injury · stereotypes

Gender, sports, and physical toughness

Image description: Women’s rugby, Otago versus Aukland

Little girls often grow up protected from injuries and danger in a way that boys aren’t. We swaddle little girls in cotton wool and teach them to be fearful of dogs, wasps, bugs, cuts, scrapes, and bruises.

The boy version of this treatment isn’t much better. “Toughen up buttercup.” Worse yet, “Man up,” or “Have some balls.”

Boys can hardly ever cry without scorn and derision. I’ve seen seriously injured young men be afraid of showing pain or fear and that can’t be healthy either.

The worlds of boys and girls are radically different places, even for infants.

I recall when my six month old daughter was wearing a red onesie an air conditioner repair guy once punched her in the arm, in a friendly way, and said, “Way to go Tiger, Grrr.”

Tiger? Grrr?

If he knew she was a girl he’d have apologized and so I didn’t say a thing.

My daughter turned out pretty fearless and I’d like to take some credit for that.

Of course athletes can’t have these fears of scrapes, bruises, and broken bones. And so goes the mismatch between ladylike values and the norms athletic performance which I’ve blogged about before. See Do ladylike values clash with the norms of sports performance?.

Women’s bodies are supposed to be all soft, without signs of wear and tear. See On the wearing (or not) of gloves and the care and feeding of calluses.

Of course, having soft hands is also a class issue, a sign you don’t do manual labour. Lots of women are socialized to not even get their hands dirty. I am often the one called on–when riding bikes with a group of women, in a mixed group some guy always volunteers–to get chains back on. Yes, your hands will get bike grease on them but I’ve always thought that was one of the reasons bike shorts usually come in black. The other reason is here. Apologies if that was new to you.

My son plays rugby and it’s a rough game. It’s rare he emerges from a game without a new bruise or cut. No ambulances this time around but two players have been bandaged and the medics have made a half dozen trips out on to the field.  (I’m writing as I watch a game, bad rugby mother but I’ll be blogging about being a sports parent later!) If I had a daughter who wanted to play I hope I’d encourage her just as much.  Certainly, I regret that I didn’t get a chance to play rugby. It looks like a lot of fun to me. (See Indoor Soccer, Team Sports, and Childhood Regrets.)

I’ve written a bit about the value of dangerous sports and about gender and risk here.

I loved the Warrior Dash in part because it flew in the face of traditional feminine values. (See A few words about the Warrior Dash.) Let’s go run in the mud and our mothers won’t tell us not to get dirty! I think that’s certainly part of the popularity of the Dirty Girl races. We’ll have a guest blogger writing about the Dirty Girl race in Buffalo at the start of September. I’m looking forward to hearing her perspective.  The Warrior Dash also had lots of mud. At the end of the Warrior Dash we were covered in it. And I haven’t checked in with my Warrior Dash companion and cousin but for me washing off the mud revealed some pretty serious bruises and scrapes.

Sometimes I feel the need to tell people I’m not a battered spouse. I have Aikido bruises, rowing scars, soccer bruises, and now Warrior wounds.

Some people wonder how you could even like an activity that results in bruises and scrapes. But there’s a kind of physical toughness that athletic activity requires. I ride my bike in the rain and although I struggle now more than I used to when young, I try not to let the cold put me off the outdoors.

I’m not saying I enjoy getting hurt but truth be told when I’m playing I don’t notice. I’m not proud of the battle wounds but I am proud of my physical toughness.

Here’s some video footage from Dirty Girl and Warrior Dash and the Stanford women’s rugby team. Does it sound odd to your ears to hear young women saying “I like to hit people” or “Tackling is fun”?

30 thoughts on “Gender, sports, and physical toughness

  1. I love my scrapes, bruises and calluses, and sprocket-grease marks – my Instagram and FB feeds are full of pictures of them (my Tough Mudder bruises were the best, but a lot of them were in places I couldn’t show publicly!). I love the contradiction of painting my toenails and applying Rock Tape that matches my workout clothes. I especially like going to the weight room in a running skirt and then defying the expectations of the men there who just see a ‘chick in a skirt’.

