Friday, August 19, 2011

Run Like a Girl

There's a curious myth abounding in sports that if one wants to succeed, one must acquire masculine traits. In fact, the surest way to motivate through humiliation as a coach is to insinuate an athlete might have feminine characteristics... (What's the matter, your ovaries hurting?") Likewise, the greatest compliment that can be given to an athlete's toughness, bravery or fortitude is to associate them with male characteristics... ("That guy's got balls!") This even carries over to female sports. Saying a girl has balls, which would really seem like it should be an insult, is perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay a female athlete, the bigger the better... ("That girl's got Paul Bunyon's Babe the giant blue ox sized balls!") Unfortunately, like most myths, there is a reason this stigma has taken hold and continues to manifest. When I was young I remember vividly my dad pointing out the girls at high school meets falling across the finish line in tears, needing to be carried away. He was perhaps the first feminist I ever met in pointing out that is no way for an athlete, male or female,to act. It hurts the same for everyone, he said. It should be just as embarrassing for a girl to do that as it would be a guy. I don't remember ever seeing a girl my dad coached doing that beyond her first year. This tradition has carried on amongst many female runners to this day. At the NCAA Pre-Nationals meet a couple years ago, the finish line looked like a battlefield. Scores of women sprawled over the grass, needing to be carried away from the line so the others had room to finish, and then collapse in their own dramatic fashion. I felt the disgust my dad had taught me rising up. That's no way for any athlete to act, male or female. While these examples convey how such a stereotype grabs hold, they do not represent what I most often see when I watch females run. Like most stereotypes, they cling the lowest, most dramatic, most unfortunate traits that can be observed and declare them typical. For people to actually believe these stereotypes, they can't have spent much time around many accomplished female runners, however. Perhaps the most hardcore story I can recall is how Deena Drossin (now Kastor) was stung by a bee in the throat during the World Cross Country Championships and had an anaphylactic reaction that caused her to lose consciousness for a few seconds. When she woke up, the other runners in the race were hurdling her downed body. She popped up, resumed the race, and ended up with a medal. I really think that's hard to top. Of the top ten toughest races I've seen athletes run, I would say at least half were by females. I remember wondering why one of my runners, a sophomore in high school, had a less than stellar race at a state meet. Since the race was over she figured it was now ok to tell me she had a 102 degree fever when she woke up that day and had avoided me before the race so I wouldn't notice and stop her from racing. This same athlete pulled a muscle mid race and still finished close to her usual position in spite of the injury being bad enough that she couldn't run for several days after. Another athlete on the same team once ran on one the most treacherous courses I've ever seen, in fact most coaches that day said it was one of the worst they's seen, with a badly sprained ankle. Oh yeah, she sprained it on that same course during our run through the day before. She ran accdording to usual form in the race, however and ensured her team a New England Championship. Now that's pretty bad ass! Girls have the capability to be tough. I have a lot of memories of girls running on stress fractures or other injuries for coaches who should have known better than to let them. I have found that from a  strictly numbers point of view, a higher percentage of males are likely to give up in such situations than females. This came to mind in a workout the other day where I decided to pace a workout group and not coach from the track like I normally do. As I circled the track, I could see guy after guy standing on the sidelines after dropping out of the workout. There got to be so many that I actually wondered if they could have misunderstood the workout. One of the biggest reasons I knew this wasn't the case was due to four runners I didn't see on the sidelines. There was a pack of three middle school girls churning out the workout as prescribed and another high school girl doing the same thing. They all finished the workout and in fact the high school girl lost count and ran an extra lap, just to be safe. I have coached all four of these girls long enough to know that my biggest job is not to motivate them to run harder, but to try to make sure they don't go Sambo's tigers on me and run themselves into the ground. I have come to the realization that saying to a guy who drops out, "Come on, be a man" would not be appropriate. In this and many other circumstances, I need to say, "Come on, run like a girl!" Eventually, maybe I'll see him run tough enough that I can say, "Wow! That guy's got a pair of double Ds on him!"

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