WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

What Does It Mean To Be a Female Athlete?

Caster Semenya and other female runners compete at a track meet.We don’t live in an “either/or” world. Most non-sport institutions get this. It’s why Starbucks has unisex bathrooms, why there are forms to change your gender on government documents, why there is even a concept of “preferred pronouns.”

But athletics remains stubbornly committed to a male-female dichotomy. Enforcement of that rigid divide is again causing a stir. Last month, the International Association of Athletics Federations (the I.A.A.F.) issued new rules for track athletes that will take effect in November requiring some female athletes – those with naturally elevated testosterone – to take medication to suppress those hormones.

The requirement applies to females the IAAF describes as “athletes with differences in sexual development” (they call it “DSD”) and only to middle-distance running events between 400 meters and the mile. Athletes would have to take the medication for six months prior to the Olympic and international events the rules govern.

The IAAF said the rules hope to ensure “fair and meaningful competition within the female classification.” Higher levels of testosterone provide an advantage in speed, power, and endurance, said the IAAF, giving an unfair advantage to these hyperandrogenic athletes.

Reasonable, right? After all, transgender female athletes competing in women’s events must undergo hormone therapy to lower testosterone levels.

Yet it’s one thing to decide to transition and another to be forced to change. Perhaps the problem is the guardianship of “the female classification”? It’s true that a 2017 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (commissioned by the IAAF), found that athletes with “elevated testosterone levels gained a competitive advantage from 1.78 percent to 4.53 percent,” in the hammer throw, the pole vault, the 400 meter, the 400 meter hurdles and the 800 meter.

The new rule, however, applies to running events, not the hammer throw or pole vault.

The rule also has a personal – even cultural or racial – sheen. That’s because there is no way to consider this rule without looking at the consequences for South African middle-distance runner and two-time 800-meter Olympic champion Caster Semenya, criticized for her muscular physique and deep voice. Since she burst onto the scene in 2009 as an 18-year-old who broke a South African record at the African Junior National Championships, and then won the world title in Berlin, there have been questions about the “unfairness” of her natural physical gifts. (In Berlin, she was reportedly subjected to sex testing).

Semenya has also undergone public sex-questioning, including news reports citing unnamed sources describing her sex organs. “God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I am proud of myself,” she tweeted on May 1.

Image shows the text of a quote pulled from this article in white text on an orange background. The quote reads, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand also has suffered public questions and humiliation. In 2014 at the Glasgow Games, she was pulled aside and not allowed to compete. Offered medical “treatment,” she refused. She appealed to the Court of Arbitration, which in 2015 ruled that Chand could compete. The court suspended the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism rules, citing “insufficient evidence about the degree of the advantage” the condition provided.

This is presumably why the IAAF rules now dig into ranges of performance advantage in terms of muscle strength and hemoglobin associated with elevated testosterone levels. While Chand is not affected by the new rules as a sprinter, Semenya certainly is. Two weeks ago, South African law professor Steve Cornelius resigned from the IAAF’s tribunal, stating that he could not associate with “an organization that insists on ostracizing certain individuals, all of them female, for no reason other than being what they were born to be.”

His point: Who defines “female”? How “female” must one be to be “female”? Men in the sport world do not face scrutiny of their physical gifts or surveillance of their hormone levels. At what point is this about biological conformity and social norms? At what point is enforcing a dichotomy – male/female – a failed approach?

Last month, a study in Journal of Sports Sciences analyzed Semenya’s actual times, finding they “were 1.24 percent and 1.49 percent faster than the predicted performance in 800m finals.” That relatively small percentage confuses the male-female divisions even more.

Wrote the authors: “The present study indicates that the percentage difference in performance between women with and women without hyperandrogenism does not reach the 3 percent difference requested by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for the reinstatement of the Hyperandrogenism Regulations, neither does it reach the 10 percent accepted range of difference in performance between men and women.”

Is hyperandrogenism an advantage? Yes. Is it more of an advantage than other naturally-occurring physical gifts athletes enjoy? Unclear. Is it “fair” that Michael Phelps has size 14 feet, double-jointed ankles, and a prodigious wingspan? That Usain Bolt is 6’5”?

If testosterone is the game-changer, then eschew “male” and “female” and re-classify athletes based on testosterone levels – like weight classes in wrestling. Or create some other structure. Otherwise what we are doing here – without naming it – is demanding biological conformity to a Western view of what it means to be a woman.

Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women and was a leader of the Women’s Sports Leadership Project. She is an award-winning journalist, co-author of Playing with the Boys (2008), and for seven years, she edited the FairGameNews blog, now an archive.

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Female Kicker Makes History

FootballStock

When Arizona high school senior Becca Longo on Wednesday officially signed on to be a kicker for Division II Adams State University Football, it was notable for a key reason: She was getting paid.

Of course, she is not literally getting paid. But she is getting a scholarship to play. There is growing history of female athletes playing football at the college level, but it’s not clear that any others have been recruited and given an athletic scholarship.

Katie Hnida, who played for Colorado and then New Mexico, walked on. And while Shelley Osborne in 2014 was recruited from Jeffersonville High in Indiana to play defensive back at Campbellsville University in Kentucky, they play in the NAIA, which does not award scholarships. (Three years later, however, she is still on the roster as an active member of the team.

Why do scholarship dollars matter?

Symbolically it’s a big deal. Not only for the obvious problem women have getting paid the same money for the same work as men (the wage gap now stands at 82 cents to the dollar men earn). But the scholarship also begins to challenge an historic bias about how males and females view and participate in sports. Culturally, there is an assumption that men play to win and women play for fun and fitness, notions reinforced through the origins and structures of sport opportunities.

It has taken decades for female athletes to be viewed as individuals every bit as driven and intense as their male counterparts. The scholarship helps make that case for one simple reason: When coaches recruit, they don’t waste money. They are picking talent and assembling the elements of their team with a goal of winning.

Credit Adams State coach, former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Timm Rosenbach.  He told media that he just picked a player he thought could compete. “I see her as a football player who earned it,” he said. “She has a strong leg and can be very accurate.” Last season Longo made 30 of 33 point-after kicks and a 30-yard field goal

When Hnida in 2003 became the first female to score an extra point in an NCAA Division I game (she actually scored two, against Texas State), it was seen as a stunning event. More than a dozen years later, Longo’s recruitment is more noteworthy than shocking.

We are – at long last – becoming acclimated to the talent and intensity of female athletes. It is not a freak occurrence to see women excel. It’s sinking in that high-level ability can be developed, trained and practiced. Why shouldn’t a 5’11” 140-pound athlete with a powerful leg and strong mental make-up kick field goals?

Just consider the arching bombs that female soccer players launch down a field toward a net. Aim over uprights and a boundary is breached.

Longo’s signing marks progress in the cultural understanding that women – as well as men – can be dazzling athletes worth real money. (NCAA women’s tournament basketball game UConn vs. Mississippi State, anyone?)>

Yet even as Longo’s name was hurriedly added to the Wikipedia “female American football players” entry, one notes that the list isn’t very long. The reasons for girls and women not to play football – aside from reasons no one should – reflect a stubborn gender bias about what is “appropriate” and what is not, particularly when we are talking about kickers.

Journalist Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women and was a leader of The Women’s Sports Leadership Project. For seven years, she edited the FairGameNews blog, now preserved as an archive.

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Fighting... Women in Sports

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I’m not an athletic purist, one who finds poetry in the elemental mano-a-mano competition of strength, agility and smarts (sigh, yes, I know there’s strategy) of boxing and mixed martial arts, which include grappling moves. Honestly, I just don’t enjoy seeing people beat, punch or twist the crap out of one another. Period.

That aside, I appreciate what Ronda Rousey is doing these days. When you consider that the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates we are 43 years away from wage parity with men, Ms. Rousey deserves credit for speeding things up.

In 2012, she became the first woman signed by Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest mixed martial arts promotion company in the world, and three years later claims to be the UFC’s highest paid fighter. Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes, who compiles the list of highest-paid female athletes, puts Rousey at #8 for 2015 with $6.5 million in earnings, including $3 million in salary (the other $3.5 million from endorsement deals plus a bestselling book and three movies).

Mind you, his calculations came out before the Ms. Rousey’s blockbuster UFC193 November 2015 fight against Holly Holm, which drew 56,215 to Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, the largest crowd ever for a UFC event. It was also the third most purchased UFC pay-per-view event, attracting more than 1.1 million buyers.

Despite the pre-match promotions and expectation that Ms. Rousey would continue her rampage, the fight turned out not to be a female version of The Thrilla in Manilla. Ms. Holm won – quickly -- stunning everyone who had expected Ms. Rousey to continue the dominance that had her winning 11 matches in the first round.

