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Playing like a girl

By Shelah Miner

I was a swimmer in high school. Not a very good swimmer, although looking back, I realize that I worked hard and probably had more natural talent than I gave myself credit for at the time. During those years, swim team was all about the music we piped underneath the water (lots and lots of Steve Miller Band), wearing our Stratford Swimming sweatshirts on meet day, riding the bus together, and huddling in the team circle before we took to the blocks. It was not about racing. In fact, the only blemish on swimming season was the fact that I actually had to race.

I’d stand at the blocks, surveying the competition, looking to the center lanes to see the gleam in the eyes of the strongest swimmer. Unlike me and most of the girls in the other lanes,ย  she wanted it. I just wanted it to be over– the nerves, the anticipation, the knowledge that I wouldn’t win. I’d often be ahead of the predicted winner going into the final lap, but I’d seen the gleam, I knew she wanted it more, wouldn’t it be rude not to let her have it? Of course, I don’t think not giving it my all was a conscious decision, but I do know I that I valued playing nice over winning.

My area of expertise in sport is limited: I’m pretty decent when I just have to go forward in one direction, hopeless when a ball enters the picture.ย  Twenty years later, I still don’t think I have the gleam in my eye, the desire to go out and kick butt. I’m still likely to be deferential when I think someone else wants it more during a race. A few weeks ago I ran a marathon hard for the first nineteen miles, and when I realized I wasn’t going to beat my personal best time, I took a break, got a drink, and jogged easy the last seven miles.

Is this a trait peculiar to me? One that goes hand in hand with my inability to ever stand up for myself as a child when the girl across the street bossed me around, with my utter lack of confidence, even now, to tell those close to me when I think they’re about to do something dumb?

In the Winter 2009 issue of Segullah, Marilyn Bushman-Carlton seems to imply that the desire to play nice in sport (and in life) is a trait that we may instill unknowingly in our daughters in her poem, “The Girls’ Game.” She speaks of fathers, watching their young girls play soccer:

where they watch their own daughters
hesitate, lend a hand
to another who is down,

and hear, Oh, sorry! No, YOU go ahead!
rise like doves from the din of the game,

The fathers walk from the field, disappointed, but what about the mothers? Are they pleased by their girls’ good manners or do they hesitate when they see their own deference reflected in their daughters?

My husband and I both spend time on our favorite message boards. On mine, the women say happy birthday to each other, cheer for successes and pray for their friends in times of trial. We rarely criticize. On my husband’s message board, they wisecrack, point out lapses in logic, and call each other boneheads (and worse). Mine’s a community. His is a lot more fun to read.

So when my own daughter stomps to the car in a rage when her project doesn’t win at the science fair, do I tell her it’s okay and that winning isn’t that important, as I’ve been wont to think? Or do I help her strategize and make sure she kicks tail next year? Do I help her become a warrior? Do I even know how?

About Shelah Miner

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

28 thoughts on “Playing like a girl”

  1. I will be waiting for the comments on this one. If I was ever aggressive competitively it was as a passive aggressive – telling everyone that I didn't care if I won but secretly trying my darndest. Being "nice" was always more important. I don't know if I value competition for it's own sake, but for my children I want them to compete (not necessarily in sports) so that they are pushed to become their very best.

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  2. In my experience success in most public endeavors requires a killer instinct otherwise one may be relegated to the class of "very good" rather than "great." However, there's something to be said for the judicious employment of said "killer instinct." I think back to when my wife and I were at university and how our shared killer instict benefitted us both. During our time at school we took two classes together, both of which were taught by instructors with reputations for being extremely tough graders. We worked together, pushing each other to excel. Neither one of us wanted to finish second to the other. The end result was that in one class we earned the two highest scores (she beat me) and in the other we were the only two "A"s (I beat her– I had to ask for a rematch after losing in the first go-around). What I'm trying to say with the example is that we could have allowed our compettive natures to blind us to the benefits of cooperation but at the same time that cooperation and the time we dedicated to the endeavor was motivated by our independent desires to be the best.

