Books Are Pretty

Friday, October 27, 2006

Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports.

The lineup from my high school girls’ tennis team was this: I played the first position, Christy Faustmann played second, and Stacy Phillips played third. That Christy and I took the top two slots wasn’t surprising, since our parents spent thousands of dollars on three-times-weekly private lessons and thousands of hours driving and flying us all across the country to play in regional and national junior tournaments. We were girls gunning for college athletic scholarships, and when we entered high school we fully expected to take the top slots on the team for the next four years.

Except we almost didn’t. Stacy Phillips’ mother didn’t spend any money on lessons for Stacy. Stacy had never played in a USTA-sanctioned tournament, and it didn’t look like she intended to, either. Stacy was self-taught, had weird form on her groundstrokes and an even weirder serve. She wasn’t thin and wiry like most of the tennis girls in the mid-80’s were, and had laidback footwork that gave her the appearance of being slow. In the 9th grade challenge matches, I watched her take out Missy Thompson, Shannon Wyont, and Christy’s sister Laura, all girls who had been playing for years in junior tournaments and had their fair share of private lessons. I assumed all three were off their game that week. When it was my turn to play Stacy, I still felt sure I was going to win easily. I didn’t. Everywhere I hit the ball, Stacy was magically there, as fluid and relaxed as if she’d strolled over to the sidelines for a sip of water or a snack during the rallies and ambled back to the precise spot where I’d hit the ball. She’d chop back everything I hit over the net, putting an odd and difficult-to-return spin on the ball before sliding back to the centerline. I won 6-3, 6-3, but it was a surprising struggle. The fact is, even with my fancy lessons and competitive experience, I simply was not, and would never be, the athlete that Stacy was. She was gifted. She had a mind for the strategy of the game that can’t really be learned, and an ability to overcome the odd form she had taught herself and win. She performed the same way in basketball, where she led the team to the State Championships year after year. She was our secret weapon. We loved introducing her to girls on other teams who competed in tournament play, watch their eyes flick disinterestedly over her as her name, unrecognizable from the junior circuit, was announced. Then we’d watch Stacy stroll onto the court and administer a beating to the overconfident girls in the same way we had once been overconfident ourselves. Stacy was a natural athlete, the most superior athlete on the team by far. We all knew it, and we all accepted it. I certainly knew she was a far better athlete than I would ever be, and I would have drowned myself in the Gatorade if she’d ever beaten me, because my ego and competitive drive would never have allowed it.

I gave my entire adolescence to playing tennis. I played almost every weekday after school, and spent every weekend in tournaments. I probably missed enough Friday afternoons to hold me back a year, having to leave to make the afternoon first round matches in Columbia. I remember my mother once expressing relief that I had gotten good enough to be a seeded player in most of the tournaments and would receive an automatic entry into the second round, skipping the Friday afternoon matches and starting instead on Saturday morning.

I played girls who cheated, who screamed with anger and frustration when they were playing poorly, who would make friendships based on the hierarchy of the seeded players over unseeded. I played girls who would try to hit you in the face with the ball as hard as they could, girls who were so competitive with each other that they hated each other, and pounded each ball at each other as if they were using their fists in a bar brawl. The girls I played, played to win.

So I thought I was going to understand Brooke de Lench’s Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports. I have a sports upbringing. I understand junior athletics. I’ve seen the best and the worst out of parents, coaches, and kids. I empathize with how young competitive athletes feel, and I know that, boy or girl, I can relate to their struggles and glory in their achievements.

But it seems like de Lench and I were on different planets regarding female athletes, despite her having been a young female athlete herself. In between the good advice on how to comfort a child after a loss, what to pack for a road trip, and how to spot an abusive coach, she would devote entire chapters to the “hardwired” differences between boys and girls, and those hardwired girl traits were not recognizable to any experience I’ve ever had either as a parent or an athlete.

De Lench believes that girls are being turned off sports, not only because they are perceived as being unfeminine (which is true) but also because girls are “naturally inclined to play in a process-oriented, collective, inclusive, and supportive way emphasizing relationships and responsibilities.” Girls don’t want to win because they’re afraid of “hurting the other girl’s feelings, because losing makes people feel bad.”

She touts the U.S. women’s soccer team as being the best of all possible role models for young girls, and again I agree, but didn’t de Lench watch the documentary about the team where the players reminisced about how much they hated the Norwegian team and how badly they wanted to beat them? Doesn’t she remember Brandy Chastain’s infamous shirt removal at the end of the U.S/China China game at the Rosebowl? Does she think Chastain ripped off her shirt out of grievance for hurting China’s feelings?

