Girls and Team Sports
I entered the gym and inhaled the familiar scents of leather, varnish, sweat, and popcorn. I heard the sound of court shoes thudding and squeaking across the highly polished wooden floor combined with shouts of “got it!”, “mine!”, and “outside!” I scanned the bleachers along the volleyball court, found an open spot, climbed the stairs, skillfully situated my padded portable bleacher seat among the other parents, and waited for the match to begin.
As I sat among the other fans and watched my daughter and her teammates run through their warm-up routine, my thoughts drifted back in time to my own junior high athletic adventures. Unlike my daughters, I possessed very little athletic ability and thus my experience with team sports was extremely limited and short-lived. In fact, my only experience on a volleyball court came during the dreaded P.E. classes where we played on teams chosen by the domineering “captains” that the gym teacher deemed skilled and competent enough to organize teams comprised of fellow classmates. The good players, those who actually played on the junior high team, always lined up in front of the group, eagerly anticipating the melodic sound of their names being called out: “Sharon!”, “Daphne!”, “Vicki!”, or “Diane!” Once called, these girls raced over to their captains and whispered to them the next players to choose in order to enhance their odds of winning the day’s matches.
The rest of us stood behind these gifted physical specimens, shuffling our feet and cracking lame jokes to help hide our embarrassment over our inability to make that damn ball go where we wanted it to when we hit it. I was almost always the last one selected for a team. Naturally, I was also never selected by the gym teacher to be a captain.
Oddly enough, the grueling adolescent rite of passage of P.E. team selections was not the most humiliating aspect of my volleyball career. Oh, no, the really miserable stuff happened out on the court.
Once I stepped out onto that gym floor, the intelligence that propelled me to the top of my class academically spilled out of my body and onto the floor in a puddle of incompetence. No matter how hard I tried, I could not serve the ball over the net, not even using the sissy underhand technique. Bump, set, spike? Are you kidding me? For me it was more like dodge, duck, and run. The only piece of useful advice I remember from my more athletic classmates is, “Dawn Hobbie, if you’re going to hit it TO the net, hit it OVER the net!” (Because obviously I completely misunderstood the point of the game.)
Basketball wasn’t much better, although I did somehow manage to make the high school team two years in a row. Either the coaches felt sorry for me or they recognized and appreciated my ability to out-run all the other girls in my class. Whatever the reason, my earning the right to wear that uniform changed my life well beyond high school and helped shape my lifelong opinion on the virtues of team sports.
Even though I was more a benchwarmer than a game changer for my high school basketball team, I learned the value of working as a single unit toward a common goal. I grew to understand and appreciate the way individual talents, if used correctly, help to ensure the overall success of a team. Tall Vicki, who struggled with coordination, developed into a skilled blocker and rebounder as the team’s center. And Sharon’s quickness, combined with Paula’s amazing athletic giftedness, helped serve the team well as the two guards became leaders both on the court and off. Even my limited jumping and running skills sometimes contributed to the team’s success – as long as I remembered to get the ball to someone with a higher basketball IQ than I possessed when I snagged an occasional rebound. Add to that the coach’s determination to teach me how to shoot a free throw, and I actually made a sporadic contribution to the team, albeit a very minor one. I also learned when the return on my investment of time and energy was no longer great enough to warrant my continued efforts to stay on the team.
All of these lessons helped me succeed as an adult, especially in the male-dominated business world of the 1980’s. In the work place I knew the value of not only using my talents to help my company succeed, but I also understood the importance of looking for and evaluating others’ talents to properly direct them to an area where the company would benefit most from their abilities. I also learned to appreciate the value of recruiting quality members to a team and helping them develop their talents (by the way, contrary to the philosophy of my junior high P.E. classmates, public ridicule is NOT an effective tool for promoting success).
Fortunately for my daughters, the athletic gods decided to smile upon them and bless them with more talent and skill than I possessed. While I experience great pride when I watch their successes on the court or softball field, I know from experience that not all girls are created equal. However, the fact that a girl’s athletic IQ might not measure up to her intellectual IQ need not suggest that she cannot benefit from the experience of team sports.
For example, the simple act of practicing something over and over again until she reaches perfection in just one area can teach a girl the value of persistence (not only did I learn to shoot free throws, but I also eventually learned how to serve a volleyball - both underhand AND overhand). And sometimes a girl learns that, no matter how hard she tries, she just doesn’t possess the skill or talent required to perform a certain task. Team sports teaches a girl in this situation that the best thing to do is to look for someone on her team who possesses the talent that she lacks and then work with her teammate to achieve success. Such experiences encourage a girl to continue to work hard to achieve a goal, giving her the confidence she needs to face a challenge and seek out ways to overcome it. Additionally, belonging to an organized group – such as an athletic team - can change a girl’s life. Membership in a group of other like-minded girls that celebrates together and cries together - and represents something bigger than just a single girl on her own - can give a girl a reason to get up every day, go to school, and stay out of trouble. Finally, learning how to perform under pressure is an invaluable lifelong skill for our children to learn. When a player serves the ball into the net, misses the play at third, or throws the ball away to the other team, she cannot run off into the locker room or hide her face in frustration. The pace of the game insists that she keep on playing despite her mistakes. Learning how to cope with and overcome her urges to quit under such pressure empowers a girl to maintain her composure and persistence as she enters the work force and provides her with the skill set she needs to be able to overcome challenges and obstacles in order to achieve success. These are the REAL reasons I encourage not just my own daughters, but girls everywhere to participate, at least once, in a team sport.
Most of the time, a team’s success and the lessons its individual members learn are not reflected by the numbers on the scoreboard.
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By Rita Arens
By Rita Arens