Girls’ Sports & Their Personalities

Worth a read: an Atlantic Monthly article, “Soccer Isn’t for Girly-Girls? How Parents Pick the Sports their Daughters Play.”  Even if you don’t have girls, the author makes us wonder if a child’s personality, particularly a girl’s is shaped and molded by the sports she pursues?  The author, Harvard University sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman whose book comes out later this month writes that many parents believe in that correlation and direct their daughter’s sports choices accordingly.

Oude School

Oude School

In interviewing dozens of families, and then focusing particularly on dance, soccer and chess, she found patterns in parents’ aspirational personality traits for their daughters. For instance, soccer = aggressive, assertive girls.

Friedman explains that parents who want graceful, well-mannered girls may direct daughters toward dance:

 “…In this competitive environment where competitors are being judged based on their talent, how the girls look plays a part. Costumes, hairstyles, and even smiles are complimented and may be a way to win special recognition. Girls learn that their feminine appearance is part of the evaluation and can earn its own reward, beyond the talent they have practiced. Second, girls also are expected to support their competitors. Wishing a competitor good luck, cheering for her, or telling her that she looks nice are seen as desirable in this competitive environment. Being supportive, traditionally seen as a feminine attribute, is also a way to demonstrate social graces.”

Soccer players, by contrast, are coached to be physical, competitive and forceful, “actively subsuming aspects of their femininity”, Friedman writes. Their uniforms may be pink, they may play with pink soccer balls, but girls are not allowed to wear jewelry and soccer girls I know do little more to their hair then pull it back in a ponytail, keeping bangs in check with a headband. No hairspray here.

Girls playing soccer

“These aggressive and assertive girls are being raised to be women who will go after physical and metaphorical balls and tackle difficult and challenging environments throughout their lives.”

– Hilary Levey Friedman

Another interesting facet of this article is Friedman’s inclusion of chess, which is rarely mentioned in discussions of sports but in my personal experience has significant crossover in the mental side of athletic competition.  The author’s “Pink Warrior Girls” she finds learn to compete head-to-head with boys while not having to sacrifice whatever girly love of pink they enjoy.

The article made me think beyond the three focus areas of dance, soccer and chess, and also about how this could apply to boys.  Traits that are encouraged in both girls’ and boys’ cross-country, for instance; endurance, self-discipline, etc. promote a different behavior than lacrosse. Which is not to say that the more aggressive sports are bad.  In the case of one of my sons, I think hard-hitting sports are a great outlet for his aggressive personality… we didn’t choose his direction, in this case the kid was born with it.  Still, as parents, we choose what we expose our kids to, and often what they focus on.  So Friedman makes us consider that we should think about the culture of a particular sport as much as its skills.

The release date for the book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture is set for August 26th.





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