    I wonder how much a killer instinct is influenced by genetics versus environment. I look at my two oldest children and scratcch my head. Our oldest (a daughter) will run right over someone else on the way to the podium– she turned all of her flag football games into tackle affairs and had every boy in the league terrified. My son, only two years her junior would rather pick the dandelions in the field at the same game. Go figure.

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  3. I have two observations. When we were involved in soccer at a most elementary level we had two children involved, one a boy the other a girl. The difference between the two groups was stark. The boys spread out and played their assigned position while the girls moved in a clump. It was as though they were one player and not a team at all.

    The second is that while women (girls) don't compete in exactly the same way men (boys) they still want to win. They find just as exhilarating as males do. The problems arise when women and men compete with each other.

    What girls need to be taught is not the killer instinct as much as they need to learn not to take everything personally. If it is not personal it makes it possible to be nice without being a door mat and sacrificing the edge that might bring victory. It lets you be more detached and less emotionally attached. We women need to learn to be more like men in that way without giving up the quality that of empathy that allows us to soften the distancing effects competition often creates.

    Since our children are conditioned by society and not just parents it will be a daunting task to raise girls that are more like men and still feminine. Having said that, it helps to remember that men and women are more alike than they are different.

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  4. That's interesting Claudia. When my daughter came home with the science project this week, her first comment was, "Why didn't the judge like me?" To her, it wasn't about the project, it was a reflection on her.

    So how do we become more detached without becoming less empathetic?

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  5. I find your post and questions ironic, given the posting rules. Last year I was castigated for telling a poster that her horrible attitude toward her husband made her sound like a jerk.

    I was essentially told, "Be nice or leave!"

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  6. I remember one daughter coming home from middle school with a less-than-stellar grade. She was so surprised: "But the teacher really likes me!" was her response, as though the quality of their relationship could spackle over the series of neglected homework assignments.

    I do think girls are reinforced for social adeptness. I don't think that all of them are naturally so (nor do some of them want to be) but I think culturally that is the expectation and nudging.

    To your question, I think you do both: tell your daughter it's okay and winning isn't everything *and* talk about how to do better next year so she's satisfied with her efforts. A woman with compassion + emotion + drive + passion is a fantastic combination.

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  7. ErinAnn makes a good point. In general, women's boards seem to be way less confrontational than those peopled with equal numbers or a majority of men.

    I have a "mixed gender" board that I post on pretty frequently, and I am often surprised by how aggressively my opinions or thoughts are addressed by the men there. It's sort of a shock to my system after all the community feeling, tact, and careful selection of words that I've experienced on boards visited mainly by women…but I do find it stimulating.

    I quite enjoy the men and women's board I visit because I do thrive on debate. We did a lot of debating in our family over the dinner table. However, we managed to do it kindly…So I guess my favorite world would be where we used women's rules to argue like men.

    heehee

    Most of the time, my needs are well met by Segullah. The women here are wise, intelligent, and sensitive. Most of the time, that sensitivity doesn't get in the way. But maybe, occasionally, it ends a good, open-ended difference of opinion a little too soon.

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  8. Hey bonehead, your logic is all full of holes. ๐Ÿ˜›

    Nice discussion. I do think you may be overstating it slightly. I mean, clearly there are girls who don't take the girly approach, right? Little miss gleam-in-the-eye has to come from somewhere.

    And for that matter, I could swear I remember you writing at some point about the joy of kicking some guy's butt in a marathon. So maybe the difference is one of degree and not of kind — women are socialized to be less aggressive less often, but there's still a range of aggressiveness within each group, and a fair amount of overlap.

    Besides, I hesitate to talk too much trash with someone who could kick my butt in running, while reading her 37th book of the year. Do you know how to be a warrior? Um, YES. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  9. So much to comment on here.

