And then... I got to college. Unable to find a women's league within thirty minutes of campus -- and unable to find five women who would commit to a weekly intramural game -- I began playing pickup. Night after night, the courts were packed with me and 29 dudes.
I couldn't help but wonder, Where are all the amazingly fierce female athletes I've been playing with my whole life?
This makes me sad.
First of all, it sucks for me. Since I'm always the only girl, I constantly have to deal with stupid dudes with shitty fundamentals thinking they're better than I am because they have a penis. (They're not.) I constantly have to deal with being wide open in the paint, and not getting the pass. I have to deal with well-meaning assholes telling me to go guard the short guy in the white shirt, instead of the guy I'm standing next to, with whom I'm much more evenly matched. (I used to look these guys in the eyes and say, "Fuck you. No." I'm a little nicer, now, and stick to questions like, "Why?" or, "He's six inches shorter than me -- do you really think that would be a good match?")
Second, it sucks for a lot of women, for a lot of reasons. Including:
- People who play ball sports tend to be very intrinsically motivated. I have never gone to the gym because I want to "get in shape," "lose weight" or "look good for swimsuit season." I never go because I "should." I go because I want to push people out of the paint. Because I want to get every rebound. I go because I love the game, and if I could be doing anything else right now... I'd probably choose basketball.
- People who do gym workouts and fitness classes tend to be extrinsically motivated. They're there because they "should" be. They're there with a goal other than the workout -- e.g., getting in shape. It's much less fun to do a workout for extrinsic reasons -- and it's much more difficult to stick with a workout routine when you don't truly love it. You know how, sometimes, you want to cheat and end your workout early? I have the opposite problem -- it's 7:25, and I'm supposed to be somewhere at 7:30, but my team just won and I want to play one more game!
- People who do ball sports build a sense of community -- and even a team! As I wrote in Behold! The Number One Best Way to Make New Friends as an Adult, having regular, unplanned interactions with other people is one of the three criteria for becoming friends with them. Even if you don't become besties, humans are still the social animal. We evolved to feel sad, sick and even incapacitated by loneliness. We want to be part of tribes. We feel great when we see people we recognize, and interact with them on a regular basis. That's part of the reason why church is such a meaningful part of so many peoples' lives... and, since church attendance is decreasing, it's part of the reason that American adults are lonelier than ever. Today's adult has three times fewer close friends than those of the 1980s -- and 25% report having no close friends at all (McPherson et al., 2006).
- People who do solitary sports, like jogging and Stair Mastering, often exercise alone. With earbuds in. And their mind someplace else. Meaning, in a world where passive and solitary entertainment is increasingly displacing active and social entertainment -- in a world where community is rarer and more important than ever -- people who jog/elliptical/lift weights with headphones in are missing out on an opportunity for social engagement.
- When you play a game, it's a lot easier to burn a lot of calories... without actually realizing it. Over the years, a lot of women have asked me what kind of workouts I do to "stay so fit." But I don't do any exercises specificaly to get stronger or more toned -- and I haven't in, like, a decade. What keeps me strong is boxing people out; jumping; sprinting; pivoting; fighting for position; getting a great seal on a defender. This is a great workout for your legs, core and even arms. You get stronger. You build endurance. You sweat a ton. Without ever realizing it.
- When you're working out for the sake of working out... it hurts. You feel the bern! You might even be counting the minutes, strokes, or seconds until you're finished. Admittedly, there is a certain kind of satisfaction and intensity that comes from these sorts of workouts, and some people love that. I do -- about three times a year. The rest of the time, I need that game, that goal, that intrinsic joy, to keep me going.
- When you play a sport, your head is in the game. You are extremely mindful of your body position. You're mindful of your opponent's position. You're watching the ball. You are simultaneously in this moment... and the one that's coming up right after it. No matter what horrible thing happened at work this morning, your mind is here.
- When you participate in a more passive exercise, your mind is free to wander. For some people, running, swimming or lifting is very meditative: you are focusing on one thing (the pool bottom; the road in front of you; your own reflection), thinking about nothing but your breathing. Counting. For a while, I loved weight lifting for this very reason. Until one day, when I didn't. And I stopped lifting. For other people, though, letting your mind wander can be destructive. You can replay that unfortunate office event over and over, thinking about all the things you could have said or done differently. You can think about your relationship problems, or a problem at home.
