What Women's World Cup Soccer Taught My Daughter About Leadership

female athletes are strong leadership role models for young girls

She leaned a little more forward in order to hear.  Her brother sat next to her doing his usual Millennial multi-tasking: playing a video game on his phone, a pile of chips in his lap, one eye on the TV.

“Gooooaaaaal!!!!!” she cried out, a small voice in my neighbors’ loud and busy house full of adults in the annual ritual of BBQ.  I looked over at her and realized that this was the first sporting event she had ever asked me to put on.  Uncomfortably, I had asked the host if we could turn on the TV.  But what was I afraid of?  It was a young girl asking to watch sports (US Women’s National Soccer Team vs. Columbia).  Of course, the host happily agreed.  

She was glued to the screen.  Rapt with attention on a silly qualifying match. Usually, I have to drag her to the TV room to cheer for our favorite teams.

This time, she was the only one watching.

A lot has been said, post the US Women’s Soccer Team's eventual trouncing of Japan, about the disparity between women’s sports and men’s.  I’m sure you’ve heard it. No media coverage. Few sponsors. No network deal.  Playing on turf rather than grass. The women shared $2 million as winners, Germany’s winning men’s team got to share $35 million.  Let’s not even talk about the US men who got to share $8 million…and they lost!  

But my daughter doesn’t care about any of that right now.  That will come later. Right now, her 11-year-old, impressionable self is growing in ways that the world should take notice.  

This is the rare television that is transformative. 

Surely I’m exaggerating.  Surely I’m projecting my US female pride into this conversation.  Surely I’m just overblowing the whole ‘girl power’ thing. 

Actually, in this instance…wrong.

For the first time in her short life, because my daughter has so few female, athletic role models…like zero…, this World Cup achievement allows my daughter to envision herself not only as a female athlete but as a female leader. 

This couldn’t have come at a better time.

Recently, I started to notice a pattern with her.  She was liking soccer, but there were strange things that were hanging her up.  

“Mom, what do you think about our coach?”

“Why?”

“Well, Haley and I think he yells too much.  We don’t think he likes us.”

“What do you mean, ‘yells too much’ and ‘doesn’t like’ you?  Is he yelling AT you?  Like, is he saying you did a dumb thing on the field, or that he is disappointed in you in some way?”

“No.  He is yelling, telling us where to go on the field.”

“Um, that’s coaching…”

Or, when the girls on the other team were particularly aggressive she would say, “Those girls were mean.”

”Honey, pushing is allowed and encouraged up to a certain point.  You are out there to win, not to make friends,” 

Eyes roll.  

Another time, her coach said that he thought my daughter could be a real leader on the team (music to my ears!) but that she needed to talk more on the field….help the other girls with their positioning…let them know where they should go during the plays.

“I’m not comfortable with that.”

“Why???!!!”, I cried, flabbergasted.

“Because, I don’t want to boss my friends around.”

She was defining everything in terms of friendships:  the coach not ‘liking her’, the other girls being ‘mean’, her teammates remaining her ‘friends’.  

She was applying the same rules from the “good girl” school playground to her sport.  She was simply transferring what she already knew to this different experience not realizing the difference. 

The US Women’s Soccer Team showed my daughter that they weren’t out there trying to make friends.  They were playing to win. 

They weren’t ‘nice’.  They played by the rules, but they were aggressive.  Maybe aggressive isn’t a palatable enough word for most people to describe these beautiful women.  Assertive might be easier to swallow. Whatever you call it, they pushed, dove, lunged and leaned every chance they could. (and, the women’s team didn’t roll around on the ground clutching their ankles after every foul like the men do!)

The world said this was not only OK for a young woman to do, but was applauded and rewarded. 

This flies in the face of “good girl” school playground behavior, but is completely consistent to gaining success off the playground, on the field, and definitely, in the workplace.

In fact, research done by Ernst & Young, found that the majority (52%) of C-suite women (CEO, CIO, CFO, COO…) played sport at the much more competitive university level, compared to just 39% of women at other management levels and C-suite women note that their competitiveness has been a bigger factor in their careers than more junior women: 37% cite this as a key factor, compared with 26% of others.

However, how does one make this transition from the playground to the boardroom?  It’s such an awfully long and ambiguous journey!  I, myself, have struggled for years with this.  There seem to be very few bridges to get there. Obviously, playing sports is a mighty fine Golden Gate, but… 

My husband and I always wanted our daughter to play a sport.  Fitness aside, intuitively, we just knew it was important for a girl to play on a team.  However, my daughter has always been a bit sensitive in sports, crying when her team loses or when another girl pushes her too much on the field.  I can barely contain myself from becoming like Tom Hanks in a League of their Own, “Are you crying? There’s no crying in soccer!”

It’s been so incredibly frustrating for me.

As I watched her watching these women going all out on the field, it dawned on me that we had been missing a critical piece to the puzzle. 

Having her play a sport might not be enough.  She had no frame of reference.  She needed mentors.  

Role models to tell her it was “OK”, and, “this is how we do it”.

She needed to see real women, playing real sports on a world class stage, and doing it with abandon. 

There were no “sorrys”, or picking of dandelions, or cartwheels or braiding each other’s hair...

ERIC (Education Resources Information Center) Digest says, “Impressionable, athletic, middle school girls need positive and empowering role models to emulate while developing personal and interpersonal skills. In addition to the leaders in their daily lives, contemporary women athletes are the women that girls consider empowering leaders too. ”

The following week, I paused the Germany vs. U.S. game and pointed out an especially aggressive lean and push combination as the players fought for the ball. “See,” I repeat for the umpteenth time… "they are out to win, not make friends.”   This time, instead of the eye roll, I got a smirk.

That’s because, this time, Carli Lloyd just backed me up. 

-Laura
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