I I I I I I I  

Play like a girl

In the past twenty years, team sports like soccer, volleyball and softball have become de rigeur for girls.  Girls even play football now, which I theoretically support, even though I believe that football is unsafe at any speed or for any sex.  Soccer is so ubiquitous for boys and girls that it spawned the moniker "soccer mom" for the mothers who spend their lives ferrying children to practices and games.  I don't like to box myself into a demographic category, but this is one I can't escape: at seven, Franny's been playing on the same soccer team for three years and I've spent many hours cheering for her team and juggling our schedules to accommodate practices and games.

When I was a kid, my sports options were limited to the kind of thing that beauty pageant contestants trot out for the talent portion of the competition: ballet, gymnastics, ice skating.  It's true that all of these require some level of athleticism, but they're usually performed in sparkly pastel costumes (and I think it's telling that the verb that springs to mind for these activities is "perform," not "play" -- football may be a spectacle, but we don't talk about a high school football game as performances).  And notably, even when these activities are done in a group, they're really solo endeavors.  I don't recall having the opportunity to play any kind of team sport.

Some girls must have been playing team sports; Mia Hamm is only two years younger than I am, and somebody taught her to play soccer.  But as far as me and my friends were concerned, team sports were for boys.  Teamwork wasn't something that was valued for girls (who apparently were expected to scratch one another's eyes out for the best husbands and then set themselves up as queen bee wives and mommies).

I was a tomboy as a preschooler -- I had no problems getting muddy and I climbed trees and waded in creeks without a thought.  But somewhere along the way, I stopped thinking of myself as a physical person and started having all my adventures in my head.  I read voraciously, nonstop, and I identified strongly with the main characters of the books I read, who tended more towards intellectual rather than physical skills.  By the time I was ten, I was spending my recesses in the library, reading, and actively avoiding physical activity.

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In junior high and high school we were required to take PE, but it was expected that we would balk at exerting ourselves very much.  In junior high we weren't even allowed to change clothes for PE and in high school, we changed into sweat pants and t-shirts, but weren't allowed to shower before returning to our regular clothes and schedules.  Painfully defensive of our hair-dos and body odors, very few of the girls in my PE class were willing to break a sweat.

When the coach instructed us to run a mile, I lollygagged around the track.  I loitered in the outfield gossiping with my friends during softball games, and no matter what game we were playing, my primary concern was to avoid being hit by any of the various size balls we were attempting to throw, dunk, or spike.  I honed my shirking skills to a fine science: claiming to have menstrual cramps guaranteed a couple of days' respite, and "forgetting" my gym clothes was a good last-minute excuse.

My required year of PE out of the way, I never looked back.  I was klutzy and self-conscious and, although I managed to fake my way through the required dance and stage-combat classes for my theatre degree, I never felt like a particularly athletic person.  It never occurred to me that my children might be athletic; when I imagined their future activities, I envisioned them attending art classes or piano lessons.  Maybe swimming or dance.  But I certainly didn't imagine myself as a soccer mom.

True to my expectations, Drew expressed very little interest in sports; the sum total of his athletic experience is one season of soccer (not coincidentally, the first season that Franny played; I doubt he would have been interested if she hadn't been so gung-ho about it).  During his brief foray into team sports, Drew kept up the fine family tradition of lollygagging, loitering and ball-avoiding.

Franny was another story.  She's done some of the stereotypically girly activities like dance and gymnastics, but soccer is the only one that stuck.  Her first season, the kids mostly just ran up and down the field in a pack and it was a victory if anyone on either team managed to connect a foot with the ball.  The coaches sometimes hung stuffed animal mascots over the goals to remind each team of which goal was theirs and the kids still managed to get the ball into their opponents' goals at least as often as they did into their own.  But what a difference three years makes!  Now the girls pass the ball back and forth with casual grace and defend their goal with intense looks of concentration.  The thing that really strikes me, when I watch them play, is how well they play together.

As admirable as the teamwork is, my adventures as a soccer mom have brought out a competitive streak that had previously restricted itself to board games and grades.  The last season Franny played on a mix gender team, one of the boys started crying in practice because she was scoring more goals than he was.  I was probably more amused by this than I should have been.  That same season, the coach's wife and I were talking about how well our daughters were playing, and the coach's wife said, "Can you imagine how great they'll be when it's just girls on the teams?  They're going to kick ass!"  I felt nothing but delight at the prospect.

I attended high schools that didn't have sports teams and managed to get through seven years of college and graduate school without ever attending a college sporting event.  But now I count goals with the rest of the parents, I cheer when one of "our" girls scores and I groan when the ball bounces off the goal.  I get gleeful and giddy when Franny scores and does her booty-shaking victory dance.  This is weirdly important to me, in a way that sports have never been.  And maybe some of Franny's athletic prowess is rubbing off on me; I've been walking regularly for the past eight months and I've even toyed with the idea of participating in the Danskin Triathlon.  Studies suggest that playing sports builds girls' self-esteem, confidence and positive body images, all qualities that I'd like to have more of.  Better late than never, right?
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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