Or, to condense it into a TL;DR, ball sports often trump solitary workouts due to:
- Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation
- Active vs. Passive Exercise
- Community/Team Oriented vs. Solitary
- Mindfulness vs. Mindlessness
Though obviously everyone exercises differently, and these generalizations aren't true for everyone.
So anyway -- why, given all these physical and social benefits, don't women play ball sports after high school?
It's easy to say, "Oh, women like sports less than men." That might be true. But obviously there's the whole nature-nurture question. As well as some pretty obvious biological and social factors that may play into a woman's decision not to play ball in adulthood. Including:
1. Women are used to playing organized ball, and are generally less experienced at pickup sports.
A lot of the guys I play ball with played on the Varsity or JV team in high school. Some played in college -- and, occasionally, I play with a guy who played professionally. BUT. A lot of the guys at pickup got cut from their high school team, and instead played pickup.
So say you're a women. You've played organized ball your whole life. You walk into the gym to play pickup. There are two games going on, with people standing on the side of each court. How do you get into this game?
Will you necessarily know to say, "I've got next?"
No. Because why would you know that?
And will anyone walk up to you and ask, "Have you got next?"
Also no. When there's a guy standing next to the court, guys will ask him if he's got next. But you're a girl! Why would anyone assume you're there to play ball? There are 25 men here -- one of them is probably your boyfriend.
Or maybe you like basketball, but you're just here to shoot around -- because women don't play sports with men, right?
I've been playing at the same gym for eight years. Eight years! And yet! Guys who show up after me routinely walk onto the court and start counting off their five as though I'm not even there. So then I have to be like, "I'm on. I got here before you. You can shoot for three, if you want on."
But what if I didn't know to do that?
Just ask, you're probably thinking. And you're right. Just asking is the correct course. But... you have to admit. It's just a little harder to ask a seemingly basic, stupid question when you feel it reflects badly on your whole gender. As per XKCD:
Then the game starts, and there's all this other stuff you didn't realize you wouldn't know. What happens if someone fouls you? What happens when you foul someone? Do you take the ball out on the sideline or under the basket? (That was a trick question.) What do you play to? Are you playing by 2's and 3's, or 1's and 2's? (Honestly, I have no idea why anyone would ever want to play 1's and 2's... but some people do.)
Every time you don't know something, your gender becomes more salient than it already was. You "confirm" more stereotypes about your entire gender than you already have. And, according to decades of psychology research, this activates the stereotype threat and causes you to underperform.
Which leads me to my next point:
2. The stereotype threat.
One of the biggest discoveries in psychology was that of the stereotype threat -- a situation in which a person who is part of a negatively-stereotyped group becomes anxious (consciously or unconsciously) of confirming those stereotypes, which results in chronic underperformance. To me, the stereotype threat is one of the number one best arguments in favor of affirmative action. It's one of the most well-documented, easily-replicated concepts ever -- and the thing about it is, it's highly dependent on social cues that makes your membership of certain groups more or less salient in that moment.
For example, say you're an Asian woman, and you're about to take a math test. If, right before the test, I ask you a question about fashion or makeup, I will make you aware of the fact that you are a woman -- and activate the stereotype threat that women are worse at math than men. Whereupon, you will underperform on the test relative to white men.
BUT! If I ask you which country in Asia your family is from, you will experience a stereotype boost. Because of the stereotype that Asians are good at math, you will take the test with a bit more confidence, which will increase your performance relative to white males.
Here's another cool example. In the famous White Men Can't Jump study (Stone et al., 1997), white men were brought into a lab to have their vertical leap measured. In one condition of the experiment, the experimenter (the guy who was measuring their leap) was white. In the other condition, the experimenter was black. Men in the black experimenter condition underperformed relative to the other group, due to the fact that the mere presence of a black man reminded the white men... that white men can't jump.
So back to women and sports. Because of the way things are right now, if you're a woman who wants to play soccer, frisbee, basketball, volleyball, or almost any other ball sport I can think of... you are probably going to be one of maybe two or three girls. If you're not the only girl.