    Women DO place emphasis on being nice. And in general I think that's best. My hubby and I have birthdays 2 days apart and you can imagine the contrast. On his birthday he's lucky to get a phone call from one of his many friends, yet on my birthday the counter is littered with cards and flowers and the phone and doorbell hardly stop ringing all day. I happen to prefer our female niceness.

    In your marathon (and this is where your logic is full of holes;)) you didn't slow down because you were trying to be nice, you slowed down because you were saving your best effort for another race. The female niceness would come in if you slowed down so that you could finish with a friend. And there's a time for that and a time to race your heart out. You've got girl power, don't even try to kid me.

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  10. Kaimi, you got me. I do delight in kicking guys' butts in marathons, especially when I'm wearing a skirt. But I think I delight in it because at least the first few times it happened, it was such a complete surprise. As for where the girls come from, it sounds like PaulM is raising one destined to be in the center lane. But my experience with swim team was that the vast majority of us were there because swimming was fun, hanging out together was fun, and not because we wanted to win. I think our record as a team (mediocre) reflected that as well. Even now, I'd much rather run a little bit slower an do it with a friend (even in a marathon) than be out there all by myself. So while I don't shy away from a little butt kicking, I still think that friendship trumps competition.

    And for the record, you overstated by book tally for this year by about 20.

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  11. Michelle– Last year I ran Boston with a friend and finished at least 15 minutes behind where I think I probably would have finished otherwise. But looking back, it's one of the most fun marathoning experiences I've had. No nasty feeling in the pit of the stomach at the start line, no playing the mental game of talking myself into putting one foot in front of the other at mile 22, no "you can do it" mantras running through my head. And sometimes I think I'd take some good girly bonding at a race over trying for a PR.

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  12. This post brought me to two thoughts.
    First, I grew up with my brothers and my girlfriends. Girls aren't necessarily less competitive, they just are quiet about it, as jendoop suggested in her comment. Boys are straightforward and girls are usually not. Generally speaking. It doesn't mean that girls aren't interested in winning.
    Second, my three boys range from ridiculously competitive to doesn't give a flying fig who plays or wins. Guess who I'd rather play a game with! I try to encourage my boys to give what they do their all, but they need to be learn to live with not being the best, as well. I believe that to have good character trumps winning every time.
    As far as kids' soccer goes, when my boys play, it's the girls on their teams that take no prisoners. They are ruthless and I have to confess, I don't like them. I don't think girls should be passive and always take a back seat, but I do think that everyone needs to temper themselves with a degree of kindness and respect for others. Even in the NFL you will see a player help up someone from the opposing team after a tackle. Sad that grade school girls plow other kids over and never look back.
    (Huh, didn't even realize that those games from last fall were still bugging me! Thanks for the vent!)

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  13. I'm not very competitive. I still like playing though. I play Scrabble with my family and I win a lot, but I am never particularly disappointed when I lose. I enjoy the game, each turn finding the absolute best play. I try to win. I keep track of points and notice when I am winning or losing.
    I don't mind not being competitive. For me it means I am willing to participate. Overly competitive people sometimes don't participate because they don't want to lose.

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  14. I was raised by a very aggressive, domineering woman who wanted to be the best and smartest. Fortunately she's very thick-skinned because people are for the most part very put off by her behavior. Her brother is very similar and people admire his balsy, in-your-face aggression, but as a woman she's just labelled "difficult" or "high-maintenence" or just "a bitch". It's a real double-standard.

    I didn't want to be like my mother. She bowls people over and doesn't consider their feelings and that is just not acceptable to me. But I have latent aggression that I must have learned through osmosis and I don't let people push me around. I can get up in anybody's face if necessary, although I don't like to. It's not in my nature.

