The lessons embedded in athletics are endless, but the obstacles facing female athletes are steep. With a little bit of help, we can push through those challenges and find ways to achieve our goals while inspiring others. I know first-hand that as female athletes, we face a unique set of challenges on the court, field or mat. As we work to be the best we can be in our respective sports, we’re also battling the societal pressures put on us as women and girls. It’s a delicate balance, and one that often leads girls to stop playing. Girls in sports are two times more likely to drop out than boys by the age of 14 – an unfortunate stat because the long-term benefits for female athletes are impressive.
I’ve played basketball almost my entire life. From when I was six years old through my collegiate career at a mid-major Division I college, I’ve spent most of my life with a ball in my hand. I even had a pretty successful career. By the end of my college career, I had scored over 1,000 points and had the third most career assists at my alma mater. But, there are a few things that I wish I had realized sooner about being a female athlete.
Here are five lessons I wish I had learned earlier while playing sports as a girl:
Growing up, I spent a lot of time at my local gym’s basketball court. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I was the only girl. I would mostly shoot with my dad, but when he left to lift weights, I would be left alone as the only girl in a sea of men and boys who I didn’t know. It was intimidating. It sometimes made me not want to go to the gym, knowing that I would stick out like a sore thumb and that everyone’s eyes would always be on me because of it. I kept my eye on the prize and told myself to push forward even if I was uncomfortable.
While this turned out to be a pretty good approach, since I eventually got a full scholarship to play basketball, I wish I hadn’t been so determined to go it alone. I knew tons of girls who played and would have practiced with me, but for some reason I felt I had to take this on by myself. While I think it’s important to conquer your fear of being the only girl in the gym, in the pool or on the field – I hope the future generations don’t choose to go it alone. I hope they choose to face challenges with other women. If we see more women and girls on the court, we start to normalize being a female athlete especially in male-dominated sports, and we start our own sense of community.
As female athletes, we deal with several competing pressures. We have to balance being good at our sport while still fitting into the gender norms that our society places on us. That’s a lot of pressure.
In your life with or without sports, there will be countless external factors that you can’t control. If we look at our lives through the lens of what we can’t control, we’ll inevitably set ourselves up for failure. We face enough opponents in games and practices, we don’t need to become our own worst enemy by living and dying by the standards that others set for us. There will always be pressure but being able to recognize when you are adding unnecessary pressure for things you can’t control or things you can’t change will help relieve some stressors and help you play more freely.
I am an insanely competitive person, but as I look back on my 16-year career of playing basketball, I wish I had always seen the women and girls I played with as teammates first and competitors second. We’re often times pitted against each other by coaches in practice and even sometimes in games as a tactic to motivate and push us to be the best we can be. This approach generally works because it fires up our competitive sensors and drives us to perform better. But, when you look back at your career, the points, assists, rebounds, and even wins and losses won’t matter as much as the people who went through the journey right alongside you.
But both in and out of sports, women and girls are compared to each other in ways that can lead us to work against the bigger picture. As female athletes, we are truly in this together – trying to legitimize female athletes in male-dominated sports, fighting for equal pay and recognition and even fighting for social justice. We can’t achieve these systemic changes without each other. Find ways to be competitive and motivate yourself but remember that you are much stronger with other women and girls standing beside you.
If you are a female athlete, you’ve probably heard some form of this phrase before “progress over perfection.” It’s often a cliché, but it’s true. No one is perfect, and the only measurement of success we have is progress. As women, that can be a hard pill to swallow.
Throughout my life, I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to be good at things – not only because I’m extremely competitive, but also because I wanted to prove people wrong about girls’ abilities. Women and girls fight several battles before they even step foot on the court, field or mat. We want to be perfect because in a world that constantly seems to underestimate us, we have to be to prove them wrong. But this is not a realistic goal to put on ourselves, and we’ll end up going crazy if we are always striving for perfection only to fall short every single time.
Yes, strive to be the best you can be and use the underestimation as a motivator, but give yourself a break here and there. Defeating your opponents while taking on the rest of the world is a pretty tough match-up for even the best athletes in the world. Learn to give yourself a break to catch your breath, regain your strength and then take on all of the challenges that are thrown your way.
If you don’t trust yourself and don’t remember how good you actually are, negative comments can weigh on you and ultimately impact your performance. You have to trust yourself more than you trust the negative comments floating in your head. Analyzing what you did wrong so you can sharpen your skills is a necessary evil. But it’s a lot to take. It’s a lot of negative comments about your performance, and it can really get in your head and make you forget all of the positive aspects of your game. You have to be able to take in constructive feedback and realize that it is a tool in helping you get better.
Now, this isn’t to say don’t listen to your coaches or parents at all. You need that help to grow especially when you are younger. But, at the end of the day it will be you who has the ball in your hand during a game, it will be you who will be sprinting toward the finish line, it will be you dismounting from the uneven bars – you will be the one performing. Your coach, your mom, your dad – they won’t be able to do it for you. You have to learn to trust yourself, and I promise you’ll enjoy what trust feels like.
Sports can help teach you how to strive for greatness and work hard to achieve that goal. It can also help you harness your mental strength to continue pushing forward at work, school or with friends. It can teach you how to be competitive, but still work as a team. If you’re willing to work hard, being an athlete can truly set you up for success for the rest of your life. As I look back at my own career, I too often played trying not to mess up, which inevitably made me overthink and made my game too rigid. I wish I had known earlier that letting go of all of the external and internal pressures would not only make me play better, but it would help me remember why I fell in love with the game in the first place.