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  2. For me, there is a direct correlation between physical strength and mental strength. The same correlation exists for me with balance: if I am off-balance in my life, I can’t do balance poses in yoga. At all. Toppling tree, quite literally. I’ve learned that I can use my physical body as a barometer of where I am with my mental state; I love knowing that I can scale a wall taller than I am, scamper up the side of a big hill and have energy to spare, and that it takes a whole heck of a lot to knock me over (and that I get up, every. single. time.) p.s. I played rugby as a teen, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I played hooker! — and I once had a bruise that covered the entirety of my left bicep. There’s no photographic evidence of that one still in existence, but there is of the soccer ball imprint that covered my entire abdomen!

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  3. I know a young girl who is now 12. 3 years ago, she was over for dinner with her mother and grandmother. She was on the second floor deck with me while I was BBQ’ing. My daughter accidentally shut the door to the balcony and locked us out. The young girl very quickly started to panic. She began to flail in a way where I began to think she might put her fist through a glass window. I told her to calm down and we simply knocked and in a few moments, someone saw us and let us in. We spoke about the matter much later, after she had completely calmed down and had likely forgot about it. I told her that when in such situations, never panic. Both her mother and her grandmother looked at me and said: “Why?” I said that when you panic, you can’t think straight and solve the problem.” Both the mother and the grandmother were taken aback, started thinking, and said simply: “Hmmmm.”
    We were once drinking a wine called “Conundrum” and the grandmother asked me what it meant. I said that a conundrum is a problem without a solution. The grandmother said: “Oh, dear!” The mother of the young girl advised me that they would never use a word like that in their family.
    None of these women play sports. They are centred completely on apperance on many levels. When I say that sometimes it’s simply about getting things done, they say that they’re “people persons” and they care more about how things are done than simply getting things done.
    They have also criticized me quite harshly for my view that my role as a parent is to be a guide and that I am blessed to be in such a role, as opposed to someone who should be proud that I am bringing my girl up right by telling her how to be and teaching her lessons along the way. I said I am not a teacher. I look upon myself as a guide and I help my daughter to figure out who she wants to be. They called me a hippie.
    In my view, the young girl of whom I spoke earlier lives in a state of fear, is prone to anxiety attacks, and simply wants to please people so as to avoid criticism. She has so little chance of figuring out who she actually is. And the truth is: Same goes for the mother and grandmother. What they’re doing to the young girl is what was done to them.
    Needless to say, none of these women ever played any sports. And they live in fear. And they attack others not like themselves as being the “wrong type of people”, or they put them on pedestals and think that what those people do is simply unachievable by more ordinary mortals like themselves.

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    1. Whoa, “conundrum” is a bad word? Never heard that before!

      (Also, I agree that this sounds like a terrible way to raise a child, and I like your idea about helping your daughter figure out who she wants to be. I don’t know whether I would be more angry at what they’re doing to that girl or sad that their own lives are so stunted if I knew that family. :()

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      1. That is the conundrum. You have to think that everyone can change and has a chance. You also have to understand that it is for you to simply be compassionate and to understand that they need to take their own path in life. You also have to be yourself and say what you think. It can be surreal.

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  4. Oh, and they love Hallmark cards and the sentiments expressed in them. I believe that they want the world to be a Hallmark world. And they have true darkness in them – more darkness and worse darkness than I think I can even understand. I get a glimmer of it only – like when they attack me viciouly for suggesting that I am simply a guide for my daughter.
    I wish they had played sports, gotten hurt, played more sports – whatever sport or physical activity that turned out to be right for them – and I wish they had been allowed to live their lives in this manner – and somehow found at least a part of themselves along the way.

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  5. Interesting piece, and one with which I find much to agree. I particularly liked the suggestion near the beginning that the gendered expectations thrust upon both young males and females are irrational and unhealthy. And I certainly agree with the notion that young women and girls should be encouraged to be physically active, fit, and “tough.”

    Where I think you lose me is with what I see as an unnecessary conflation of “toughness” with violence. I want my daughters to be strong, in every possible way. But I would be utterly appalled were one of them to say “I like to hit people.” To be clear, I would, given our culture’s predilection for violence in males, be even more appalled were I to hear a boy say the same thing.

