Women’s sports and the Goldilocks problem: are we never “just right”?

Today is the day for the Final Four matchups between the University of Connecticut and Oregon State women’s basketball teams, as well as the University of Washington and Syracuse. There’s the usual talk about stars and standouts—UConn power forward Breanna Stewart is hands-down the dominant player, but she’s not the only great example, either on her own team or in this year’s tournament. Fans should expect some superb play in both games, as well as in the final on Tuesday.

However, that’s not what people are talking about this week. Instead, we are treated to a spate of articles debating the question, “is the dominance of the UConn team bad for women’s basketball?” We have Dan Shaunessy of the Boston Globe to thank, as he both tweeted and wrote an article to say that the lack of competitors for the UConn team makes women’s basketball (all of it, now!) no longer interesting to watch.

If you want the short version of my response, it’s this:

  1. It’s arguably false that UConn’s dominance will make people less likely to be interested in women’s basketball. Other sports teams (UCLA men’s basketball coached by John Wooden in the 60’s and 70’s, the New York Yankees baseball team in the 90’s) dominated play, and those sports didn’t wither away from fan inattention.
  2. Understanding the context of women’s collegiate sports can explain this developmental phase of one-team dominance, and pave the way for more opportunities and support for players and probably more parity among teams.
  3. Once again, we’re treated to a heaping helping of sports misogyny, setting up impossible and shifting demands on women’s teams—they’re damned if they’re too good, and they’re damned if they’re not good enough; right now “balance” is the word being used—they need to be “just right”…

 

just right

For those readers who have forgotten (or didn’t get around to this story), my repeated references of “just right” are from a version of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In short, Goldilocks breaks into the house of a bear family while they’re out, eating porridge, breaking furniture, and then sleeping in one of their beds. (*SPOILER ALERT*) She is discovered and escapes.

 

escape.png

 

But in the course of her destruction and consumption and use of property, she keeps looking for the thing that’s “just right”—not too hot, cold, big, small, soft, hard. This idea has even been codified into the Goldilocks Principle, which gets applied in a wide range of disciplines, from economics to climate science. Everyone, it seems, is searching for the elusive “just right”.

principle

 

Okay, enough about Goldilocks—let’s get back to women’s sports.

Dominance in sports is not unheard-of, either in pro or amateur sports. This year’s men’s NCAA basketball tournament was dominated by the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference). There are lots of others cases as well—UCLA men’s basketball, the New York Yankees, Tiger Woods—in which a star or star team garners most of the wins and all of our attention. In a National Public Radio interview this week, the issue came up (I edited this slightly):

(sound clip from UConn coach Geno Auriemma): When Tiger was winning every major, nobody said he was bad for golf. Actually, he did a lot for golf. He made everybody have to be a better golfer.

Interviewer: So what’s your answer to this?

David Ubben: It’s not a great argument. Tiger Woods isn’t recruiting the best golf balls and the best golf clubs to come play for him. Tiger Woods is the golfer. And when he plays, he’s not preventing anyone else from getting better. But Geno Auriemma has to recruit, every single year, the best women’s players in the country. So when he gets a good player, somebody else doesn’t get a good player. And so when you’re asking everyone to improve your game, well, you could start by handing off some of those good players to other programs. And that’s a ludicrous request, but UConn’s still going to be out in front as long as Geno keeps getting the best players and developing the best players. It’s a credit to them, but it’s still not helping the women’s game.

Really?  This is an absurd claim, as it assumes that there’s a small but obvious pool of already-great high school players waiting out there to be scooped up. He discounts the value of good developmental coaching, peer motivation, mentoring by other players, social and academic support, training, and cultivation of an atmosphere in which women athletes are supported and lauded.

Big sports does tend towards a star culture (academia does this too), often ignoring the huge pool of great talent that supports those stars, making their superlative performances possible. And UConn did hit the jackpot with Breanna Stewart.  But let us remember that, while media treatment of stars dominates sports news, sustaining the practice of sports requires the participation of thousands of players, parents, coaches and trainers, local press, school and facilities staff, etc.