She brings up star Mia Hamm’s insistence that she would not have her success without her teammates, but is that really, as de Lench suggests, a self-effacing graciousness exclusive to women? I seem to recall watching more than a few men’s sporting events where the stars of men’s games giving credit to their teammates (after giving credit to God and their mothers). Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan also come to mind as being unfailingly supportive and gracious in their remarks about their opponents.

De Lench is so sold on this whole “hardwiring” concept that she routinely overlooks the obvious. In the first of many, many paragraphs in the book that I flagged, de Lench writes, “Girls are hardwired to desire connection, cooperation, and collaboration and to resist overt competition. Unlike boys, who are more willing to sit on the bench because it allows them to connect socially with other boys, girls who go out for a sport expect to play. Many girls quit sports as they enter their teen years because they know the only way to keep playing is to play sports like boys in a hypercompetitive, winner-take-all environment where only the most skilled girls play.”

Yes, I know I get on my feminist high horse from time to time, and in the interest of fairness to de Lench, I read this paragraph to my coworkers in my mostly-female, not especially feminist office space to solicit their opinion. Once the uproarious laughter died down, they agreed that girls are, at least, their daughters and every girl they’ve ever known, were more competitive than boys, and took winning and losing more seriously than any of their sons ever did.

And as one of my coworkers pointed out, the reason girls quit playing sports isn’t because all that yucky winning interferes with all that caring and nurturing they’ve got to do, it’s because athlete women are perceived as less feminine than their non-athletic sisters. Non-feminine, for the straight girls, typically boils down to fewer dates on Friday night. If sitting on the bench of a girls’ tennis team increased a girls’ chances of constantly having her dance card full, like it does for boys, YOU’D SEE GIRLS HAPPILY SITTING ON THE BENCH.

Jesus, Brooke. Duh.

Reading this book was starting to make me feel like a struggle for the soul of de Lench was going on. On one hand, she seems to be an ally of girls competitive sports, and a supporter of Title IX, and she stresses the importance of coaches not raising boys to belittle women’s accomplishments by using comparisons to women as insults thrown at male athletes (“You throw like a girl!” “Where’s your training bra?” etc). Then she turns around and says these completely off-base, crazy things, like:

“…because girls have a harder time than boys competing against one another…they need to be able to support and get along with their teammates in order for the team to function. Girls need to feel that the other girls on the team don’t view themselves as better athletes.”

Remember Stacy Phillips up there in the introduction?

Or this:

“While sports are important for girls and have enormous benefits for them, boys, given the way they are hardwired (me, here: there’s that word again!), need sports and competition:”

And then she gives a laundry list of reasons, “Sports keeps boys active and physically fit. Sports help boys develop self control. Sports help boys develop self-confidence. Sports provide a place in which boys can form friendships with other boys.” All of these reasons are true, of course, but they also all apply to girls as well.

Sometimes, she passionately writes about girls preferring their non-competitive games such as jacks and hopscotch, games which I’d like to point out, end in winners and losers, over playing organized games on the field at recess like the boys do, then on the very next page she admonishes coaches to avoid culturally-based gender stereotypes.

I tell you, it’s enough to make this Girl Reviewer angry, except that de Lench feels that “women who are angry sound tense and whiny.”

Well. That’s not very nice. And, I would submit, rather subjective.

So what is going on with de Lench’s contradictory views, where her blind allegiance to “hardwiring” is getting in the way over overwhelming evidence and logic to the contrary? The answer is finally revealed on page 217, when de Lench writes,

“Dr. James Dobson says it best in his book…”

And that’s where I quit reading.

For crying out loud, James Dobson?

Dr. James Dobson, for those of you who do not know, is a far right wing Christian fundamentalist who wrote a book called The Strong-Willed Child where he built his premise of child-rearing around a heart-warming episode where he beats his little dog with a belt to teach it obedience. The dog’s crime? Napping in the bathroom. James Dobson, whose “men and women are completely, totally, utterly different” is little more than a means to his need for domination, manipulation, and control. A man who nobody should ever, ever look to for advice in either child-rearing or for enlightened views on women. The mixed messages in this book make for a perfect example of the knots right wing women often tie themselves into when the reality they see collide with fundamentalist delusion, and despite the practical advice listed in the book for navigating the waters of children’s sports, ultimately the baggage she’s carrying with regard to women, and women in sports, is so wrong-headed and distracting that I can not recommend this book to parents of boys or girls.

Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports
By Brooke de Lench
September, 2006 by Harper Collins
Softcover, 297 pp.
ISBN: 0-06-088163-4

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