There remain troubling inequalities in men’s and women’s combat sports. When women box at the Olympics in Rio – women’s boxing debuted in the modern era at the 2012 London Olympics -- there will be three events to the men’s 10. And in classic Olympic Committee style women’s competitions are slightly shorter than the men’s. There will be four 2-minutes rounds, while the men will have three 3-minute rounds (men get an extra minute!).

Yet, women’s fights have gained legitimacy and come a long way from the days of mud wrestling. The emergence of mixed martial arts as a spectator sport – and UFC as a forum – are just over two decades old. Where mud wrestling – not actually a sport – was a 1980s phenomenon about the sex appeal of barely clad women grappling in brown goo, UFC is not titillating in the least.

Ms. Rousey, the MMA competitor, hardly evokes the version of herself with the blonde trusses wearing the painted-on swimsuit in the new Sports Illustrated issue. Which is to say, you never know where progress toward gender equality in sports will come from – or the complications such a boost will offer. Feminism can demand purity, much as boxing fans focus on the base beauty of the physical human contest.

Some celebrate Ms. Rousey as the quintessential feminist while others see her as a traitor. When asked by an Australian reporter about gender pay equity in sports, she didn’t offer an ideological frame – or much sympathy. Rather, she said, “I think that how much you get paid should have something to do with how much you bring in.”

She added that, “I’m the highest-paid fighter not because Dana and Lorenzo wanted to do something nice for the ladies. They do it because I bring in the highest numbers. They do it because I make them the most money. And I think the money that they make should be proportionate to the money they bring in.”

There are a thousand reasons why it’s more complicated than this for women in sports as well as other jobs and career fields. But as we celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day, it is a reminder that gains are not always neat, intended or harmonious. And sometimes we win even when we don’t mean to.

Journalist Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women and a leader of The Women’s Sports Leadership Project. For seven years, she edited the FairGameNews blog, now preserved as an archive.

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Women's Soccer and the New Feminist Power

soccer ball

We are in a fresh feminist moment, highlighted thanks to FIFA. Hang with me while I explain.

It is obviously ridiculous that the payout to the U.S. Women’s Soccer team for the World Cup victory is $2 million; the German men got $35 million last year. The $2 million is almost cute, considering it’s the same amount as the alleged bribe paid FIFA exec Jack Warner for his vote to make Qatar the 2022 World Cup site.

For a long time money has measured worth. I’m sure Warner, former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, and others could prattle on about why women don’t deserve a big payday: women’s sports are not big time. When you consider low ticket prices, turf fields (rather than grass), shabby player treatment (competitors stuffed into the same hotels and practice venues), it hardly looks like the big-money (men’s) World Cup event of July 2014.

For years, FIFA has treated the Women’s World Cup as an afterthought. When the U.S. women last won, in 1999, there was so little publicity that people only found out because Brandi Chastain whipped off her jersey, spurring debate about whether it was appropriate to show a sports bra in public.

Things are changing. The fashion forward will note that bras have officially become shirts (now they’re called “bralettes.”). The Women’s World Cup final became most watched televised soccer game in U.S. history. Commemorative t-shirts are selling out online. Carli Lloyd could earn $2 million (that number again!) just in commercial deals following her hat trick in the first few minutes of the game, the fastest ever in World Cup history.

Suddenly, rather than looking powerful, FIFA looks dumb and stale. For guys with a nose for cash, they are leaving a lot of it on the table. (You can’t watch a replay of Lloyd’s half-field goal online without viewing a commercial first.)

There is a big problem with the economics of how women are paid in sports (and elsewhere), which FIFA is helping to make obvious. I don’t want to say that money doesn’t matter (it does), but the U.S. women are playing out their power in a fresh feminist image that is a celebration of female skill and dominance. The effect is to make low wages look absurd. In much the same way that women have quietly come to own college campuses and advanced degrees, female athletes are demonstrating their clear-headed brilliance.

This isn’t about anger. It’s about proficiency—on the field and off. The U.S. Women’s World Cup win comes at a moment when “feminist” is no longer a dirty word among the under-thirty somethings. It comes as muscular Serena Williams is proving to be so dominant that I caught ESPN talking heads debating the other day if she might be the greatest athlete of all time. Who was it? LeBron, Michael, or Serena?

