Movement Building- What Can We Learn from Sports?

Few can deny the success of the women’s sports movement. Since the passage of Title IX in1972, the growth of girls’ and women’s participation in sports has been simply phenomenal. Within this movement are valuable lessons for those of us still working on issues such as reproductive justice, pay equity, legislative leadership, etc. For my wise colleagues working in these areas and others, I encourage you to consider the following metaphors and practices for success.

1. Utilize the entire playbook. Every movement needs a balance of planning and action, passion and reflection, creativity and hard work. Early in the game, women’s sports leaders created the Coalition for Girls and Women in Education with representatives from five or six national organizations to be the think tank and pulse reading organ responsible for developing and implementing strategies and responses. These organizations represented different skill sets. The National Women’s Law Center delivered “legal eagles”; the American Association for University Women delivered academic research; the Women’s Sports Foundation delivered celebrity athletes and Hollywood spokespersons, etc. There is no rule that states you utilize these skills in a linear fashion. Rather, to be game ready and successful, we have to practice and access all of these skills simultaneously with intense persistence and the division of labor makes this easier to do. If we are ready at every position, we are poised to seize every opportunity and able to adjust in the heat of the game to whatever ‘play’ or strategy is needed for victory.

2. Treat funders like teammates. A team is more than players in the field. A successful team is the sum total of the starting line “up, substitutes on the bench, coaches, owners and investors, all working together. The women’s sports movement kept investors informed every step of the way – celebrating victories and asking for more help to confront defeats and win the next round. When you are truly partnered for victory and you collectively have a goal of winning, people are working side by side and sharing their information, power and strengths selflessly. A great team communicates effortlessly and the leadership (coaches, managers, investors, owners) pat each other on the back to acknowledge great plays, creating places for each other to ‘shine’; honoring the individuality that each member brings to the team’s success and engaging with them to bring out their best selves. Being able to do this with all of the partners in the movement will build success faster. Rather than a ‘race’ to be the fastest and most successful organization, it is better to get optimal performance from multiple groups that result in the delivery of a team victory that is more fulfilling and happens sooner because of coordinated group effort.

3. Set goals and celebrate victories. Motivating people by instilling pride in the work and celebrating the small wins along the path is critical for momentum building and staying power. It is statistically impossible to win every game or make every basket. The women’s sports movement can best be described as persistent and consistent effort over time. The season is long (41 years long in the case of Title IX and women’s sports) and keeping everyone focused on the team goals as well as the individual goals will insure a place in the post season. Success is most often the product of individual best efforts coupled with critical team wins over the long term. Keeping every player motivated to consistently put forth their best efforts over the long term is the heart of successful teams.                                                                                                           

4. Headlines are important. Media coverage and spokespeople are key parts of building the brand and energy behind and inside a team. But equally important is the use of compelling, research supported facts. Women’s sports leaders were magnificent in their collection and dissemination of the facts that girls who played sports had better grades, were more likely to graduate from high school and matriculate in college, were at lower risk for breast cancer and other diseases affecting women, were more confident and resilient, etc. The message is that the headlines must be more than ‘the good work’ of organizations; they must be about the impact of such work and what happens to those who benefit from the team’s efforts rather than just the social justice problem being addressed. It’s fine to take advantage of a crisis or story of someone adversely affected, but it must be accompanied by the hope and help offered by the nonprofit organization – how victims or lives of the previously disadvantaged have been changed for the better. The team should not be sidetracked or lose focus on its goals amidst the media hype and attention. Good work must continue in the shadows as well as the spotlight.

5. Trust your teammates. No one player can ever carry a team. Everyone has something to contribute. The more talented players you can involve, the greater the possibility that these players will make a positive impact. Take the time to find out what likely and unlikely teammates can bring to the movement. Play to their strengths and share with transparency the goals of the movement and the playbook of strategies.

Why It's Okay to Be Called a Tomboy

A colleague of mine, Liz Wolfson, started a school for girls in Colorado that has movement as a core component of the mission. The Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS) curriculum is based on research showing that the more your body’s engaged, the better your mind can function.

Imagine what our lives would be like if we integrated movement, wellness, healthy foods, and athletics into every aspect of our day? In a culture where gender norms have 10-year-old girls in dresses and 10-year-old boys in football pads, we need more places where girls are encouraged to be confident and physically expressive.

By the time a girl is 17, she’s seen more than 250,000 TV commercials promoting unrealistic body types. This translates to 53% of 13 year old girls who hate their bodies; jumping to 78% by age 17. Marketing, advertising, and gender norms continuously tell us we are flawed, and the cosmetic industry banks on the idea that girls and women have low self-esteem. As parents, friends, and family members, we have an obligation to make sure we’re having conversations and offering solutions to counter these media and advertising messages; especially for girls.

Soccer Mom, and Olympic gold medalist Julie Foudy spoke about her daughter Izzy’s first encounter with the tomboy archetype. “When Izzy asked what a tomboy was and if it was a good thing, I said it was a great thing! It meant she was strong, active, happy, confident, and liked sports. And that mommy was a tomboy too. ‘Oh good,’ she replied. ‘I just thought it meant I liked guns and swords like Declan (her brother), and I don’t like those.’ Now, I often hear her tell other friends with pride that she’s a tomboy.”

Athletes and tomboys like young Izzy stand a better chance against Madison Avenue–and in life in general. The benefits to girls and women who play sports are many; better health, higher confidence, stronger self-image, and better grades. On average, female athletes are more likely to have a positive body image and are less likely to consider themselves overweight than females who don’t take part in sports (Hausenblas and Downs, 2001; Miller et al., 2001). And, new research has scientifically proven that increased blood volume in the brain, a product of exercise, creates an optimal environment to grow neural connections and produce an assortment of beneficial molecules (Brown and Fenske, The Winning Brain, 2010).

Foudy and her husband Ian are parents who talk to their daughter about appearance and makeup (which came up when Foudy was transformed to look good for the ‘lights of television’ as a broadcaster for the World Cup). Julie tells Izzy that ”if someone is so worried about how they look on the outside, they’re not taking good enough care of the inside. We want the inside to be beautiful and the outside will then shine.”

By playing sports, we learn that we can do almost anything as long as we’re willing to practice and be committed to learning new things. An athlete who has a tough day at practice or a lousy game knows that she’s still a good person and there’s always another day.

“Sport, especially team sports, teaches us how to work with one another and go through the triumphs and tribulations together. Being on a team, you learn to embrace differences. You’re exposed to others who have different backgrounds, and you have to figure out how to relate and work together for a common goal,” says Hilary Knight, Olympic silver medalist in ice hockey. Sport teaches us that it’s okay to make mistakes; the secret to getting better at whatever you want to do is never making the same mistake twice.

Getting more girls to embrace being a tomboy, play sports, and challenge gender assumptions and media hype to be a ‘girly girl’ (as Izzy calls it) takes guts. As Anita DeFrantz, the highest ranking woman on the International Olympic Committee, says “Give a young girl a ball and a doll,” as a way to encourage people to expose girls to sports early. I like to say, give a young boy a ball and a doll too! Then we can encourage the nurturing and caregiving qualities of boys and the strength and confidence of girls from an early age.