Review of Sisterhood in Sports

Steidinger, Joan. Sisterhood in Sports: How Female Athletes Collaborate and Compete. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. xi+191.  Notes, bibliography, and index.

Reviewed by Russ Crawford

Women like to talk.  Women athletes like to talk to each other while practicing and competing.  While there is a bit more to Joan Steidinger’s Sisterhood in Sports, the message that women, and women athletes, enjoy talking with each other is the core theme found in this work.  It is repeated continually from the introduction to the final chapter.  The idea that women are more talkative has been a stereotype employed by television sitcoms, movies, and other popular media for much of the past century; Steidinger reinforces this idea using medical and social research.  Along the way, she also maintains that research backs up ideas that have wide currency in the popular mind, such as women focus more on relationships than men, and that “men compete and women collaborate” (p.159), although the author does make the point that women compete as well, but that their competitive spirit is different from men’s.


Rowman & Littlefield, 2016

Steidinger, a former ultrarunner (running events longer than a marathon), is a sports psychologist, and her book is aimed at teaching teammates, coaches, and parents how to best go about supporting the female athletes in their lives.  Her discussion of what various forms of research have discovered about the female brain is backed up with anecdotal evidence from girls and women that she has worked with in her practice, or interacted with in her athletic career.  Throughout the book, but particularly at the end of chapters, she includes a list of methods those who interact with female athletes should employ.  For athletes, among other tips, she urges them to “Look for men or women who are also athletic when seeking a romantic relationship” (p.18).  Parents are counseled to “Encourage her to make friend with girls on her teams and to have athletic friends” (p.55).  Women who are athletes, and mothers of athletes, are urged to join “social networks such as the Facebook page ‘Athlete Moms’” (p.69).  Coaches are urged to get the best performance out of female athletes by learning to “push female athletes hard without resorting to yelling negative comments” (p.137).

Steidinger begins with her personal athletic biography.  Her parents were both athletic, and somewhat supportive of her participation in sport – her mother maintained that she only participate in “ladylike” sports when the author was a young girl.  As an adult, she began training as a mountain bicycle racer until she was injured in an accident.  After rehabilitation, she transitioned into ultrarunning.  Her experiences as both an athlete and a sports psychologist encouraged her to begin interviewing other ultrarunners, and that expanded to the project that resulted in Sisterhood in Sports.  Her stated motivation for the work is to “speak out and support female athletes.”

Her first chapter sets the stage for the remainder of the book, by presenting research that indicates that women’s brains develop differently from men’s.  She quotes Dr. Louann Brizendine, who wrote in The Female Brain (2006) that women typically talk much more that men, and that difference is “hardwired in the typical female brain,” and that “some verbal areas of the brain are larger in women than in men” (p.8).  Steidinger acknowledges that Brizendine’s stated numbers of words that the typical male and female use in a day (7,000 to 20,000) has been disputed by other researchers, yet she maintains that women do communicate verbally more than men, and that has implications for female athletes.  She also states that when women talk, it is most often about relationships.  She asserts that females “tend and befriend,” or “speak and participate in nurturing activities” and create social networks to facilitate those activities in stressful situations, whereas men tend to have their fight or flight reflexes triggered (p.11).  She uses the story of Mia Hamm interacting with U.S. National soccer team Head Coach Tony DiCicco to illustrate her point that coaches should allow his players to feel free to talk with him and one another in order to get the best performance from his team.  DiCicco was yelling at his players when Hamm asked him if they were in danger of being cut, and when told they wouldn’t be, she told the coach to “quit yelling at us!” (p.17).

The chapters that follow are in large part recapitulations of her central theme.  In Chapter Two, she argues that females tend to form BFF (best friends forever) relationships with other females, and if their BFFs are also their teammates, this helps them find more success in sport.  If their BFFs are not athletic, then this introduces friction that might compel the girl to drop out of sports.  The same holds true with their romantic interests.

Chapter Three explores how families can help or hinder their daughter’s athletic efforts.  According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, female athletes list their mothers as the most important person supporting them.  If the athlete’s mother does not support her daughter’s athletic activities, it lessens the chance of positive outcomes from sport.  Fathers and sibling support is also important, but Steidinger emphasizes that the males in the family learn how to communicate well with their female athlete.  A father yelling negative comments at his daughter generally has a detrimental effect.  She mentioned one father who was surprised that he yelled so loud and so negatively when given feedback on his attendance at games.  Steidinger also argues that parents should focus less on outcomes and more on providing a fun experience for their daughters, and that parents should attend as many of their daughter’s events as possible to demonstrate their support.