Benjamin Norris of fivethirtyeight.com explains the current developmental state of women’s college basketball here. Below is a nice excerpt:

 

  1. There is a lot of talent: Women’s basketball has been the most-played women’s sport at the high school level for decades. Its upper echelon likely has the highest concentration of talent relative to sport participation of any women’s sport other than tennis.
  2. The top teams recruit well, but not abnormally well, relative to the top men’s teams.
  3. However, because many of the most talented male players skip college or go abroad or leave for the NBA, a much higher percentage of the best young female basketball players will be playing in college at any given point than the best young male players. Which is to say that if guys like Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns stuck around campus for four years, there would be a lot less parity on the men’s side, too.

 

Norris (in true stats-geek fashion—I love these folks!) provides scads of graphs to show the current state of dominance of both Stewart and the UConn team. (For any of you teachers/professors out there who want examples for showing students how to read graphs, his article has some of the coolest ones ever). But his main point is that there are structural and historical reasons why this pattern of one-team dominance appeared, and, supposing continued development, the pattern will dissipate and more quality play (and parity, too) will ensue.

Finally, what about the “damned if they win, damned if they don’t” problem? Here’s another choice excerpt from that NPR interview:

Interviewer: What do you say to women, especially young women players, who hear this and may think that this kind of argument from Shaughnessy and others is essentially sexism passed off as sports opinion, right? I mean, the idea being that women – we don’t want to watch them. They’re not as good, until they’re really good, and then we say we don’t to watch them because they’re really good. I mean, this is – this is seeming very much like a catch-22.

David Ubben: Yeah, I think there’s certainly something to that. And I think it’s a tough line because I think that it’s hard to sort out. And a lot of times, it’s hard to have honest conversations about, how do we improve the women’s game? How do we fix these issues without sort of being drowned out by, well, you’re being a sexist.

Once again: Really? Instead of answering the question with informed discussion about the developmental state and support of women’s college sports, David Ubben tried to turn the tables and say that, by being challenged on his view, he is being attacked as a sexist. Well, that won’t do at all.

We all know from our experiences in sports (and life) and from reading this blog that women with extreme achievements make people nervous. We hit too hard, grunt too loudly, sweat too much, work out too long, and run too far. Our bodies are too muscular, too hard, too strong, too tall, too big, or too small.

Honestly, we’re all just right. And if you don’t believe me, listen to Skeletor.

skeletor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Football and violence: a half-time meditation

Today is the Super Bowl—one of the sports high holy days in the US. American football has been in the news a lot recently because scientific investigations have revealed that many deceased NFL players suffered from brain damage due to multiple concussions. Just this week, famed Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, who died from colon cancer in June, was confirmed as having CTE. The last 10 years of his life were marked with numerous debilitating symptoms, thought to be due to CTE. 94 brains of former NFL player were donated posthumously for research, and 90 of those brains show evidence of CTE—chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Of course, that number—94—represents a small percentage of the total number of football players who have died. However, there have been many cases of younger players who have committed suicide who have been confirmed to have CTE, and others for whom brain trauma is suspected.

Frontline,the investigative documentary show on the Public Broadcasting System in the US, in an article on CTE, provides some perspective on those numbers:

…the figures come with several important caveats, as testing for the disease can be an imperfect process. Brain scans have been used to identify signs of CTE in living players, but the disease can only be definitively identified posthumously. As such, many of the players who have donated their brains for testing suspected that they had the disease while still alive, leaving researchers with a skewed population to work with.

Even with those caveats, the latest numbers are “remarkably consistent” with past research from the center suggesting a link between football and long-term brain disease, said Dr. Ann McKee, the facility’s director and chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System.

“People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we’re sensationalizing it,” said McKee, who runs the lab as part of a collaboration between the VA and BU. “My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players.”