We have reached this moment through an interesting détente between old-time feminists and young women. We have don’t have to choose between sport girl or girly-girl: I saw an eight-year-old at a men’s soccer game wearing a party dress—and cleats. This new feminism is about pink and sparkles and mettle, all at the same time. It is Serena tough. U.S. women driven. Amy Schumer sarcastic. And Taylor Swift nice.

Pop star Swift, like the U.S. women’s soccer team, has amassed a base of girl fans and built an empire by reaching out and preaching friendship, self-respect, and girl-to-girl support. She has embraced stuff that is sweet: cats and cookie baking. But don’t be fooled. She was the one who forced Apple to change its payment policy to artists by threatening to withhold her album 1989 from iTunes (Apple fussed, then caved). That is power.

So when Swift invited the Women’s World Cup team to the stage before 60,000 fans during her concert at MetLife stadium following the team’s ticker tape parade in New York City, it was a visual demonstration of the new feminist might. It was women reaching out to one another and recognizing that success in one venue amplifies value in another. The bedazzled love—and support—suits them both. Blatter once famously said that the only way to get people interested in women’s soccer was for the players to don very short shorts. Now, he—and FIFA—just look out of touch.

Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at Wellesley Centers for Women, a journalist who frequently contributes to the New York Times, and author of several books including Playing with the Boys: Why Separate in Sport is Not Equal>

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Valuing the Ideological Roots of Women’s Athletics

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Did those female gym teachers back in the early 1900s actually have it right? No one wants to return to bloomers and half-court basketball, but the coalition of female physical educators who ran women’s sports and fought takeover by the NCAA (which took control of women’s college athletics in 1980) were onto something. Their message--that sport should be about self-development, social skills, and fair play--sounds pretty great right now.

They found competition unseemly (that's a problem), but their broad recognition of college sport as a life and community-building pursuit is worth a reprise given the mess that has become the NCAA-led college sports world.

Right now we’re in the midst of soul-searching about what college sports should look like. A spate of lawsuits ask about the “student” status of student-athletes and whether they should be paid. Last month, the five wealthiest conferences--Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12, and Southeastern--began a new era of freedom from many NCAA rules, gaining leeway to give more money to players. Where will this go? Will more universities develop athletes instead of scholars? (Some already do.) Will only marquis players get extra money? Will non-revenue-producing sports look expendable in a more commercialized environment?

The Knight Commission recently polled DI college leaders on their interest in exploring alternative models for competition and administration for some sports. Ambivalence won: 43 percent of respondents were interested; 37 percent weren’t. There’s a lot to figure out--and little consensus on where to go.

The college sports debate, let’s be clear, is a male conversation. It is ruled by big-time sports--football and men’s basketball--and the economic disruption they have created in the academic system. This is about competition and money. No wonder Cardale Jones, the third-string quarterback who just led Ohio State to the inaugural National blogpullquote WomensAthleticsChampionship, was confused when he arrived on campus. His 2012 tweet: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”

If Cardale did not come to “play SCHOOL,” why should Ohio State--or any big time program--be other than a semi-pro team? While we’re here, what role should college football--with it's concussion and brain damage record--even have in higher education? The conflicts are moral, but dollars will rule.

The gym teachers saw athletics as integral to school; the problem today is precisely that they are not. High-powered programs with big revenues (most lose money, but a handful make a bundle) operate as independent commercial enterprises. The wealthy programs pay coaches what their peers in the NFL and the NBA earn. (Sometimes more!) Cardale Jones does have a point: He was brought to play football and bring money and success to the program. You can’t blame players for wanting to be paid. But is this the point of college sports?

As we celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day, we typically cite participation statistics and recognize how far women have come. But we ought to value the ideological roots of women’s athletics, not as a shameful past of milk-and-cookies patsy play (though it was some of that), but for the wisdom of recognizing the hornet’s nest of unbridled high-stakes competition on what should be the virtues of athletics play in a college environment. The athletic field offers lessons in teamwork, leadership, persistence, skill-development, problem solving.

A study I did with colleagues Allison Tracy, Ph.D. and Sumru Erkut, Ph.D. showed that this message is getting lost. We gave 828 college recruiters a detailed survey to explore how they valued varsity sports experience in judging candidates for entry-level corporate jobs. They saw the obvious--college athletes excelled at teamwork, which they considered a key trait--but did not recognize skills such as time management and organization required to play college sports. Interestingly, they did not rate male or female athletes differently.