    I want to be a nice woman. I like nice people better than bossy, aggressive, driven people. I have never been attracted to women or men who are like that. I like the "happy birthdays" and "I'll keep you in my prayers" of women. That being said, it really bothers me when my daughters take crap from anyone. I want them to stand up for themselves, but not be mean about it.

    It's a very fine line.

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  15. "I like the 'happy birthdays' and 'Iโ€™ll keep you in my prayers' of women. That being said, it really bothers me when my daughters take crap from anyone. I want them to stand up for themselves, but not be mean about it."
    Well-said, Jennie. I feel the same way. I was raised with "The Fascinating Girl" mentality, so I learned not to be competitive at all. But I enjoy watching my daughter on the soccer field, running for all she's worth. Very satisfying.

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  16. I watched "Whip It" a fortnight ago, which had some interesting parallels to this discussion. The focus team (the Hurl Guides) in the roller derby never comes first, but mostly because they don't WANT to be first. "We're number two!" they celebrate after losing yet again. "Yeah, way to celebrate mediocrity" their (male) couch says glumly. In the course of the movie they turn around and WANT to win, and play better as a result.

    Most women I know are happy to play nice if they don't REALLY want to win, and will still try to 'be nice' as much as possible if they are trying to win – mostly because a weird guilt eats up their happiness at winning if they think they could have played nicer in the process.

    I also think that a community of women isn't all soft and gooey – it's made up of women after all. ๐Ÿ™‚ Women I know are more than happy to pray for me and mine, celebrate my success, and laugh hugely at my failures and stupidity as the need arises. They aren't mean about it though, which is like what Jennie said – I want to have community/friends, and be community/friends, still able to be 'nice' AND discuss all sorts of things AND not take crap, without being mean.

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  17. I don't think being competitive necessarily equals being mean or that being nice is the same as being non-competitive. My triathlon coach is one of the nicest, friendliest people I know, and the most encouraging of triathletes at ALL skill levels. But on race day, she is all business and is a very competitive elite athlete. And, she's there to cheer us all on as we cross the finish line (usually because she's won the race and has gotten there long before the rest of us).

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  18. I think my preference is to teach my kids to work on competing with themselves. I feel that when I spend too much time looking around at where I am relative to everyone else, I lose energy, focus, confidence, drive, and hope. I think too often competitiveness is tied up with ego and a need for external reinforcement, which need is ultimately never satisfied.

    I guess it's because I have spent way too much of my life playing that game. I never even knew there was an option to dissolving into a puddle of tears when I missed a spelling bee word or a basketball shot (and I was a sports girl in a big way). In the end, I feel like I want my kids to be more wise than I have been in that way. While they (I, we) have to exist in this world (which is, by definition, competitive), ultimately, I think if at the end of the day a prayer can be said that "I did my best" then it has been a good day. To me, that is what the gospel message is ultimately about – not about beating the person next to us but about progressing within our own sphere.

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  19. My husband designs education, and he loves to remind me that competition only encourages those who think they can win. Of course, he applies this to course assignments and classrooms, but I think it applies here.

    The people trying to win are the people who have a reasonable shot at winning, or at least those who think they do. Girls (and boys) are competitive or not competitive at different things they think they can win at. In a way, a lot of what you describe is girls trying to "win" at social games even if they are losing at sports. Sports aren't the only competition out there! Lack of aggression in sports doesn't mean the girl isn't competitive, but by that same measure girls who are sure they rock at soccer aren't going to be the ones letting other girls out in front of them! Those girls will be out to prove they can win!

    I think it's this way on the discussion boards you were talking about. Men may be trying aggressively to "win" an argument whereas the women may be trying to "win" the even more difficult game of disagreeing with someone and remaining friends at the same time. They don't have different levels of competition, they just have different things they value and want to succeed at.