In a statement, a spokesman for the NFL said, “We are dedicated to making football safer and continue to take steps to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, and expanded medical resources. We continue to make significant investments in independent research through our gifts to Boston University, the [National Institutes of Health] and other efforts to accelerate the science and understanding of these issues.”

So the researchers are suggesting a picture of potentially pervasive brain trauma to professional (extending to college athletes as well) football players.  The NFL says they are responding by funding research and trying to improve the game.

Some of the players are responding, too.  24-year-old Chris Borland of the San Francisco 49ers announced his retirement from football, citing concerns about long-term brain trauma.  Other players have said publicly that even though they love the game, they would not allow their children to play football. This group includes Terry Bradshaw, former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and current NFL sportscaster.

What are the fans saying?

Writer, essayist and advice columnist Steve Almond wrote a book about his decision to stop watching football.  In an interview he cited numerous concerns about the violent nature of the sport, including this:

One of the central rationalizations people use of football is that it’s a way out for certain kids. I don’t believe that football is the right model for empowering communities who are disadvantaged economically and socially and educationally. I think this is a perversion of our values, which should say that every kid matters because of their intellect and morality, not because they get really good at playing a brutal, murder ballet game that we really love watching.”

Some football fans are reacting negatively to all of this news.  In the comments section o a New York Times Room for Debate piece on “Is it wrong to watch football?”, the comments included lots of responses along the lines of, “The players know the risks, and it is their choice to play or not to play.”

One thing I learned as a feminist philosopher is that the idea of “choice” is a complicated one.  We, the humans, have the capacities to take in information, assess what we care about, and make choices to act in certain ways.  But we don’t act alone and in isolation.  One term that gets used in feminist philosophy is “relational autonomy”.  The idea is that our choices are influenced by our ties to others– friends, family, workplace, sports teams, and community.  We care about belonging, being a part of groups– it informs our identities.  I’m a philosopher, a sister, a member of a bike club, a Massachusetts resident, and so on.  What I do is in part designed to reinforce that identity.

Kids and parents and coaches and advertisers and players all are caught up in a culture of football, one that binds us together in some positive ways– we share loyalties with other fans, teammates develop and perform together, etc.  But this culture is one that is causing harm to those who play– serious long-term harm.  Maybe it’s worth reexamining on the grounds that the culture is distorting our view of what sports are for.  Something to think about at halftime.

 

University + Sport = Excellence in Women (Guest Post)

by Marie Helene Laforest

Why?

In my experience at McGill University 3 things happened:

1- Women usually go to school for a good academic programme that will lead to a good job. And then they look at what sport they might play.

2- The lack of funding in women’s sports and the lack of professional jobs in women’s sports means that there are strong incentives to spend all one’s time in the classroom rather than training for any kind of sports.

3- Girls and guys have to fight the same battle. At McGill the men’s volleyball team was cut because there was a lack of funding, performance and general interest. Same battle, different circumstances.

What everyone needs to do, regardless of gender, is to stop whining and start acting. Period.

This is why after 4 years of whining I decided that it didn’t work and I should start acting.

Here is my solution: An award that will honour the social justice fights of my grand parents (both McGill alumni) and will help my rugby team.

https://www.mcgill.ca/seedsofchange/project/don-alice-heap-rugby-all-athletic-award

Please donate. Merci beaucoup!!!

Marie-Helene Laforest received her BEd from McGill University, is now a PE Teacher, and played rugby for SABRFC and McGill.

The Don & Alice Heap Rugby for all Athletic Award seeks to award female student athletes who are working to make a difference within their communities both on and off the field. The Don & Alice Heap Rugby for all Athletic Award will: Honour the memory of McGill alumni Don and Alice Heap; Encourage community commitment among female student-athletes; Enable and support women’s involvement in sports on campus

 

 

 

 

Athletes Taking a Stand against Sexual Assault

Yes means yes, no means no.

Yes means yes, no means no.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education talked of a new peer initiative springing up on campuses.  True, you can’t stop university students from drinking and you can’t stop them from having sex. But maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to make some inroads to protect intoxicated young women (who are most at risk) from sexual assault.