Anyone who has called herself an athlete recognizes the personal benefits of sport. Money has become a spoiler in the conversation (heck, Olympic athletes are not “set” financially--far from it). It’s time to see that the payoff of college sports can come without ESPN “Game Day,” academically questionable athletes, or coaches paid far more than the university president.

Find that value on women's teams, in locker rooms, and at games that garner little attention, but build durable skills. Sure it’s embarrassing to recall a beauty “Queen of the Court” crowned at halftime or college contests that mixed opposing players to limit competition and hard feelings. But maybe the men steering the future of college sports should consider the great goods that women and girls have been bringing to the games they play--for years.

Laura Pappano is the writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and an experienced journalist who writes about education and gender equity issues in sports.

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The value of sports for career launch

Olympic-Rings

This will be the first time that female athletes are allowed to compete in ski jumping at the Olympics so it’s fitting that the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia open Thursday on the heels of National Girls and Women in Sports Day February 5th.

The satisfaction goes beyond the glow of victory after a long battle because access for female ski jumpers represents progress in the broader quest for gender equity. As in this case, athletics often carry meaning beyond the competition itself.

Sport is both a tool in the quest for political, social, and economic equality and a glass that magnifies the failings of fairness on a societal level. What happens on the field affects and reflects the world off the field (or the slope)-- and vice versa. The cascading events of the 1970s -- the rise of the women’s movement, passage of Title IX, and expanding sport and career opportunities-- express the relationship.

This is important, but well-trod territory. So three of us at WCW asked another question: How does this dynamic actually play out for the individual athlete?

Sports matter off the field, but precisely how do they matter? A study published in 2012 that drew data from polling alumni suggests a connection between college sports participation and higher earnings a decade after graduation. That data relies on a look back by those who had successfully navigated a career launch.

blogpullquoteValueofSportsBut how do recruiters on the front-end value a varsity credential? Does sports participation in college, for example, offer access to enter a corporate career?

Given the widespread assumption that sports are a steppingstone to business success, we wanted to know: What qualities do recruiters look for in new graduates, how are sports experiences evaluated, and do athletes have an advantage when being screened for an initial interview? Do male and female, black and white candidates fare equally?

We asked human resource professionals experienced in recruitment to complete a detailed online survey in which they selected from a list of eight leadership attributes the top four they seek in candidates, rate candidate profiles based on those qualities, and rank-order candidates to invite for an interview.

Recruiters received randomly generated profiles that varied sex (signaled by first name), race (signaled by African-American–related extra-curricular activity or not), and leadership experience (athletic or non-athletic). Extracurricular activities were varied to reflect leadership experience in a non-athletic activity (such as Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper or representative to the Board of Trustees) or varsity athletic experience as either a top basketball or track athlete. Candidates had similar GPAs, majors, career interests, and research and work experiences.

Our findings showed that among the 828 recruiters who completed the survey, 72 percent identified “ability to work in a team” as among the top four attributes. Recruiters rated athletes over non-athletes on the ability to work in a team and being results-driven. This held true regardless of a candidate’s sex or the rater’s sex or involvement with athletics as a leisure pursuit. At the same time, athletes received lower ratings than non-athletes on organizational skills, critical thinking, follow-through on tasks, and transferable skills.

The results were surprising and interesting on a few levels. First, it was striking that female athletes got the same “credit” for participation as their male counterparts. Second, even as raters saw athletes as being the classic “team player” and driven to produce results, they seemed unaware of organization skills college athletes need to juggle academics with daily practice, travel, etc. Third, while critical thinking skills may not be explicitly required of athletes, the lower rating suggests a “dumb jock” stereotype at play given that all candidates had similar majors and GPAs. Raters also did not appear to recognize that the follow-through of athletic training and preparation, like a range of other skills, had transferrable value outside of sport.

What does this mean for the individual athlete?

The message is that even though it has nearly become a cliché for managers and corporate leaders to extoll the virtues of athletic participation, the recruiters who serve as gatekeepers screening resumes don’t see it – beyond the obvious “teamwork” credential. Our findings challenge athletes to better articulate just what they are learning on the sport field and how that can be translated off the field. Athletes also must address recruiter beliefs that they struggle with organization and critical thinking. They must also be explicit in describing how positive skills they hone in sport will be useful in the workplace.

