How “Play Like a Girl” Went From Epithet to Compliment

I’ve never been to a professional hockey game nor wanted to. I stay far away from sports bars.

But I do resonate with hockey legend Wayne Gretzky whose pithy leadership advice is, “Don’t skate to where the hockey puck is. Skate to where the hockey puck is going.”

I love the direction the hockey puck is going for women in sports.

That’s why why I’m excited about Take The Lead’s upcoming “Play Hockey Like a Girl” panel in Phoenix, AZ on November 11. More later on that.

My own sports story begins in elementary school. I was often humiliated by being the last person chosen for the softball team.  Probably today to make all children feel equally worthy, they draw lots or number off. But when I was a girl, I was the epitome of the dreaded epithet, “Play (whatever) Like a Girl.”

Except for the spelling bee. Everybody wanted me on their team for that. How “like a girl.” Another story for another day.

The more I failed to perform well at sports, the less I played, and the klutzier I therefore became.

I lived with three loving but busy adults for the formative first six years of my life and was rewarded for being quiet. Oh, they enrolled me in ballet and tap, in stereotypical girl child fashion. I was cute in my pink ballet tutu. But I was also the slightly chunky one on the end who was never quite on point. In tap, I was a total disaster, the top-hatted, foot-clicking version of Wrong Way Corrigan.

It was expected that my boy cousins and playmates on the block would be active and boisterous. I envied them. Tried to run after them, and have the scars to prove it.

My Turnaround

It wasn’t until years later, after I had children and was starting to thicken around the waist, that I was motivated to engage in any significant physical activity.

It started slowly with 10 or 15 minutes of exercises I learned from a women’s magazine. Periodically I would run laps around the nearby football practice field. (We lived a block from the real Friday Night Lights.)

Thank You, Jane Fonda

But I lacked the tenacity or lung power to stick with running. About when I hit 40, though, Jane Fonda released her exercise videos. I did one almost every morning until I got hooked on exercise endorphins and couldn’t start the day without feeling the burn.

Thank you Jane, for changing the lives of many women by showing us how to exercise like a girl and love it.

Here a shout out to Bernice Sandler is overdue–the “godmother” of Title IX, the 1972 legislation that had brought equity to girls in various aspects of education, but is best known for requiring schools to provide boys and girls equal access sports.

The value of participation in sports for girls and women is profound: learning leadership skills, physical discipline, teamwork, and how to compete in a positive way understanding that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and you come back to play again another day.

I wanted to continue to improve rather than go downhill physically at middle age. So I hired a trainer and began to build upper body strength for the first time. Wow. What a difference it made. I began to feel a mastery over my body and my physical prowess that I’m guessing male children learn by the time they are five years old.

The definition of “play like a girl” was clearly changing. When my husband and I were visiting friends around the 30th anniversary of Title IX, their nine-year-old daughter Sarah came racing home breathless and sweaty from her soccer practice. My husband said to her in his old-fashioned “like a boy” way, “You must be a tomboy.”

Sarah looked at him like he had two heads and replied, “What’s a tomboy?”

That was when I knew a true shift had taken place. And the trajectory has continued. Parity in funding and public attention to women’s sports has not been reached–far from it. But the days when Billie Jean King had to play a man to get attention are long gone. Over a third of high school and college women participate in sports. Women’s college basketball teams often play to sellout stadiums, and women are making a living in every sport from rock climbing to car racing , as well as in other professions that support sports, such as media announcers, team administrators, sports medicine, and much more.

Women in sports is a big deal now. As the much touted Always advertisement illustrates, “Play like a girl” is no longer an epithet but quickly becoming the best compliment we can give.

If you’re in Arizona, come join Take The Lead and a panel of distinguished women in sports, sponsored by the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.

Ticket purchase details are here.

Sponsorship opportunities are here.

 

 


Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.