According to the article:

Hanging out, drinking, and hooking up are for many students just a part of life in college. They’re also a common backdrop for sexual assault. As many as four in five campus assaults involve drinking, studies have found. Plenty of those cases hinge on whether a woman was drunk or incapacitated, and therefore unable to give consent.

Messages about preventing sexual assault now come at students from many directions: campus and federal officials, the news media, their peers. And what students are hearing has started to influence their behavior. They’re paying more attention, and they’re looking out for one another.

The initiative is a response to Obama’s “It’s on us” campaign, asking people to look out for people in risky situations.  It’s taken an interesting form on campuses, and one reason it’s so interesting to me is that fraternities and athletes on school teams are two of the groups who are most active.

What are they doing to make a difference? At Union College, a campus initiative is training team members about how to intervene:

“I knew we had an opportunity with our hockey team,” says Jim McLaughlin, the athletic director. The team attended a half-day workshop in September on bystander intervention. Next in line are the women’s hockey team and the men’s and women’s basketball and swim teams.

“We are tough, bold women, and we would have the confidence to step into a bad situation,” says Christine Valente, captain of the women’s hockey team.

What’s great about this is that it’s opened up an important conversation about consent and also about masculinity:

Organizers are holding workshops with sports teams, fraternities, and sororities. But they don’t preach or try to give students all the answers. On a recent Thursday evening, the men’s lacrosse team packed into a dorm’s common area, where the group’s presenters, all women, tried to draw the athletes out. What does consent mean? How does sexual assault affect men? How do stereotypes of masculinity play into the problem?

“You should have consent before you go out and party and get drunk, instead of waking up the next day and regretting it,” one player said. “As a team, I want to win a national championship,” offered another. “I don’t want another player going out and touching a woman who doesn’t want to be touched and undermining our success.” Every time someone spoke up, the women tossed out packets of Sweet Tarts or Reese’s Pieces.

After such presentations, students sometimes approach members of the consent group, says Ms. Han, to say they’ve been applying its lessons. “I was having sex,” a student might report, “and I asked for consent!”

We’ve had our own conversation about consent here in Canada recently. I alluded to it briefly in my Mine all Mine post where I talked about how getting active gave me a new sense of being in my body.  There, I called it confident ownership.

That’s another reason why I think athletes are in a good position to have some influence in this area.  At Union, they’re involving not just the men’s teams, but also the women’s teams.  As the captain of the women’s hockey team said, they’re “tough, bold women” with confidence.

As Caitlin from Fit and Feminist said earlier this week in her post on confidence, her athletic achievements (her awesomeness really does know no bounds — she’s unstoppable!) has translated into something she never had before: she believes in herself.

So women who are athletes can play an important role in changing the culture of risk.  It’s a fine line, of course, between giving women tools that empower them, on the one hand, and blaming them when those tools fail them, on the other.  It’s realistic, of course, to want to protect ourselves.  At Union, the women

 they do two things to keep themselves and their friends safe from sexual assault. They never walk alone after dark, and they go to parties in groups. Some also bring their own alcohol—keeping their drinks covered and close at hand. Campus safety officers taught three self-defense classes this fall, and the Theta Delta Chi fraternity offered to buy women a new kind of nail polish that is supposed to change colors to detect the presence of common date-rape drugs.

It’s fantastic that these campus initiatives don’t stop there.  There’s a great “tipsheet” for preventing sexual assault that made the rounds a few years ago. It turns our usual suggestions about what women can do to keep themselves safe into suggestions for perpetrators instead. For example:

1. Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behavior.

2. When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone!

3. If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them!

4. NEVER open an unlocked door or window uninvited.

5. If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!

What these campus initiatives are getting right is that they are involving everyone.  That’s what’s required for a culture change.  Traditionally, sport (particularly men’s varsity sports) has been (and is) a sexist domain with a bad track record for treating women respectfully. It’s encouraging to see an initiative the takes advantage of the leadership potential of athletes on campuses and redefines the values we have come to associate with sports teams.