    I want my daughters to be “tough.” And I even want them to be able to defend themselves in some fashion, should the need for that ever arise (which I hope to god, of course, it never does). But these are quite different things from wanting my daughters to enjoy *inflicting* pain and physical damage, even in a “friendly” rugby game. One doesn’t need to be aggressive to be tough.

    I don’t see why being strong and tough should mean wanting to “hit people.” And I don’t understand why adopting one of the most undesirable features of masculine culture — an enjoyment and fetishization of violence, even when it appears in the guise of “games” — is a good thing for women, or for society as a whole.

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    1. Unfortunately, almost all athletes who play contact sports “like to hit other people”. And sorry, but it can be thrilling. But tackling another in a game of football in a completely legal fashion and taking joy in it, is simply a very different thing than wanting to walk up to random people on the street and punch them in the nose. I suppose if you are calling for an end to all contact sports for both men and women, well, I don’t quite know what to think about that.

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      1. There is no need to apologize: I don’t doubt for a moment that the physical violence in contact sports is “thrilling.” If it weren’t, people wouldn’t do it. This is true also of a great many behaviours that the more enlightened members of society have determined are socially or individually harmful. The fact that it is “thrilling” doesn’t begin to address the other issues involved in these.

        If by “calling to an end” to contact sports you mean, do I want them banned, the answer is no. But I want them examined and critiqued as expressions of a particular kind of cultural assumption. It is of course different from walking up to someone in the street and slugging them, but the two actions are not entirely unrelated. I refer you, to take but one instance, to the thuggish machismo culture of hockey violence that is endorsed by Don Cherry and his ilk. Do you not think that there is a connection between the love of on-ice violence, and a whole list of other macho attitudes that are carried in to life outside of the arena? That’s not, of course, to say that every hockey fan who likes a “good” hockey fight or body check is going to go home an hit his or her partner , , , but it doesn’t take a lot of research to see how advocacy of hockey violence relates to a lot of other rather nastier attitudes.

        The key, I think, is in critiquing what we are signifying, at a cultural level, by an endorsement of violence on the sports field. There are a great many ways in which contact in contact sports can be characterized: this particular person chose to say “I like to hit people.” I find the particular connotations and implications of that expression disturbing. Is that what contact is contact sports is about — indulging our desire to “hit people”?

        If so, I think that’s problematic at all sorts of levels.

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      2. I’m not a fan of hockey violence. That looks like brute thuggery to me. But sparring is different, so is tackling in football and rugby, ditto martial arts. In these sports there are rules laid out and lines drawn. I was aghast the other day when my kid got a yellow card for jumping up and aiming to strike someone during a rugby game. The other player ducked. He also got a yellow card as he had kicked my son in the face when he was on the ground. So both boys got yellow cards are were sent off the field. They’d crossed a line. But tackling someone to get the ball? Sure. Taking someone’s balance and pinning them in Aikido? Yes. It’s fun. It’s consensual. And there are rules so it doesn’t devolve into viciousness. I’m not saying it’s for everyone. I enjoy the physicality and you might not. Fine. But my worry is that girls are socialized to not get hurt, not engage, not get dirty when it can be fun and there’s lots to learn. Lots of boys don’t like it and are forced to do it. I’m equally appalled at that, for what it’s worth.

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    2. I don’t think that physical contact (“hit”) is necessarily violent. Violent crimes can be committed without the perpetrator ever making use of the physical contact we call “hitting” or “striking” (rape comes immediately to mind); and, similarly, not all instances of hitting or striking are violent.

      Women and girls are taught not to take up space, which in part means not touching others (e.g. when I ride the bus or subway, if a man sits down next to me and does that thing that men do where they splay their legs as wide as they please and touch you, I move away so that we are no longer touching). Women and girls are dressed in restrictive clothing that prevents running and jumping and playing– free physical movement and rough physical play– from an early age. If it isn’t that we are being “indecent” by climbing the monkey bars in a skirt or hanging upside down while our shirt falls down, then the criticism is that we are getting our hair messy or looking too sweaty, or whatever. The fact that women and girls would find it thrilling and fun to enter a space where no one is saying that they have to be wilting flowers, never touching anyone roughly or engaging with their bodies and the bodies of others in ways that are fundamentally taboo for girls otherwise, is not a shock. and it isn’t “violent” in my opinion.

