“Gender does not define you as an athlete: your grit, determination, hard work, and passion for the game do.” This great quote from a collegiate lacrosse player, Annie Spewak, in a recent essay on perceptions and gender bias in American sports really hit home for me. I shared that quote with my 12-year-old daughter as she faced the biggest challenge of her young sports career. After six years of playing boys’ ice hockey, she was trying out for her first full-time girls’ team.
A year ago she would never have agreed to try out for this team. She thought playing with the boys would make her better and that boys’ hockey was more serious. She argued that male athletes were more serious. She did not learn this from me. She has assessed her opportunities and absorbed the perceptions and assumptions of the world around us.
Look at media; she is inundated with images of Alex Ovechkin to idealize, not so much Hillary Knight. Look at the money and professional opportunities, which lean heavily towards male athletes. And when there are comparable opportunities for athletes from both genders, the pay differential is often massive, as seen in the current controversy embroiling the national soccer teams.
These discrepancies trickle down to the local level. From my daughter’s hockey world to my own experiences in lacrosse, I know that the numbers of youth programs, the quality of coaches, the financial resources and the number of players hitting the fields and rinks is heavily tilted toward boys. We skew opportunities before these players are even eight years old, so in fact my daughter was partially accurate.
In our area, there simply are not as many options for girls to play hockey and to be challenged as young athletes as there are for boys. My daughter has had coaches that have told her, to her face, that she plays well “for a girl.” Her sense of identity as an athlete has been challenged by the biased beliefs of others. Like the collegiate author of the essay, she will have to always prove herself, again and again.
Thankfully, three days of tryouts with some of the most motivated and passionate hockey players I have ever seen opened my daughter’s eyes. She learned that she is not alone and that her athleticism and intensity do not have a cap because of her gender. She is one of the lucky ones who found a program that sees her as an athlete first. It’s a youth sports programs that doesn’t have a girls’ program simply as an add-on to the boys.
I take the author’s essay and my own daughter’s experience to heart in my role in the women’s game at US Lacrosse. How do we work for parity for girls and boys, men and women as athletes? How can youth lacrosse empower athletes regardless of gender? I know that my job is to help ensure that resources, value and attention are given to the women’s game in lacrosse.
But at the end of the day, I also believe that we need to impact change as individuals. Every coach or club that puts a girls’ or women’s team as a first priority, every parent that encourages her daughter to define herself as an athlete, every collegiate student that challenges misperceptions should be applauded.
As parents, coaches and administrators we have to "lean in.” If we value the life lessons of sports, then we have to value it regardless of gender. We have to embrace affirmative action for young female athletes; their road is in fact harder. They have to fight for more opportunities and battle against misperceptions.
Being an athlete provides so many incredible opportunities for growth and development. Youth sports are a microcosm of our world, with life lessons that are both good and bad. We owe it to female athletes to give them the opportunity to define their passion and to rid youth sports of a misguided hierarchy based on gender.