I hope to see more of this, including on my own campus where issues of date rape and sexual assault among the students need to be high on our list of priorities, and conversations about consent and respect need to stay on our radar even though our radio host scandal has fallen out of the news.

 

My Love-Hate Relationship with Co-ed Team Sports (Guest post)

The blogger in her early days playing coed team sports with her elementary school

The blogger in her early days playing coed team sports with her elementary school

Spring!!! As soon as I see the first patch of grass, I’m itching to get out and play… soccer, basketball, ultimate, football, I’m up for whatever. These past few summers, I’ve been playing pick-up soccer with a meetup group… They’re awesome, super well organized, they meet three times a week, and there’s usually a pretty good turnout. But, despite my eagerness to get out and kick a ball around (finally!), there’s also a part of me that’s hesitant to head out and play. And, really, if I’m going to be honest, a big part of what’s keeping me away is the worry that by the end of the game, I’ll feel upset. There’s a bitterness that tends to well up in me when I’m playing co-ed team sports; a sort of dense multi-layered sludge that keeps on giving, even once the game is over.

Here’s how it goes: I show up and notice how few women there are, if any. We start playing, and I quickly pick-up on this pattern where I’m often not covered and still rarely get the ball. It’s like I don’t exist. And when they do interact with me, the guys feel like they can coach me, like give me “helpful” hints. I get this feeling like my calling for the ball (“I’M WIDE OPEN!!”) is just seen as obnoxious, especially if I get at all insistent, after the fifth missed opportunity. Then, when I finally get the ball, I feel like I have something to prove. And, I might make a good play, which is nice, or, I might mess up, which is less nice, and leads to the confirmation that I’m not a reliable player, even though everyone messes up now and then. “All this because I’m a woman”, I privately fume.

But, then, this immediate sort of frustration gets processed through self-doubt and self-reflection: Am I really getting the ball less often than I would if I were a man?  Maybe, the other players have just played together for a while and have a good rapport… Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am… Maybe they’re just not that good and aren’t aware of good passing opportunities… I’m probably just being oversensitive… And, if playing co-ed sports makes me so upset, why do I insist on participating and putting myself through these unpleasant feelings, and possibly even making the game less fun for the others… Why can’t I just get over it and have fun?

As a counter to this self-doubt comes the dredging up of the past. While, it may be that I am being over-sensitive in this particular case, I have reasons for being watchful for cases of differential treatment. Ever since I can remember, I have been treated differently in team sports. Early on, boys (uncensored, as kids will be) voiced their prejudices about not wanting girls to play, or not accepting that girls could be better than them. It often took adult intervention for them to take me seriously, such as a coach telling the boys to pass the ball to me because I was a good player. And, in my grown up years, I’ve experienced the more obvious type of discrimination in leagues that require teams to have a certain number of women on the field. The gameplay can sometimes become centered around the men, and the women become human pylons.

Finally, there comes the meta-frustration, or, anger at “the system”. I consistently get the message that women and men are not on equal footing when it comes to team sports. For one, when I’m paying attention, I notice a near absence of women in pickup sports. Also, women can be given conditions that make a sport “easier” (if not easier, just different) for them, such as a smaller ball in basketball, lower volleyball nets, shorter matches in tennis, no tackle football games… or, remember girls’ push-ups in high school?  And, truth be told, I know that even I perceive women and men differently on the field. All this just leaves me in a funk, thinking about how pervasive and entrenched these systematic divisions are.

But, then this weird thing happens, where I remember that, sure, sometimes I end up feeling pretty down after playing co-ed team sports, but, still, there are other times, where I meet awesome people who both play hard and encourage each other. And there’s this added bonus where I get to be a woman playing pick-up sports, which changes things just a bit. So, this weekend, I’m going to play soccer with the meetup group, and, damn it, I will have fun running my guts out, trying to set up good plays, and generally just letting my aggressive and competitive spirit run loose.

