“Athletics may initially attract boys because they like the competition, but to be really worthwhile, sports must teach males the benefits of attachment and empathy for others.”
—Kathleen DeBoer in Gender and Competition
While considering the general differences in girls’ and boys’ approaches to competitive sports, I have been fascinated to see the consistencies between what I have read and what I have observed. Most importantly, we mustn’t assume that these tendencies exist only in the respective genders. There is an expanse of “gray” where the characteristics are seen to varying degrees in both genders.
DeBoer’s insights include distinct traits that seem to be more prevalent in one gender over the other. In the previous post, we noted the tendency for girls to be more connected in a weblike social structure; boys in a hierarchal social structure. Other differences she highlights include:
1. Girls perform better when attachment needs are met. Boys become more attached through performance.
2. Girls form relationships through verbal interaction and expression. Boys form relationships through common activities.
3. Girls who perform at high level can become isolated if attachments are ignored. Boys who perform at a high level can inspire others to improve.
4. Girls prefer to be at the center of the social order. Boys prefer to be atop the social order.
5. Girls integrate emotion in thought processes. Boys separate emotion from thought processes.
6. Girls need a coach who lets players know he/she cares about them. Boys need a coach whom they can respect.
7. Girls play sports for enjoyment. Boys play sports to set themselves apart.
8. Girls prioritize fairness. Boys prioritize victory.
The list goes on, but you get the point. These descriptions are not gender-specific but gender related, with varying degrees of overlap among the individuals. In her book, DeBoer uses several examples highlighting differences, some of which I have witnessed personally. Each one lends further credibility to these assertions.
One involves a scenario where girls desire fairness and boys desire to win. When I visit my grandchildren, they are often engaged in a simple game or contest in the basement where there are toys of every kind. In some instances, the 7 year-old boy and the 4 year-old girl include the 1 1/2 year-old baby brother. When this occurs, one can observe that the older boy does not see/disregards any disadvantage to the younger siblings, and proceeds to strive to win the contest. The 4 year- old sister, however, in the same contest, may attempt to level the playing field by making accommodations for the baby brother, relaxing the rules to make it more fair for him. Have you not seen this with young children?
Another scenario describes recreation habits of children. How often do you see girls playing together, just two at a time? When I was a little girl, we played Barbie with various playmates, but with only one friend at a time. However, the boys often played in packs, or on teams competing in games. I played in both types of activities, and found each to be great fun. When playing dolls with a friend, we were finding out about one another, bonding as we expressed ourselves. With the boys, we were finding out who was faster and stronger, hence setting the more skilled athletes apart.
One final example illustrates how kids build relationship in play. A scene I saw repeated almost daily when I was a Physical Education teacher in an elementary school occurred at the beginning of each class. When the kids got to the gym or the playground, you would see the girls gathering in little groups, perhaps with a ball or a jump rope, chatting as they engaged in the activity. The boys on the other hand would hit the door, grab a ball or a frisbee and start some team competition, with others joining in as they arrived. Both groups were having great fun as they connected. The social attachments were forming through conversation among the girls, but through aggressive competition among the boys.
Rich relationships motivate girls to achieve as a group. But it is during the struggle to achieve when relationships often develop among boys. An understanding of the difference can vastly impact the potential for success in sports endeavors.