Earlier this fall, the Land Park Bombshells went toe to tiny toe against the Natomas Unicorns in a tense, under-8 girls’ soccer battle. Each team had its stars and lazy daisies swarming the ball and occasionally kicking it the wrong direction. The beautiful game it was not.
It ended in a tie – a typical free-for-all in the local recreational league that’s both rite and ritual for many families. But as the Bombshells’ assistant coach, this one sticks in my mind for the other team’s coaching. Their assistant coach – a dad with a dark beard and a loud voice – shouted, “Be aggressive!” the entire game.
For the two years I’ve coached, I’ve been trying to find a socially acceptable way to scream just that. But there’s a stigma against girls being overly competitive at this young age, and volunteer coaches are encouraged to make fun the focus to ensure everyone feels good. We constantly let players know the outcome is irrelevant. So I’ve been yelling, “good try” when what I mean is “put some hustle in it!”
It’s not because I think winning is everything. It’s because I want to teach our girls that it’s OK to want to win. Within the bounds of sportswomanship, this field is the place to find out what you’re made of. It’s usually more than parents expect, sometimes more than they’re comfortable with.
Shielding kids from the ultimate point of playing sports – to win – robs them of the lessons that make them competitors in whatever arena they choose as adults. They need the ability to lose with grace and win with integrity, and have the confidence to be humble in success and resilient in defeat.
Girls especially need these lessons because it’s only in the past few decades that we’ve had access to them on playing fields. I want the Bombshells to know how to be ambitious fighters, but it took a man doing what’s socially ingrained in him – unabashedly pursuing victory – to help me articulate that. I worried about ruffling parental feathers. He didn’t seem concerned.
“We emphasize for girls how important it is to be nice and likable,” says state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, who’s made advocating for women a cornerstone of her career. “When you are out on the field and you are trying to win, nice and likable isn’t really what you are shooting for. You are shooting for victory and success, and I think we girls need to be more comfortable with those goals.”
I asked Jackson what she thought because she’s a woman who likes to prevail, and often does. Recently, she authored an equal-pay law that will help close the gender wage gap that causes a college-educated woman to earn $723,000 less during her lifetime than male counterparts, according to the Center for American Progress.
But despite legislation like that, women need the assuredness to handle their conflicts, personally and professionally. Laws can’t do it all. Coaches can’t either, but we can teach that you can do it for yourself.
Susan Ramones, the Unicorns’ head coach, says she works hard to make her girls feel positive and develop a love of soccer, but she also says she and her assistants, including the dad with the booming baritone, are giving them “a little piece of armor that you have when you go out there and you’re 15 and you’re not sure what the world thinks of you.”
At the start of the season, the Unicorn players charged the ball, then backed off if another girl went for it. Not anymore. “When we say, ‘Be aggressive,’ we mean don’t run up to the ball and stop and look at it,” she says. “It’s OK to go ahead and take the ball and run with it.”
Anita Chabria is a freelance writer in Sacramento. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.