinds of women are focusing more on athletics. But change is a good thing and we should expect to see more and more female CEO's and high achievers, like those highlighted in the article as this generation of young, competitive, athletic women age.

Throw Like a Girl: Reviewing Softball Legend Jennie Finch's New Book (from BlogHer Sports)

You may recognize her from her pitching in the Olympics. Or from the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. Or even from The Apprentice. Now you should also recognize her as an author. Softball great, and Olympic gold medalist, Jennie Finch, has just released her first book: Throw Like A Girl: How to Dream Big & Believe in Yourself (with sports journalist Ann Killion). This 256-page autobiographical work, recently published by sports press Triumph, is targeted at teen girls (it may be a bit long for elementary school-age readers, but is a great fit for middle- and high-school audiences). If your daughter is a softball player, or athlete of any type, this is a must read.

Throw Like A Girl traces Finch’s career from her days on Southern California sandlots to international softball diamonds on travel, high school, college, Olympic, and pro teams.  Divided into three sections—Body, Mind, and Heart— Finch gives tips on how to navigate politics in youth sports, how college recruiting really works, and how to balance sports, schooling, and a social life (at various life stages, as she covers her own marriage and pregnancies).  While she does repeat some stories a few times, the pictures and inspirational quotes throughout help distract from this repetition.

The gist of the book is summarized on page seven: “Through sports I learned to accept and appreciate my body and to accept myself for who I am. I gained confidence and inspiration. Athletics is not only good for your body, it’s great for your mind and spirit. And I learned that life is about so much more than just the wins and losses at the end of a game.”  Throughout Finch explains why athletics are beneficial to girls today, while also highlighting problem areas in youth sports—themes that resonate with my academic research on girls and competitive sports.


n my work I label girls who are highly competitive and highly feminine “pink girls.”  These young women choose what type of girl they want to be, while performing at such a high level that they often beat boys.  She writes that the contrast between being a tough-as-nails athlete and a hot-pink-on-nails girl provides her with the right balance.  Some of her friends and teammates have chosen to be even more “supergirly” and others have chosen to shave their heads.  Finch explains that softball, and sports, has room for all types of girls.

Finch chose to be a pink girl from a young age: “When I started playing sports, I always put ribbons in my braids or ponytails.  My father was the one who did my hair for me before games when I was little because my mom was often at work. He always said that just because girl plays sports doesn’t mean she can’t be feminine. So that became my motto, too.” (55)

Finch’s father has played a huge role in her life.  More than anyone else besides the author he is the star of the book.  He developed a machine named the “Finch windmill” to help his daughter develop the muscles in her non-pitching arm.  He explained to her that her teammates depended on her and she shouldn’t go outside and ride her bike, for fear of breaking an arm.  And he defended her at games when people yelled from the stands that they were lying about her age.

Mr. Finch was an extremely involved sports dad who pushed his daughter to her limits to succeed.  While it clearly paid off in this case, it’s also clear that not all kids would respond well to this sort of parenting style.  Still, it’s a great example of sports bringing a father and daughter closer together, something that is still somewhat rare for many daddy-daughter combos, as I have previously written about on BlogHer.

Finch’s story shows how sports can help forge other familial bonds.  An obvious example is that Finch married a professional baseball player (a pitcher, no less), Casey Daigle.  Less obvious is the role her two older, athletic brothers played in her sports development.  For example, she explains that having older brothers helped prepare her parents to deal with the politics of youth sports teams (like the coach who likes to use his own child as star pitcher) and how to pick good coaches.

Finch provides other bits of relevant, practical advice to young athletes and their parents.  She tells people to be wary about those who sell services to young athletes and do some homework before hiring them—that just because they charge money doesn’t make them qualified (this is a real pet peeve of mine when it comes to the world of children’s competitive activities, as you can see here and here).  Finch also encourages young athletes to continue to explore various sporting opportunities and not specialize too young.  This includes playing different sports for fun and playing on a school team, not just for select travel teams.  Parents will especially appreciate her message that studying for school must also remain a priority.

While some of the tips apply to boys and girls, girls really are the focus in Throw Like a Girl. Finch discusses all the various competitive pressures girls may feel in their lives (academic, athletic, peer, romantic, and the list goes on), explaining she felt all of them at some point.  She doesn’t use psychologist Stephen Hinshaw’s term “The Triple Bind,” which refers to the pressures girls today feel to achieve like boys but still be nice and look good, but she has clearly lived this triple bind and succeeded.  While she is a positive role model I couldn’t help but ask myself if any male athletes would describe themselves as she did on page twenty: “I wasn’t the coolest girl. I wasn’t the most popular. I was too tall. I was chunky.”  Hopefully the next generation of female superstar athletes will read this book, take Jennie Finch’s advice to heart, and move beyond this triple bind.