Stereotypical Media Representations of Female Athletes Starts Early

boy & girlToday I was preparing for a WeCoach workshop and was looking for some images on IStock.com. Pictured here is a classic example of how the (re)production of gender stereotypes starts early and in ways we might not even notice because they seem so innocuous. Ironically, shortly after I found these images I read the AAUW blog on Why Media Representation Matters which touched upon the newly released The Shriver Report-A Woman’s Nation. So far, I’ve read the Executive Summary of A Woman’s Nation, and in light of the Tucker Center’s Distinguished Lecture on the potential impact  of social media on women’s sport and the story released today by the New York Post suggesting that ESPN encourages “sexual insensitivity”,  I was struck by the assertion that outdated gender stereotypes will only change if women rise within the ranks and launch new media of their own. So what are we waiting for?

LaVoi’s 3C’s of Effective Coaching

If there is one theoretical framework that can easily be applied to helping coaches be more effective, it is the motivational framework of the Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT posits that human beings have 3 essential needs: the need for relatedness, the need to feel competence, and the need for autonomy.

I like to call these needs “The 3C’s“–care, competence, & choice–as talking “theory” is usually not met with interest and enthusiasm! When the three needs are not being met, well-being, optimal health, functioning, performance, and development are less likely to occur. Coaches play a unique role in meeting the needs of their athletes. If you’re interested in increasing your effectiveness as coach, parent, manager or any task that involves social interactions with other human beings, I’d encourage you to learn more about SDT.

Happy Sport Parents?

While most media attention focuses on the negative and angry behaviors of sport parents on youth sport sidelines–not all sport parents are angry and yelling. I have an ongoing research line on the emotional experiences of youth sport parents with some colleagues and students. Last summer we looked at what made sport parents happy; it was a nice change of pace from examining background anger in youth sports.

MCNAIR_Blankenship Poster_2009_Final

Kelli Blankenship, a member of the University of Minnesota Women’s Hockey Team and 2009 McNair Scholar, helped us  analyze the happy parent data. You can see a nice story about her on the U of MN website. We found that child-athlete performances and experiences more frequently made sport parents happy, than did athlete development.  You can see the full results of our poster by clicking on it. We’ll be analyzing the full data set soon, but this will give you a taste of what is to come.

Physical Activity, Organized Youth Sport & Youth Obesity

soda machineSome and colleagues and I are working on research pertaining to what is known (and mostly not known) about the role of youth sports in obesity prevention. Last week Toben Nelson, University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, presented some of our work at the monthly Tucker Table. You can view his PowerPoint and see a small video clip. This work has made me think critically about how youth sports may not be the healthiest places for some children–including the ubiquitous presence of unhealthy snacks which I wrote about in an earlier blog. While physical activity and active living may help prevent childhood obesity, healthy eating is the other half of the equation. To highlight the relationship between physical activity and the presence of unhealthy food, this Village Voice post and picture showing how NYC playgrounds house soda machines says it all (via AN).

The Case of the Pink Hockey Gloves

pink glovesA couple years ago a student in my Psychology of Coaching class told me a story of a local youth hockey coach. This coach wanted to make his team of U12 boys “tougher.” To accomplish this goal, he decided to give the least tough skater on his team (in his opinion) a pair of pink gloves to wear for the next practice. He named this honor “the pussy gloves.” A majority of the time, the pink gloves were awarded to the same boy. I wish I were making this up.

There are so many reasons why this motivational tactic is the farthest thing from motivational, aside from the fact it is sexist and homophobic. Unfortunately this type of coaching behavior is not uncommon and often goes unchallenged as the status quo.

Weekend Gender Observations

Notre Dame Football3This past weekend I traveled back to Notre Dame (ND) for the Michigan State football game. I go back every other year to catch a game and see former colleagues. While I was there I observed a few things I had to share related to how females are marginalized and gender is (re)produced in subtle and not to subtle ways. Here are the Top 5:

1. On Friday morning I played golf at the beautiful links style ND Warren Golf Course. When I worked at ND I would decide to golf after work and show up at the course and be assigned a tee time with a group that had room for one more. Mostly I played with all men. As we stood on the tee box, I would invariable get “advice” from one or more of the men on how to play, how to hit a drive etc….They would tee off first, and then we’d go up to the “Ladies Tees” where I would hit. When I play frequnetly I can hit a 200 yard drive which often surpasses some of the mens’ drives. After that I didn’t get any more advice. I wondered, do men give other men advice on the first tee? Why do men feel compelled to give females paternalistic advice on how to play golf when they have no idea how skilled she may or may not be?