Different women are more aware of being the minority than others. For me, it's almost expected. If anything, I'm a little disappointed when I see another woman at pickup anything -- because that means the men are going to try to put us on different teams and have us guard each other, even though I'm 6'0 and she's 5'6.
But other women, especially ones who are new to pickup, are going to be made much more aware of their femaleness because of this gender ratio. And that's going to cause underperformance. Which makes their experience less pleasant. They're going to feel frustrated and embarrassed, instead of proud and empowered. And that means they're less likely to come back.
The other night, I was getting on the court to start a game of basketball, when a man approached me and exclaimed, "Are YOU playing? BASKETBALL? YOU?"
And I was like, "Yeah..."
And he said, "With all these men? Wow! Good for you! That is so amazing! Good luck!"
To be fair, this amount of "wait, what omg YOU'REAGIRL" doesn't normally happen. And I'm used to it by now, It's just one of many examples of things dudes do that make women feel like an outgroup.
But other things they do to send a strong social signal that I'm not one of them:
- Praise for mediocre work. Sometimes, when I do what any athlete would have done, dudes act shocked and amazed. They cheer and congratulate me. Again, their intentions are good. But it's also kind of condescending when people are like, "YAY! You made your layup!"
- Freak out when I fall down. When I first started playing, it bugged the crap out of me when the game would come to a screeching halt every time I hit the floor. But not when anyone else fell. What it means is, "We see you as something fragile that needs to be protected. You're not like us." See also: For the Love of God, STOP Asking People If They're Okay.
- Have their weakest, shortest, most pathetic player guard me. I'm a girl, so probably you should have your puniest , worst guy guard me, right? Wrong. I've almost certainly been playing longer than you. I was my high school team's MVP -- as well as the 10th highest scorer in Exeter history (in spite of only playing three seasons). I was also a Boston Glob All Star. And a DI athlete (in a different sport, but still). It's no coincidence that a former Laker I used to play with referred to me as a white, female Dennis Rodman. I'm faster and stronger than most people I know -- and you should be able to tell this my looking at me. You know -- if you can look at me like I'm an athlete, and not just a girl.
And then there are the guys who are overtly sexist. The ones who won't pass to me -- not once! No matter how open I am. No matter how many of their shots they've missed.
To be fair, some of these guys aren't "sexist" -- they're just dicks. They think they're great basketball players, so they'll dribble around the perimeter, signaling to everyone to get out of the paint, so they can drive to the basket. Even if, time after time, they fail to make it to the basket.
But other ones will pass to everyone but me, and that sucks, and there's not a whole lot I can do about it. Play terrible defense so my team loses, and hope that we get on different teams for the next game?
One thing I *will* say for the men I play sports with: I can't think of a single instance of ever being catcalled or having sexual comments directed at me (at least, not to my face). If you're a woman who has ever spent more than twenty minutes jogging on a sidewalk, you will probably appreciate this.
4. Women's perceptions of skill and size differences.
Many women are reluctant to play with men, because they don't think they are physically able to compete with men.
I'm not sure if this is true -- but it definitely doesn't seem to be. The women I've seen at pickup tend to be outstanding players, often outscoring the men. However, this is based on a very small sample size, and there is an obvious representation bias: the only women who play basketball with men are confident/experienced enough players that they know they can run with men.
As I previously mentioned, I'm a very tall woman. At 6'0, I'm at least two inches taller than the average man, and about 6-8 inches taller than the average woman. At 160 pounds, I've also got a decent amount of muscle mass. When I play with men, I generally don't feel like I have anything to be afraid of.
But. I do, occasionally, play with people I feel could hurt me. People who have both exceptional speed and size. If they collided with me, I would be a fly on their leg. I've actually posted up on a guy before, only to be lifted off the ground when he raised his leg to make a move.
And when I think about it... I think some women have felt a similar way when playing in women's leagues with me. I've been scolded that I was "going to hurt someone" or "playing too aggressively." It was tempting to chalk it up to an ugly gender stereotype. But when I think of how I feel when I play with people who are eight inches taller than me, I understand where they're coming from. I could hurt them.