Overall, there is notable good news. We found that female athletes received equal consideration as their male counterparts from raters selecting candidates for an interview. Yet, if the experience of playing a college sport builds skills that are valuable in the workplace, our results show that both male and female college athletes must better communicate that message to recruiters, who may have spent their college years in the stands.

Let the Games begin!

This article was contributed by Laura Pappano, Sumru Erkut, Ph.D. and Allison Tracy, Ph.D. Pappano, writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) at Wellesley College, is an experienced journalist who writes about education and gender equity issues in sports. Research by Erkut, WCW associate director and senior research scientist, encompasses variations in the course of child and adult development. Tracy is a Senior Research Scientist and Methodologist at WCW, where she provides technical expertise in a wide range of statistical techniques used in the social sciences.

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The Best of What We Bring through Sports

BStrong

Sometimes sports brings out the worst in us. Players taunt. Parents criticize. Coaches belittle. And at other times it is within the context of sports that a spotlight is shined on the best of the human spirit. There are many things that I love about sports participation and spectating. I am easily entranced by the last second shot, sudden death, or match point. There is an inexplicable infatuation with the striving for the perfect pass, play--the hat trick.

It is a passionate pact between player and spectator. As much as anything else that passion effusing from spectators is what was under attack on April 15th on Boston's Boylston Street. The very nature of the Boston Marathon–-so heavily focused on the rise of perseverance; the goodness of encouragement from family, friend, and stranger; and the sheer will to keep at something--made the violence even that much more sickening.

blogpullquoteBringthroughSportsIt was no surprise that our sports teams looked for a way to publicly display their solidarity with the people of Boston and the marathon victims – 617 Boston Strong hung on a t-shirt in the Red Sox dugout (617 is Boston's area code.) We wanted something from them. We expect our teams to be a reflection of ourselves. Cheering for our teams becomes cheering for ourselves. The patriotic and spiritual rituals that have become matter-of-fact elements of the generic sporting event (e.g. national anthem, heaven looking) suddenly become more meaningful gestures to express our humbleness, our unity. Never have I heard a stadium crowd sing the national anthem with such magnitude as the opening Bruins game following the bombing.

Each year I am a spectator in Hopkinton--the starting line of the Boston Marathon. I am in the crowd that sends off the 27,000 runners from the start line with waves and cheers. I am repulsed by what I sent them to. I am heartened, though, that the other human beings 26.2 miles ahead were there to hold them, to comfort and care for passionate spectating victims, to dismiss fear, and to let the best of what we bring through sports shine through.

Georgia Hall, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at the National Institute for Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for WomenWellesley College, is a sports enthusiast who specializes in research and evaluation on youth development programs.

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Mentoring, Sports, & Girl Athletes

Gymnasts

January was National Mentoring Month, as President Barack Obama recognized on January 3. Next week we celebrate National Girls and Women’s and Sports Day. The notion of “mentor,” and of one imparting wisdom to others, has its origins in Greek Mythology. It has long been a relationship dynamic that has been promoted, studied, arranged, and challenged over many years. Formal mentoring programs have been a regular and consistent strategy for engagement and relationship building in the youth development field and regularly a human resources approach used in non-profit and private business. And sports have been a perfect venue for mentoring relationships.

However, there is also great potential in the more informal ways we mentor. It is interesting that when surveyed about school, out-of-school time, and summer program experiences youth consistently express a desire for more opportunities for leadership and responsibility. We underutilize the natural dynamic and model of cross-age grouping. Across the spectrum both in academic content and enrichment activities, older and younger children working together can be an empowering and nurturing experience for both. We seem to embrace cross-age group more naturally in sports than many other settings. I was interested to observe the placement of high school students (with some training and supervision) as coaches at my younger daughter’s pick-up soccer tournament in the fall. The opportunity for the older girls to share relevant “on the field experience” and for the younger girlsblogpullquoteMentoring to have a more accessible image of where practice and commitment could get them was inspirational. It’s more than just the final score.

Encouraging these connections for young people in our daily work without having to be derailed by the tasks involved in more formal mentoring programs (and quality mentoring does require careful and plan full work), might allow us to exploit some of the natural interests of younger youth to learn from and older youth to lead each other.

Georgia Hall, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at the National Institute for Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College, who specializes in research and evaluation on youth development programs.

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