“You’re actually pretty good! You could even play on the guys’ team!”
At last, I have reached the pinnacle of sporting achievement! As a woman playing sport, these are the words I have yearned to hear after years of training and hard work. Maybe now, after all this time, I might be good enough to be on the same level as (some of) the guys.
After years of playing different sports at the ANU, from lunchtime futsal competitions, to different residential inter-hall sports, to running Inward Bound three times and coaching it twice, I’ve heard a lot of comments about women in sport.
“What?! An all-women’s IB team? Ha, no chance!”
I know – it’s silly for us to try! I forgot, women can’t run or read maps!
“Oh you can kick the ball in the air!”
Yep, it took me 10+ years playing soccer but I got there in the end!
“So when you play badminton we don’t have to take it in turns to return the shuttlecock.”
Thanks for the reminder, I’ve played casually for a few years and you started ten minutes ago, but I suppose you can never go over the basics too many times!
These choice remarks aside, most comments are very positive and well intended… On one level, this is really great. I 100% support encouraging more women to participate in sport and helping to create a more inclusive culture where everyone feels like they can be involved. What I can’t help but notice, however, is that underlying these messages of encouragement is the constant surprise that women can actually be any good at sport.
Success in the sporting field is so often gender stereotyped that when individual women are acknowledged, they are very much seen as the exception, rather than as a representative of women generally. This is why too often there is that element of surprise alongside the compliments given to women about their sporting abilities. They were never expected to do well in the first place.
Even when we see national women’s sports teams do amazingly well, our perceptions of women in sport don’t seem to change at all. Women are still often seen as inherently not very competent at physical activities, and certainly not as good as the men. It doesn’t seem to make a difference if you have trained for years and play against men who’ve hardly done any exercise. The assumption remains that they’re better than you, and you have to “prove yourself” to be accepted to play amongst them.
I’m not saying we should therefore not compliment people (particularly women) when they do well in a sport, lest they take offence that you’re insinuating that you expected them to be terrible. What I am saying is that it’s worth thinking about some of the assumptions we hold when commenting on people’s sporting abilities, and work on complimenting people without comparing them to men – which happens surprisingly often.
Here’s a pretty extreme thought – perhaps individual people can be good at different sports because they exercise and train in those areas. This may seem far-fetched, but if you think about the people you know who are good at sport and those who aren’t so good, there is a strong correlation between those who train and those who succeed.
Maybe people aren’t naturally good or bad at sport because they’re of a particular sex, and maybe women who are good at sport don’t aspire to be “on the guys’ team” as a measure of their achievements.
No, no, I’ve gone too far.
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