 

Jeanne-Marie just got her MA in philosophy at Tufts University, and is now giving computer science a go. She loves team sports (all of them), biking, swimming, and has not yet learned to love running.

On Winning for Gold and “Losing” for Silver

canadian women's hockey team When Patrick Chan got the silver medal for men’s figure skating in the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, he apologized to Canadians for not getting the gold. And when Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skated to silver, Canadians cried foul!  How is it possible that their free skate was that much “worse” than the American team’s?

When the Canadian women’s and men’s hockey teams won gold, Canadians celebrated and cheered in a way that they would not have had “we” lost that gold medal game.

But the thing about a gold medal game is this: the worst you can do is get the silver medal!  Silver is pretty darn good.  I’m always struck by the reaction of athletes and spectators, especially when it comes to the gold medal game.

I get that in the gold medal game, you win for gold and lose for silver.  And in the scheme of a hockey game, for example, there’s no getting around the fact that if you end up with the silver, you’ve lost that game.  But you’ve still come out pretty well, and don’t we all forget that?

There is such tremendous pressure on the athletes to get gold. Suddenly, during the Olympics, so many people lose sight of the sheer joy of watching elite athletes compete at their chosen sports.  The pressure is so great that I actually feel bad for athletes who don’t win (which is a lot of athletes!).

I’d read somewhere that the Sochi Games would be considered a failure (by Russians?) if the Russian men’s hockey team didn’t win the gold medal.  If that’s true, it’s sad.  I felt a real pang of disappointment on their behalf when they got eliminated (they didn’t even make it to the bronze medal game).  I recalled the time in World Cup soccer when the Columbian player who scored on his own net was murdered for his mistake.  Is winning the big prize really so important?

And yet, I sat on the edge of my seat during both hockey games, cheering for the Canadian teams, knowing full well that the worst they could do was get a silver medal. And though I didn’t think Patrick Chan owed us an apology, I felt disappointed that he didn’t manage to nail a couple of parts of his beautiful program that would have earned him the gold medal.

Besides the thrill of Canadian victory in the hockey games (we’re kind of serious about our hockey!), I have two Olympics moments that will be forever etched in my memory. The first is the overflowing joy of the Swiss women’s hockey team as they received their bronze medals.  They beamed with pride. I felt more moved watching their reactions than the Canadians, equally beaming.  In contrast, the US team stood in shock. Few smiled when they received their silver medals. They were still feeling the sting of having just lost a game (that it looked as if they had in the bag).

I don’t blame the US women for their reaction.  I’m sure “our” team would have been similarly devastated to lose the gold medal game.

The second image came right at the end, when in the closing ceremony they awarded the medals for the men’s 50K cross country ski event.  Three Russian athletes stood on the podium while the three Russian flags ascended to their rousing national anthem (what is it about their national anthem? I love it!).  I could feel the pride of the athletes at that moment. Pleased that we Canadians didn’t have to sacrifice hockey, it seemed fitting to me that the final medal ceremony should be a Russian sweep.

I can get as caught up as anyone in medal counts and pining for gold, but the fact is, all of the athletes are amazing to watch.  All of them, medalists and non-medalists, the athletes who get the gold, the athletes who surprise themselves with bronze, the athletes who come in seventh but are thrilled at their personal record, they’re all world class at their chosen sport.  What an amazing thing to get to watch them every day for a couple of weeks every four years!

I’m one of those people who likes races where everyone gets a medal.  See my post Why It’s a Good Thing That Everyone Gets a Medal. I don’t actually think that this should extend to the Olympics. It wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. So I’m not saying that everyone who competes at the Olympics is a winner.  Of course not. But for sure everyone who gets a medal at the Olympics, whether it be gold, silver, or bronze, is a winner.

Just ask the Swiss women’s hockey team.

