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Sports Psychologist Says Females Compete Differently Than Males

Sisterhood In Sports: How Female Athletes Collaborate And Compete
Sisterhood In Sports: How Female Athletes Collaborate And Compete GUEST:Joan Steidinger, sports psychologist and author.

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanagh. Even after the incredible achievements of female athletes like Mia Hamm in soccer, Jackie Joyner-Kersee in track & field, tennis Starvena Williams and the incredible Mo'ne Davis, girls still take second place in sports. Culture has a lot to do with that and it's changing, but it could also be that not enough is known about what drives the female athlete. A new book argues that women athletes are not just smaller men. They have a different source of strength and a unique attitude toward competition. Joining me is sports psychologist Dr. Joan Stydinger. Her book is called Female Athletes in Sports. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for having me. In addition to being a psychologist, you're an athlete yourself, an ultra biker, a mountain runner. When did you think that women athletes responded to sports differently? Well, it goes way back to women in general back in the late '80s, when the first book came out, Women who Love too much, we said women who focus attention on relationships had psychological problems. And then in my practice in the early '90s, I started to see a lot more female athletes in addition to female s in general and the same thing popped up. Every woman I saw to a greater or lesser extent talked about their relationships from an emotional point of view. And so I got interested in writing a book, normalizing this as opposed to pathologyizing it. And my first proposal in 1997 for this book and it was before its time. Mm-hmm. So when I shopped it around to a number of publishers, it was rejected by everyone. And so in 1998, I interviewed 40 ultra running women and they all echoed each other about this relationship, emotional reaction to relationships. You say the way women compete is different from men. How so? Well, there's a lot of brain research now in addition to what psychological knowledge we have about women being different, and women -- the emotional relationship part is very different because men look at relationships from a more analytical or cognitive or thinking perspective. Women, it's that more emotional intimacy. Also, women talk a lot more. They are more socially -- their brains, when you do MRIs on men versus women, the social areas of the brain light up a lot more in women than they do in men. And women are very intuitive more so than we're actually taught to be. Collaboration and bonding is important to us and all this shows up in our brain activity and also how our hormones work. Empathy, worry are also elements that come out when you look at the brain research. Isn't it a little dangerous to start saying women athletes operate differently? Aren't women athletes trying to establish that they are just as competent, just as competitive? No, no. Okay. So I'm not talking about they are any less competent than men. We can have -- women athletes will often have, be tough as nails, have the same goals as men, but they do it in a different manner. They -- one of the things about a sport I was very involved in, still very involved in, is ultra running. Having that support around for activities in sport is really much more critical for women and girls, and especially teenage girls from parents. It's not that they can't strive for these huge things like people like with Mia Hamm and like rosie Cassell who has endorsed the book, it's just that we do it in a different style. Give us-- Our brains-- Give us an example. Let me stop you there. Give us an example of how being emotional helps a female athlete. Well, one of the things -- let me just -- it's not that it -- it's how we are built biologically and psychologically. And one of the things that really makes a big difference, I work with San Francisco state softball team and the girls are all friends. It's a really well-bonded team. And when they are well-bonded, they are more likely to play better. If there's girls in their team, in a team -- like I was with a volleyball team and there was one gal that nobody liked and was a good player, but because they didn't like her, it was very disruptive to the team. So men would not do that. Men don't care about the personal nature of their teammates. They care about if they play well or not. So their perspective of approaching this is quite different than with female. So how does knowing this about female athletes or athletic teams, knowing how women compete and collaborate, how would that help coaches, teammates, even parents? Well, one of the things, ticketly with exoaches and trainers, is a thing with their team is the girls really are helped by knowing the coach cares about them and knows a little bit about who they are as people, so that it's important with coaches to build more one-on-one relationships with the team members. It doesn't have to be large amounts of time, but at least to really get to know the girls and what they are about. I