2. One of the traditions of ND football is the Friday night pep rally. While at the pep rally, a distinguished alum and former NFL player was challenging the crowd to cheer loudly for the Irish. He said he was told to keep it “PC”. He told the crowd they should stand the whole game to show support. He then told the players to be tough and not let Michigan State control the game in “their house.” He said if the players wanted to be weak and soft he told them, “You should go to school across the street” (meaning attend the all-women’s sister school St. Mary’s College). To my surprise, a few people in the crowd booed him.

3. While wandering around campus I came across the 2008-09 ND men’s & women’s basketball schedule posters (see picture). 2008-09 nd posters Given the research on portrayals of female athletes we have conducted in the Tucker Center, I noticed immediately that ALL the male athletes were in uniform, in action, and on the court. Some of the female athletes were in uniform, in action, and on the court but the dominant image was the “team shot.” These two posters convey very different messages about athletic competence.

4. On my way home I was checking Facebook and email on my phone when I saw a Facebook post that read: “Eagirls v. New Orleans“…meaning the Eagles were playing the New Orleans Saints. This person felt the Eagles were not playing well, which meant they were playing like girls.

5. Last but not least and related to #1 above…I wandered into an airport book store to find a new book to read on the way home. I came across a book written by man titled, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man. I was curious so I picked it up. I’d encourage you to take a look at the table of contents, depending on your perspective you’ll find it infuriating, entertaining or informative.

I think these example speak for themselves. Comments?

One Sport Voice Concluding Summer Thoughts About Sport

Where did summer go? As a new school year begins tomorrow, I’d like to share a few things I’ve been thinking about over the summer.

1. After giving parent and coach workshops this summer, I’m more convinced that ALL coaches and ALL parents should attend research-based educational workshops that help them create a positive climate for youth athletes. Schools, athletic associations and club teams have to mandate attendance, otherwise the folks who show up are predominately the choir. Anything less than a mandatory attendance policy is not effective in creating the kind of change needed to ensure that sport is done right.

rural-road2. More research is needed on the issues that arise in sport for rural communities. Nearly all of our youth sport research includes suburban or urban communities. Very few researchers have focused on issues particular to rural communities and sport participation. I can only think of the Women’s Sport Foundation report Go Out And Play: Youth Sports in America by Sabo & Veliz (October, 2008) that includes data about rural kids and sports. After giving workshops in a small Minnesota community—with NO stoplights—I learned small rural communities have many of the same issues as their city counterparts, but I think unique issues exist. I talked with parents and coaches, many of whom approached me with stories of sport gone wrong and told me their stories with misty eyes, pain, frustration, and helplessness.

3. While in an antique store this summer I found James Michener’s book Sports in America written in 1976. He details the state of female, youth, collegiate and pro sport in the US (among other topics) just a few years after the passage of Title IX. It was a very interesting read and my take away was–The more things change, the more they stay the same, and some of the issues we think are “new”—such as the professionalization of youth sport—have been problematic for over 30 years.

So as I start the new school year, the focus of my work is ever sharper. Stay tuned for many new blogs that incorporate additional summer musings!

Helping Lead the U.S. to Better Health?

health appleFor those who may not know, here in the U.S. we have a President’s Council for Physical Fitness and Sport. This group according to the government website “is an advisory committee of volunteer citizens who advise the President through the Secretary of Health and Human Services about physical activity, fitness, and sports in America.” Many of my Kinesiology colleagues have served on the PCPFS council and its Science Board. It is an honor to be asked to serve this prestigious group. The PCPFS puts out many informative publications, research digests and other pieces that can be downloaded free on the PCPFS website.

Historically, the Executive Director is someone who is well respected and academically trained in sport science yet understands how to apply and implement research-based best practices to improve the health, nutrition and well being. President Obama has recently named the new Executive Director: Sergio Rojas (for his bio click here and here). No disrespect to Mr. Rojas, but is he qualified? With a BA in Psychology from Loyola, I couldn’t help but think this rings of Chicago-based nepotism.