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      1. I think I agree with much or most of what has been said above, although I’d query a few things, such as the use of “consent” as a criterion. Consent is certainly a precondition of allowable contact, but that’s not the same as suggesting that it is how we should define it. Hockey violence is (mostly) “consensual.” So are most knife fights. There certainly are, and should be, “lines” that should not be crossed, but what defines those lines? Is permissible contact (I don’t want to get hung up on definitions of “violence” here) different in *kind*, or merely different in *degree* from non-permissible contact? Is it merely a question of how much you hurt the other person?

        I do want to just reiterate that what disturbs me most about all of this is the justification expressed for contact sports above: “I like to hit people.” It’s a phrase that is quoted with approval in the blog piece, and doesn’t seem to be much bothering anyone else. I’m afraid it very much bothers me.

        How we understand the intent behind an action *does* matter. It’s an important part of how a culture defines that activity, and understands its meaning and purpose. To use an analogy, if someone (whether the subject, or someone else) posts an erotic nude photo of a woman with the express intent of objectifying the subject, it is (in my mind) objectionable. It is reinforcing socially harmful attitudes. If the same picture is posted by a woman who is displaying pride in her body and her sexuality, the *meaning* of that picture changes: it reinforces *positive* attitudes. A picture of an overweight person posted to mock the subject is one thing; the same picture posted to interrogate stereotypes about the body is quite another.

        I am not against “contact” in sport per se. I am against accepting without question that the point of that contact is to allow people to indulge in a delight in violence. In other words, what concerns me is how we are defining it culturally. There have been lots of great reasons given above that very effectively justify contact sports. “I like to hit people” is not one of them; again, it fetishizes violence and legitimates it by suggesting that it’s ok to engage in an activity because you enjoy hitting people.

        This distinction matters. It matters culturally and socially, because it helps define social attitudes. By all means, let’s encourage men and women to engage in the rough and tumble of contact sports by highlighting the positive reasons for doing so.

        To accept unquestioningly that the value of such activities is to allow people to pander to a penchant for violence, on the other hand, is to argue in a social and cultural sphere that violence is ok,.It is to accept, in fact, precisely the kind of argument that the proponents of hockey thuggishness use. Is that what we want to do?

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      2. Quick comment, more later: Consent is necessary and it’s central to understanding what makes boxing okay but street violence not. But consent isn’t sufficient. When teaching this stuff I often use the example of fights to death, “two men in, one man out,” which we wouldn’t to allow as sport even with consent. Consent is needed but it’s not enough to make it morally okay.

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      3. I’m slightly uncomfortable with these different notions of violence. Surely, violent crime brings to mind a certain brand of viciousness which makes me more than uncomfortable. But I’m also uncomfortable in saying that football is not a violent sport, nor that it isn’t vicious at times, because it just is.
        There are differences and similarities.
        All I’m saying is that people who like playing football and getting violent and maybe even a little vicious at times while playing the sport, are no more prone to committing acts of criminal violence than are other people in our society. Part of the difference between the two is that the contact elements of a sport, viz., its violence, is consensual, as Sam says, while an act of criminal violence, on the other hand, constitues a horrid form of abuse.
        There is always the potential for abuse in any contact sport though, e.g. Coach Payton of the New Orleans Saints putting bounties on opposing players’ physical well-being. And there are always grey areas (or in this example, grey-black areas), e.g. Lawrence Taylor saying he liked to hit people so hard, that he’d lay them out flat and they wouldn’t move, but little bubbles would come out their mouths. And admittedly, some of this potential for abuse is what makes it difficult for me to conceive of football as a non-violent sport. So maybe there is some connection between at least viciousness and abuse after all, in my thinking. But I also believe that some purely legal forms of tackling, for instance, can be quite vicious, and that there is room for that in the sport as long as they don’t result in terrible injury in many instances, e.g. leading with the helmet, horsecollar tackles, etc., etc. It is just difficult to contrast the two – violent sports and viloent crimes, by trying to distinguish them on the basis of whether we should say they are violent and/or vicious. The differences have to be discussed on a different level – and just to start, on the level of whether the contact is consensual; on the basis of whether it takes place in a rule-based system, and whether the act of violence constitutes an inexcusable infraction according to the rules, and perhaps whether it should (if it does not).

