By Elan Paulson
Treat every practice as if it were a game. I heard this expression playing ball as a kid, and then recently saw it again as an inspirational sports meme. The advice is to practice like every second matters, take play seriously, and give 100% effort as if one were in an actual game.
But after I had just played my first recreational mixed ball game in over six years this past week, I had to tell myself the opposite: treat every game as if it were a practice.
As a reader of Fit is a Feminist Issue, you already recognize the pervasiveness of media-reinforced stereotypes about women and their marginalization in sports. In Women, Media and Sport: Challenging Gender Values, Pamela Creedon notes that “By denying access to the game as players, we are taught that women are less qualified, powerful or physical than men. By limiting women to largely stereotypical support roles, […] we also learn that women should be subservient” (6).
Clearly, this is an ignorant view at best, but if you know mixed ball teams you may also know there visible and invisible rules that re-affirm that women indeed play a “support” role in the game. (I refer a mandatory numbers of female players in a line up, or the tendency to place women in positions that see the least action or require the least skill.)
I have a strong desire to challenge the gendered stereotypes in sports that Creedon references. It’s also in my nature to be conscientious and want to make a positive contribution to team efforts. As a result, I am hard on myself and unforgiving of my own mistakes (both off and on the field).
When I struck out last week, my desire to challenge gendered sports stereotypes, combined with my inherent self-criticism, mixed a poisoning of my enjoyment of a fun afternoon outdoors playing rec ball with nice people. A team member of mine had noticed my frustration, commenting, “You don’t look like you are having much fun.”
Now, at the time I was wearing the all-in-good-fun bright pink t-shirt that team members must wear as “punishment” for striking out (another gendered marker that subtly associates weak play with women). But I wasn’t having fun because the pink shirt a) equated women with inferiority in sports and, b) equated inferiority in sports with me.
So, going forward this season I plan to give myself explicit permission during every “practice” to try a new strategy, to screw up, to fail, and to strike out.
If I punish myself for every missed play, and feel further humiliated by the pink shirt, I internalize not only the very gendered stereotypes I challenge but also an approach that is hypercompetitive and stereotypically masculine (Creedon, 7) that I also wish to avoid. Even when my failure may look as if I am reinforcing gendered norms, having fun is the more important “win” for me.
So, going forward, every game is an opportunity to practice…both my skills in baseball and self-forgiveness. And living my values is the real feminist “play” in my sports life. FIAFI readers, is this a needed reminder for you in team sports as well?
Creedon, Pamela J. Women, Media, and Sport: Challenging Gender Values. Sage Publications, 1994.