Okay. So now. Take the fact that a lot of the guys I play with are around my height or taller. And the fact that most women are shorter than me -- often by a lot. That size difference means that the average woman is more likely to get hurt -- and have her shots blocked, which always stings -- than the average guy.
As far as ability, women often have superior skills, form and fundamentals. BUT. They're less experienced at pickup. This doesn't just mean they're unfamiliar with the rules and protocols. It means that they're used to playing a game with teammates, who have assigned roles. They're used to running plays. And the guys they're playing with (especially the ones who never played organized ball) are used to playing a very different style of basketball. It can take some getting used to -- and you're definitely going to have your share of wtf is that guy doing? what an idiot! moments.
Also, statistically, women are more likely to underestimate their abilities, and men are likely to overestimate them. Which is why I always encourage women to #ChooseBeautiful, and don't say shit like #Blessed or #luckygirl.Confidence is a habit, and you need to own it.
5. There are fewer opportunities for women to play competitively.
As mentioned earlier, I really wanted to play in a serious, competitive league during and after college. I mean, it didn't even have to be that serious. I just wanted to play with a team, in a game with a scoreboard. The closest women's league I could find... was a thirty-minute drive away. And games were on Tuesday nights during rush hour.
Eventually, I ended up finding out about this one women's league that was only fifteen minutes away... but, although the men's leagues played on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, women's games were all on Sunday. Meaning the only way I could participate in the league... would be to take a 10-week break from surfing, kayaking, backpacking and other weekend activities.
So I contacted the league, and asked if I could just join a men's team.
Apparently the Palo Alto JCC is super mean and sexist.
Meanwhile, if you look up opportunities for men to play in the Stanford vicinity, you'll find multiple leagues in Palo Alto, one in Menlo Park (a 7-minute drive from campus), a few in Redwood City/Atherton (12-15 minutes from campus), one in Los Altos (7 minutes) and one in Mountain View (15 minutes).
So if you want to join a league, as a woman, you have to either:
a) Play with all men -- assuming the league will even allow it.
b) Be willing to be in town every Sunday, and never go anywhere on the weekend.
c) Be willing to drive 30-50 minutes each way, during rush hour, on a Tuesday.
Then there are the laughably horrible "co-ed" leagues -- in which girls are expected to guard each other, even if they're totally mismatched. But that's not what makes them horrible. What makes them horrible is that, half the time, the girls don't even know how to play basketball. It's like, one or two hotshot basketball dudes recruit two women to stand on the court and do nothing while they run the show. Which, I guess, is fine. If the girl I'm guarding is afraid to even catch the ball, I don't need to guard her. I can instead double-team the hotshot, or just clog up the paint and get a bunch of blocks and steals on help D. But still... that's not really the game I want to go out there and die for.
So obviously, it's a bit of a recursive problem. If more women wanted to play team sports, there would be more opportunities for women to play team sports. But also... it's hard for women to express an interest in joining a team in a nonexistent league.
And, on a related note:
6. Statistically, girls start playing sports later and quit earlier than boys -- meaning women generally have less experience playing sports than men.
Work by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that interest in sports varies more within than across genders, and is similar in younger boys and girls. However, young girls tend to join sport later than young boys, which translates to less experience, less practice, and less skill development. By the time they're fourteen, girls are six times more likely to drop out of sports than boys boys.
Moreover, the Sport in America Report revealed that adults think that girls quit sports because they “become shy about their bodies” -- a belief contradicted by the teenage girls in the study. Instead, girls report quitting sports because they conflict with other activities. More girls than boys quit sports in order to focus on academics or other clubs or activities.
Which, perhaps, is why we need more club sports and engaging PE options in high schools. Not having the bandwidth to play JV or Varsity sports shouldn't prevent girls from developing skills and confidence that could benefit them for a lifetime.
After all! Stanford has numerous opportunities to learn and participate in sports without making a huge time commitment. From basketball skills to golf to wrestling to gymnastics to ballet to golf... I had a lot of fun learning new sports, even in the busiest times of graduate school.
So long story short: team sports have the potential to enrich our lives with fun, fitness and friends. But there are a lot of biological, social and institutional reasons why women are excluded.