The athlete mother referred to earlier is the subject for Chapter Four, and here, the author has some interesting information.  Biologically, the hormones that increase during pregnancy provide athletic advantages for women competitors.  She cites research that demonstrates women experience “changes in muscle strength, tolerance of sleep deprivation, endurance, motivation, and overall mental toughness” (p.57).  She also mentions rumors that East German coaches encouraged their female athletes to become pregnant before the Olympics, then have abortions before competing in the Olympics, which I hadn’t read before.  There does seem to be some evidence that pregnancy might be athletically beneficial, based on a quick Google search, which yielded an article on the benefits of pregnancy for Olympic athletes.  The work and time involved in having a newborn child can pose challenges, and athletic mothers often feel they are neglecting their children when training, but according to the author, if the athlete can find a balance, they can compete during pregnancy, and shortly after giving birth.  This runs counter to much of our history, when expectant mothers were sidelined for long periods of time on the advice of doctors.

Romantic relationships are likewise important to providing support for female athletes, and according to Steidinger in Chapter Five, encouragement from spouses is also important to success in athletics.  She asserts that male partners, in particular, learn how to communicate with the female athletes with whom they are in relationships.  She mentions that female athletes in same sex relationships are likely to have the type of support they need more easily, since their partner shares the communication habits.  She uses anecdotal evidence of several female athletes who divorced when they found their spouses were not supportive.

Chapter Six focuses on body image and the female athlete.  She relates stories of how casual comments about women athletes made by coaches and others have often led to eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia, and provides recommendations for how women athletes and others in their lives should learn to accept their bodies.  She explores the difficulty women have in this in our society, which focuses on how women look, rather than how they perform.

Building team spirit is the topic of Chapter Seven, and urges females work to include all players in their communication.  Only when teammates are on the same page can success be found.  She argues that males can dislike each other and still succeed – the 1978 Yankees for instance – but women struggle with this.  She provides suggestions for team building, and most of these are tips that most teams should use, but then, knowing what to do and being able to do it are sometimes problematical.

Chapter Eight deals with coaches, and how they should learn how to communicate with their athletes.  Old School coaching techniques do not work as well with women as with men, and this chapter is somewhat unique in that I can offer at least anecdotal evidence that the author’s assertions are correct.  At the recent IFAF Women’s World Championship, Team USA Coach Jim Farrell was asked about his preparation for the games, and he talked about how he was anxious for his players to work on getting to know each other better and bonding as teammates.  This struck me as odd at the time coming from a coach, but now I see that this approach was likely a reason for the American team’s success in the games.  When teaching high school in South Dakota, the coach of the girl’s basketball team was always baking cookies for his athletes, which seemed strange, but it worked, and the Waubay’s team won the state championship in 1994.  So Steidinger’s assertions about how coaches should go about working with female athletes hold true in my limited experience.

Chapter Nine was the most interesting to me since it about history, and explores the careers and relationships of several pioneering women in sport.  Steidinger discusses Billie Jean King and the athletes she gathered to help her create the Virginia Slims Tour, but rather than focusing on King as an athlete, she explores how the tennis player created a “circle” of women who helped her achieve more equitable pay for women tennis players.  Aside from the women athletes that are well known, she also wrote about Dr. Carole Ogleby, one of the first to study differences between male and female athletes.  She also describes how King and others founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, and Jacquie Phelan, who founded the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society (WOMBATS), which encouraged women to enter a previously all-male sport.  She credits organizations such as these with preparing the ground prior to passage of Title IX, and then continued to improve opportunities following that legislation.

Steidinger’s final chapter reiterates many of the points she made in the previous chapters but emphasizes that “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which in addition to being a 1983 Cyndi Lauper hit, is the subtitle of the finale.  She emphasizes that girls and women seek a fun time from sports and that our society’s emphasis on winning sometimes gets in the way of fun.

This was somewhat difficult for me, since the focus was on psychology and physiology, not subjects that I am well versed in.  It is, however, an easy read and an interesting book. Steidinger includes a plethora of stories from her clients and her athletic career that make it interesting.  She is somewhat repetitive, and often seems to paint too broadly, but does make the point that some women athletes communicate differently.  She does briefly add that individuals vary in how they approach sport, and this is something I struggled with.  Her contention that biology is destiny leaves no room for the role that socialization and culture play in these differences.

Much of this also seems to be applying athletics to the popular 1992 book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray.  One again though, I have anecdotal evidence that supports this.  While attending a coaches’ conference in 1994, I went to a session on coaching female athletes.  The presenters, in a room full of male coaches, used the book as the center piece to describe how female athletes differ from males.

Since around sixty-percent of female athletes at the college level are coached by males, this book would be a good read for those coaches who want to interact better with some of their female athletes.  Female athletes who fit the model she writes of might also find this interesting as a way of perhaps pointing their parents, peers, coaches, and other important people in their lives in how they might help rather than hinder athletic participation.  There are parts of the book that might be controversial – her use of Brizendine’s research, which drew criticism from some other scholars, for instance, but the brain research she cites is backed up by the surveys and case studies from her professional practice, and she makes a compelling argument.

Russ Crawford is a Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, with an evolving focus on nontraditional practitioners of gridiron football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published one book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, and has another, Le Football: The History of American Football in France has recently been  published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.

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