With the health of US citizens in the forefront of the national debate on health care reform, the alarming incidence of childhood obesity in US children, low rates of physical activity, and the fact that pressure to meet No Child Left Behind standards has basically ensured that physical education is stripped from school curricula despite rising evidence that physical activity increases cognitive functioning and classroom achievement, some of many health issues that face our nation, the PCPFS needs a strong and informed leader. I doubt that Rojas is the guy to help move these issues in the right direction, I hope I’m wrong.

picture from Institute of Health Economics

Multiple Perspectives About “The Injury Epidemic” Facing Female Athletes

Given the continuing discussion about injuries of female athletes, particularly ACL tears, I decided to revisit a blog piece I wrote before One Sport Voice was born.

kneeinjuryIn 2008, a controversial book—Michael Sokolove’s Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sport—was released, along with a companion article which appeared in the May 11 issue of the New York Times Magazine. The premise of the book asserts that “[the] immutable facts of anatomy and physiology? cause girls to incur significantly more sport injuries (e.g., ACL tears, concussions) than their male counterparts, resulting in what Sokolove terms a female “injury epidemic?

As a response to the underlying premise (and purported facts) of Warrior Girls, the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport felt it necessary to provide a scholarly critique from relevant academic disciplines. The TC invited internationally recognized scholars from the U of Minnesota in Public Health, Sports Medicine, Sport Psychology and Sociology to read the book and respond independently. You can read all the pieces, including Sokolove’s detailed responses and rebuttals here. The intellectual exchange is very interesting as it is from multiple persons perspectives, not all of whom agree. I’m going to post my sociological critique below, with some added updated information and thoughts.

A Sociological Perspective on Warrior Girls
Let me begin by stating that sport injuries and sport injury prevention are very real and important issues—for both girls and boys. I am aware of the data which states female athletes are 8 times as likely as male athletes to tear an ACL. However, framing the issue of sport injuries as an inevitable biological difference based on the sex of the athlete is sensationalistic and irresponsible. First, an argument based primarily on biology and physiology altogether ignores that sport performance (and therefore injury) is also shaped by social forces such as coaches’ and parents’ beliefs about what it means to be a “female athlete?” Second, this sort of deterministic approach assumes that males, by definition, are naturally (physically) superior to females. In this framework, male athletes are the norm to which females are constantly compared, and any gender differences are therefore constructed as inherent female deficiencies. The consequence of such biology-is-destiny arguments? Professor Cheryl Cooky, Purdue University, sums it up best: “Concerns regarding the supposed biological limitations of the female body to withstand rigorous athletic competition have historically served to justify restricting girls’ and women’s access to sport”.

Though Sokolove does indicate that we should also be concerned about sport injuries males sustain, rarely, if ever, are books published devoted to the negative consequences of sport participation on the health and well-being of boys and men. Interestingly, a search for a similar book or article on the “epidemic” of male sport injuries yielded nothing, despite published research which indicates that NFL players’ life expectancy is 15-20 years lower than the general American male population and that many suffer ill effects from playing professional football, including obesity, heart disease, chronic pain and crippling arthritis. I prefer Mark Hyman’s blog and book Until It Hurts: Americas Obsession With Youth Sports, as both provide a more gender-balanced approach to youth sport injuries-including much discussion about “Tommy John” syndrome in boys’ baseball.

The anatomy-is-destiny perspective also ignores the reality that some female athletes are stronger, have better motor skills, and are more coordinated than some male athletes, and that risk for injury runs along a continuum, rather than a sex-determined binary. In the final analysis, males and females are more similar than they are different—both compete in sports and both get injured in a variety of sports and physical activities. As a result, concerns relating to all the correlates of sport injury, social and psychological as well as biological and physiological, need to be given equal consideration.

A Coach Who Gets it Right

WilkIn the media we more often hear horror stories than positive stories regarding coaches. Fortunately many coaches do get it right and positively affect the lives of countless others.

A wonderful example of just such a coach is Steve “Wilk” Wilkinson, Ph.D., former Head Men’s Tennis Coach of Gustavus Adolphus College. Wilk just retired after 39 years of coaching at Gustavus and is the winningest men’s collegiate tennis coach at any level. His teams competed in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and achieved a record of 334-1 (.997) in his tenure (you can read more about Wilk’s many accomplishments here, here, and here.)

While his record is impressive, it is his legacy of using tennis as a vehicle to holistically develop young people that is to be most admired. Wilk is a true exemplar whose definition of success has nothing to do with winning. To hear him explain his “Three Crowns” philosophy of positive attitude, full effort, and sportsmanship, listen to these short videos (here and here)-it is well worth your time.

His philosophy is a real life example of how a primary focus on things that can be controlled—rather than on winning—can lead to simultaneous positive development and positive experiences and increase the likelihood of optimal performance. If only there were more Wilks in the world of sport and the world in general, it would surely be a better place for everyone.