    There are some out there on both forums who simply lurk because these are games they don't want to play, or games they don't think they'll "win" at. There will also be some who will post without knowing the "rules" a particular group has, and that lack of knowledge will cause them to lose–even if they don't realize it.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is it all boils down to your priorities. What is most important to you might have something to do with what you perceive your strengths and weaknesses to be. Solidarity with other swimmers isn't a bad goal, but being the best swimmer isn't a bad goal either. You may have chosen swimming for different reasons that the girls who thought they could be the best. But when you ran the marathon you stopped trying because you felt you'd lost your shot at winning.

    As for advising girls–and boys for that matter–just tell them to go for what they think is important, and be there to comfort them when they can't always be the best.

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  20. But when you ran the marathon you stopped trying because you felt youโ€™d lost your shot at winning.

    So I'm curious, Shelah, was it because you lost your shot, because you wanted to be nice, or because maybe what mattered to you was something different? It seems to me there could be a variety of motivations to not push your hardest for 26 miles — not the least of which is that it's probably not wise physically. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I guess I just wonder if sometimes there is more to our motivations than just a binary of 'win' or 'be nice and lose so someone else can win.'

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  21. I am seriously competitive. As are my children. My husband is not in any way, he is calm and peaceful, he plays for fun. Make no mistake the rest of us play to win. There is nothing wrong with a killer instinct as long as you can lose graciously.

    I have to admit that certain games are banned in our house. In less than a year of marriage I had banned Risk as my husband got so upset over being slaughtered regularly. I do know my limits and generally won't play games in public even with close friends. This year I gave in and allowed my 11 year old to receive Monopoly for Christmas, you cannot imagine the agonies faced over that desicion. As I said earlier there is nothing wrong with a killer instinct as long as you can lose graciously, we are all still working on that one.

    Apart from anything competetive I believe I am generally well behaved and liked by others.

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  22. When I play games I'm out for blood. I had to stop playing Parcheesi because I always lose at it and it puts me in a really bad mood.

    I am trying to be more mellow about it, but it's in my DNA as my mom and uncles are the same way.

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  23. m&m– I think there were a bunch of reasons. I knew I wasn't going to get a personal record, and I've come within a few minutes of my personal best several times, and that doesn't feel like a victory. And those times, I've ended the race hurting, and unable to run for a while. But I still felt physically good enough after 19 miles that I knew that if I backed off, I could still finish the race, but not nearly as fast, and be up and running (literally) within a few days. So it was both about saving myself for another race day, and about not pushing myself when I knew I wasn't going to win.

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  24. "I want to have community/friends, and be community/friends, still able to be โ€˜niceโ€™ AND discuss all sorts of things AND not take crap, without being mean."

    This post focuses some thoughts from last week's elementary school spelling bee. My daughter was a finalist. Every time someone else got a word right, she would glare and gnash her teeth. She would beam every time someone messed up. I was so embarrassed. Then she came in second, and I thought, "Wow. We should have studied just a little harder." I felt bad for the recipients of her poor sportsmanship, but I don't think it occurred to me to wish she hadn't done so well.

    So…perhaps that's back to the "graciousness" discussion.

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  25. I find your post and questions ironic, given the posting rules. Last year I was castigated for telling a poster that her horrible attitude toward her husband made her sound like a jerk.

    I was essentially told, โ€œBe nice or leave!โ€

    With all due respect, Erin, a blog is different than a marathon or a swim meet. It's not a competitive environment—a place where, hopefully, a community is being formed and nurtured. Being polite, even when you disagree, is expected and appreciated. Context is everything.

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  26. On the subject of message boards and men vs. women: I have noticed that the discussions my husband engages in online are typically intense, but he is rarely upset by them. When somebody challenges what he says, he is perfectly able to separate the attack on him personally from the attack on the argument. I talked to a fellow blogger of his once, and he expressed a similar sentiment. And yet I feel that when women disagree, it often feels like a personal attack. Is it because we discuss things in a more personal way, so that when people disagree, it feels more like a personal attack? Because women fight differently than men? I don't know, but I do know that my husband handles disagreement much differently than I do.

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