Part 2: Believing
A few years ago my Assistant Coach asked if he could take charge of the “pump up” before a championship match. The morning of the match we all gathered in the hotel conference room and the coach showed a clip from the movie, Any Given Sunday. In the movie, Al Pachino’s character gives an impassioned speech to a men’s football team before they play a championship game. To the coach, the speech was very moving and highly motivating. The players, all college age women, were confused by the speech and by the coach’s reaction to the speech. The team embraced different pregame rituals; players would watch the movie, A League of Their Own on the bus. The contrast between A League of Their Own and Any Given Sunday is stark; the message Al Pachino’s character sends is that effort in sport is transactional (“if you put in the right amount of suffering you will win”).
Many athletes and coaches embrace this idea of sport as transactional; that there is a direct correlation between the amount of hardship an athlete endures and his/her level of success. In the movie A League of Their Own athletes endure hardship but framed within a powerful message of mutual care. It was this message of ‘care’ as central to success that resonated with the players I coached. They found their own development through the development of teammates; their best interests wrapped tightly to that of their teammates. They demonstrated this to one another in many ways such as composing “pump up odes”, and giving each other candy and home made t-shirts. On the way to matches players joked with each other and sat close. As we began to arrive at the fields, they became more animated, singing, laughing and dancing in the aisles of the bus. They rarely spent time denigrating the opposing team – most of their pre-match rituals were focused on bonding. This too was an integral part of “seeing each other.” The players were saying to one another, “I see you,” and I know you like family. This notion of “family” is common in men and women’s rugby. In the family women create, all who are willing to commit must be “seen.” This idea that women thrive when environments like sports teams facilitate connection should not be interpreted as suggesting that women lack a competitive instinct. The women I coach are fiercely competitive and accept the intense physical and emotional demands of high level rugby but not at the expense of connection.
Most of us live and operate in systems that are overwhelmingly hierarchical and separate. We learn to adapt to the demands of hierarchies at a young age, for hierarchies are simply the water in which we swim. But research suggests that women don’t adopt the values of hierarchical systems, but learn to navigate in spite of them or around them, while viscerally opposing their underlying logic and potential to undermine relationships. Sports governing bodies are hierarchical institutions. The expressed goal of the organization is to develop teams that win at the most competitive levels. Players invited to such venues understand that to be considered for a spot on a national team they must beat other players out, they must be faster, stronger and more aggressive than their opponents. But adopting such a perspective entails some psychic costs, notably the undermining of a connected team fabric and the risk of poor performance due to a lack of connectedness among players. The first priority for coaches at any level is to weave and protect this social fabric, to build the environment that supports what women athletes need – connection. But for connection to become an ethos, coaches must understand that this is not an addendum or afterthought to what they currently do – an occasional screening of A League of Their Own and a reassuring pat on the shoulder. Authentic connection is an organizing framework that values the hardship athletes accept and the connection that they seek.
Belenky, Mary F., Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy R. Goldberg, and Jill M. Tarule. (1986). Women’s Ways of Knowing. New York, NY: Basic Books
Brizendine, Louann. (2007) The Female Brain. New York: Broadway Books
Clinchy, Blythe, (1985). “Connected and Separate Knowing.” Paper presented at the Eight Biennial Meeting of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development, Tours, France
About the Author:
Kerrissa Heffernan Ed.D is the Co-Director of Engaged Sport Strategies, Director of the Royce Fellowship at Brown University and Assistant Rugby Coach at Brown. Contact her at Kerrissa@EngagedSport.org