In Praise of Physically Aggressive Sports (Guest Post)

I’ll play football today for the first time. One of the women on my soccer team recruited me to play football. Until Sam suggested I write this post, I had not given much thought to my playing “physically aggressive” sports. (She suggested it after I noted that I would love it if she would buy an “Aggressive by Nature, Rugby by Choice” t-shirt for me if she ever found it again on her rugby travels.) When I stopped to think about it, however, I realized that there were all sorts of positive, feminist reasons for my choices of sport. Here are six of them with some commentary that is specific to my own personal experience as a former rugby playing, current soccer and football playing woman.

1. I can be loud; indeed, I am encouraged to be loud.
‘Talking’ on the pitch is a necessity. I am a player who talks constantly on the field of play: who is open, if there is space, when to shoot, the whole vocabulary of positioning and players. I’m confident talking on the field in part because I live and work in a space where my voice is heard, and I would argue that the reverse is just as true.
2. Aggression — in the sense of asserting one’s will, channeling one’s passion, and pursuing one’s aims forcefully — is typically rewarded .
I am on a first name basis with the cliché “work hard, play hard.” I do not want my team sports to be a romp in the park. I have legs that are often bruised (that’s what pantsuits are for, right?) and my osteopath on speed dial. I’m inclined to believe that toughness is a virtue (and I do yoga as often as soccer and football in recognition of this fact about myself).

3. I can take up space.
This is a big one for me, pun intended. I stand a rockin’ 154 cms tall. (That’s almost 5’2” … sounds more impressive in centimetres). I am a physically strong lightweight. I am now accustomed to being one of the smallest, if not the smallest, on any given pitch, and it is now part of my athletic identity that I can take on players who are bigger than me. (Tell me that does not translate into the non-sporting side of my life!) Also, since I might as well be truthful, I like the seeming contradictions of my size and choice of sports. People are genuinely shocked when I reveal I played rugby … unless they know the game, and therefore understand that the position of hooker (typically the smallest player on the field) is rather central to the whole business.

4. I am expected to hold my own and, often, to push back, as a normal part of the game.
I play Masters (+35) recreational soccer and touch football, so contact is not part of either game. But, both sports are physically aggressive, and there is a certain amount of “going toe to toe” in each of them. I like this. I like chasing down opposing players, and I like using my body to defend the ball. I’ve been known to chase down balls that were otherwise lost to possession, just to see if my speed could get me there (although I would never do this if it meant that my team would be compromised in some way). On corner kicks, I am the forward who stands in front of the keeper and does not move. My job is to prevent her from seeing the ball. It is legal for me to be in this position, and she has the option to push me away; I have the ability to get back into a similar position and continue to frustrate her.

5. Failure is an integral part of the game, therefore every game improves my resiliency and ability to bounce back from failures, the big and the small.
You’ll hear my team say “unlucky” frequently. I miss shots. Sometimes the net is wide open and I miss the shot. I flub passes. Sometimes the keeper makes a great save. Sometimes I can’t make the catch. Sometimes I get chased down. Sometimes I juggle the ball in the air and it gets intercepted. And sometimes I score. It’s the same for all of us. We aim for progress, not perfection. Note the active voice: it is a continual process of doing, and doing again, doing, and doing better.

6. I love my girlfriends.
My team sports are filled with other fantastic women who have also made a commitment to their own self-care through exercise and play. They are my role models, confidantes, and teammates. We all get joy from playing. Even if I am running hard for the whole game, getting knocked about, ending up bruised, I still look at the time I spend as self-care just as much as my meditative practice. In fact, when we used to play indoor soccer on Sundays, we’d joke that we went to “Church of Five a Side.” It’s some good therapy, sports.

So, I’ve got my gloves (Youth Medium!), cleats, and jersey ready to go for this afternoon. I’m about as excited as my almost-seven year old is for back to school. I’ll be learning as I go.

Jessica Schagerl is Fit, Feminist, and … well, almost Forty. But what’s a decade among friends? In a week, she’ll also be blogging about the Dirty Girl Run in Buffalo.