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      4. for some reason I can’t reply to the people below who responded to my comment above.
        (relative WordPress noob here)

        I get what you are saying, Mark, but I never invoked the word “consent,” so I’m not sure why that became the centerpiece concept of your response to my comment.

        I actually don’t agree that intention is what matters or defines the qualities of, in your example, an erotic nude photo of a woman. I don’t agree that just because someone says it makes them feel good that it instills “positive attitudes.”

        In any case, I think that I understand better now what you were trying to say originally, and I agree with you in large part. I don’t think that women should have to feel “capable of violence” in order to feel powerful; I don’t think that women should have to take on traditionally male values like violence and the ability to harm others in order to reject sexist socialization. I think where we may differ is in whether we think embracing the feeling of “liking to hit” others seems to be echoing the sentiments of male norms (of violence) for these women or not. I do not assume that it does, but clearly this is a matter open to interpretation and you and I “hear”/”feel” that phrase differently.

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  6. I played rugby in university (and lacrosse at school, and now strongwoman, I think I must just like being bruised). Weirdly I don’t think of myself as physically tough which maybe because I am tall so have always thought I need to pull my weight as much as men when lugging things around or carrying stuff. I have never been the girl batting her eyelashes in the corner simpering how she doesn’t like getting dirty or couldn’t possible lift that. Whilst I am happy to allow for each to their own I fully confess I don’t understand that mind set. I like being able to contribute physically if that makes sense?

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  7. I think that all people who play contact sports like to hit other people. And I disagree completely that those who love to play and watch contact sports which are quite violent, e,g. football, are more prone to acting violently in their everyday lives than those who do not. So for those who simply assume otherwise and consider it to be self-evident, I disagree.

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    1. Certainly you can’t actively dislike hitting people and do well playing contact sports! I’m not sure though I’d describe it the way you go though. I like the physicality. I like the contact. I don’t play rugby or football but I know enough about myself from soccer and martial arts to know I’d enjoy tackling someone to get the ball.

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      1. Maybe I’m being a little more direct and “masculine” in my wording, but I honestly think we’re saying the same thing, Sam. I’m really not saying that everyone who like tackling others in football similarly likes beating the living hell out of someone, for gosh sake.

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  8. And I agree with Sam completely that there is much for girls to learn by playing contact sports, if they want to play contact sports. Most girls are taught to sit a certain way, to behave in a certain way, to please others, to live for others, to be soft, to be worthy of being worshipped, to be a princess, and worst of all, to be afraid – afraid of not satisfying others, afraid of not being pretty enough, afraid of not being loveable, afraid of being unworthy…afraid, afraid, afraid. Playing contact sports allows them to explore parts of themselves formerly hidden and discouraged from even existing. It allows to know that they can be hurt and yet rise again. It allows them to form confidence in their own physical prowess – to truly own their own bodies. And lots else, IMHO.

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  9. I am simply in no way uncomfortable with a man or a woman expressing the thought: “I like to hit people”, if what the person means is that they relish hitting others, but not in a criminal context but in a sports-based context, where it is consensual, legal in that sport, and it isn’t intended to seriously injure the other person. But if a person is thinking about a sport they play, and they simply say: “I like hitting other people”, I would simply assume they are saying the above, and admittedly, I would laugh.

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  10. That said, if my child “liked hitting people” and could not confine it to the sport, i.e. lacked the understanding and the maturity to do so, and the attitude “leaked into real world situations”, I would remove the child from the sport immediately.