interviewed Lindsey Gottlieb, the Cal Berkeley basketball coach. Couple years ago, she came on board, she took the girls to the final four in the first time of the history of the school and part of what she did is she interviewed every girl -- sorry. She interviewed every girl and got to know them and then she made sure they also knew -- sorry for the noise. You've got a dog there. Yeah. They also knew that she cared about them so that when they were on the court-- Yes. -- they knew it was business, getting down to business. When she made some of the decisions, it was not about them personally, but it was about the game. Right. Now, how does -- okay. So it's collaboration, women are better at collaborating and getting these relationships going. But collaboration, just in our minds, collaboration and competition usually don't overlap. So how do women become strong competitors? Well, one of the things in my new model of female collaborative competition that I talk about is the fact of embracing competition so that they are working hard to do the best they can with what they do and they don't have to necessarily think of killing the other team. Using words like "killing the other team" for a lot of females is really not ring true to their perception of the world. So in collaborative competition, they are collaborating with their teammates, really working hard on their team and it's a way to also learn to not be enemies with your competitors. Now -- go ahead. To be friendly with them and go out on that court. Say, you're playing tennis, for example. Go out on the court and play your hardest game. Walk away, regardless of the outcome and you're both satisfied with the outcome. I understand. That is very different. So how would you like to see your book used in women's sports? Well, one of the things I have had a lot of conversations with the executive editor of Soccer of America and how he recommends the book is for trainers and coaches. I also think the book is helpful for parents because it gives them -- each chapter has 10 mental strategies for using with female athletes. So it helps give a lot of guidelines in terms of patience and coaches in terms of approaching their female athletes, because as Allison Dunlap had said and you quoted, women are not small men. We are different. That doesn't make us better or worse. It's just that we approach things in a different manner. And if we keep trying to be men, we're not going to be true to ourselves. We can accomplish the same things as men, but we really like to have more personal relationships supporting us in those accomplishments, whether they be in sports or in life. People seem to have trouble with that concept of different though, don't they? Yes, they do. You know who has the most trouble, I find, with that concept, is men. And it's like I -- they had an article about my book up here in Marin County about competition, the fact that women are different, and we kept getting e-mails from one man who just couldn't understand that word "different." He kept thinking it was like a value judgment. I've encountered that more so with other men, not so much with women. And different doesn't mean better or worse. It just means different. Just means different. Just that one word. Yeah. I've been speaking with the author of Sisterhood in Sports, how female athletes collaborate and compete. She'll be speaking and signing her book at the university of San Diego, her alma mater, this Friday at 1:00. And Joan, thank you so much for speaking with us. Well, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Even after the incredible achievements of female athletes — Mia Hamm in soccer, Jackie Joyner-Kersee in track and field, Serena Williams in tennis and Mo Ne' Davis in Little League as a pitcher — they still take second place in sports.

Joan Steidinger, a sports psychologist and author from the San Francisco Bay Area, tells KPBS that's because females compete differently than males. Her book is Sisterhood in Sports: How Female Athletes Collaborate and Compete.

"Understanding women has been one of the major difficulties for men and even some female coaches," said Steidinger, who will be speaking Friday in San Diego.


Steidinger, an ultra-runner and mountain biker, said she began seeing female athletes as patients in the early 1990s.

"I saw to a greater extent that women talked about their relationships from an emotional point of view," Steidinger told KPBS Midday Edition on Monday. "It's how we are built biologically and psychologically."

Steidinger used an all-female baseball team in San Francisco as an example. She said women performed better when they were well-bonded as a group.

"Men would not do that," she said. "They don't care about the personal nature of their teammates."

But this behavior doesn't make women inferior to men, Steidinger said.


"Women are not small men," she said. "We're different. That doesn't make us better or worse. If we keep trying to be men, we aren't going to be true to ourselves."

Steidinger will give a lecture at 1 p.m. Friday at the University of San Diego's Sarah Hall.

Corrected: April 14, 2024 at 12:03 AM PDT
KPBS web producer Hoa Quach contributed to this report.