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  11. Sam, of course you’re right. I just read your entry above. The morality of the act of violence or the sport itself, if so rule-less or unregulated, has to be taken into account. Some consider boxing to be such a “sport” which ought to be condemned on moral grounds. I am on the fence about this one, myself, given how many boxers’ brains have been scrambled. In both football and hockey, concussions are being taken far more seriously, and rules are being put in place to at least try to prevent so many from occurring. I still say it’s a very different thing though, to say: “I like hitting people in sports”, than “I like to give my opponents concussions”.

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    1. Yes, craig, I think you hit the nail on the head with that last sentence. Although in boxing it seems clear that one really can’t “hit” one’s opponent without the intent to injure and harm and the possibility of serious injury, I would argue that in many other sports, including rugby, it is possible to hit someone where the intent and effect is not to hurt them. You hit players in field games to move them (generally– football might be an exception), to impede their progress, to win the ball, etc. But in boxing you win by hurting, by injuring. There is a difference, although it isn’t a black-and-white line.

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      1. and to evaluate whether in a given sport one hits players to harm them is, I think, more (or at least partly) an empirical matter, and not one made purely by evaluating the rules of the game or the “idea” of the game.

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  12. I think that’s absolutely correct. I have no doubt, whatsoever, that football players sometimes intend to injure their opponents. I think the same goes in almost any contact sport. I would think it a certainty in soccer, and most certainly if hockey. The Payton scandal in football is absolute proof of that, for certain! And this is to be condemned, without exception. The grey areas exists in any contact sport in which athletes most certainly attempt to intimidate their opponents physically. Just for example, a quarterback must be made afraid of getting sacked – if he thinks you’ll just smother him like a warm blanket if you get to him, he’ll have no fear of you and will wait to the absolute last second to find an open receiver. And you have to want to and like hitting that quatreback hard to have any business playing the game. If you don’t like it, the game is not for you. And if it’s not for you, there’s nothing wrong with you. As Sam says, it’s outrageous that young boys are scolded and ridiculed if they do not like contact sports. But there’s nothing wrong with those who do like it. By the same tokem, for those who play it because they want to maim, injure and kill, to the extent that they can get away with it by playing the game, well, that’s clearly problematic, to say the least. Those people do have a problem. Something is wrong with them. I get the feeling that Mark interprets the phrase: “I like to hit people”, along these latter lines.

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  13. I find both the blog post and comment so far very interesting as a woman who plays Roller Derby a contact sport that restarted primarily with women. For me the legal ‘hitting’ or ‘blocking’ we do in Roller Derby is mostly about strategy – how to prevent the other jammer getting by you and scoring, preventing the other team from hitting your jammer so we can score points, distracting the other team’s players, or forcing a player out of bounds in order to redefine the pack where you strategically want it to be. That being said we do still hit pretty hard and people do get seriously injured by accident even when someone is hitting legally. I walk away from most scrimmage practices and bouts with new bruises. I have a big one on my right thigh from a newly scrimmaging teammate and two on either side of my shin bone from an opponent kicking me (accidentally) during our last home bout. Derby girls take pride in our bruises because they usually mean you took a hit and just kept going, maybe you even got knocked down but you got back up and kept moving forward. These are the important lessons that I believe girls and women can learn from contact sports and why I’m glad junior Derby is really starting to take off across the country. Everyone gets knocked down at some point in life, everyone has bruises, sometimes you break, sometimes you get scarred, but everyone who want to live life to their fullest potential has to learn to take these experiences, get up, dust yourself off and keep moving forward.

    In Derby however there are times when if one team starts to play mad for whatever reason there is suddenly a lot more contact with a lot of it either skirting the edge of legal hitting or being downright illegal but not necessarily caught by the refs (elbows, any contact with the face/head or on the back). There is a very clear difference that you can feel on the track between teams/players that get mad and get focused and go on to play harder but clean on the track and those that get mad and get aggressive/violent. I am sure this is true in most contact sports. To me the difference seems to lie in how the players are trained and coached to approach the game when the going gets tough. On my team our focus is on having fun, we play Roller Derby because it’s the best most fun sport in the world (to us) we get yelled at if we look at the scoreboard during a game. Even when things are going badly we are told to stay with your sisters and have fun. I think in both professional and amateur sports when the focus is on winning and not on playing the game well and enjoying the game play that is where things go a little sideways and contact can turn into violence.

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