Last year, I was at a training where a dozen adults in attendance were each secretly given the name of an accomplished male athlete. They were then instructed to walk around the room and play 20 Questions with one another and see how many of these athletes they could identify from amongst their peers. At the end of ten minutes, a tally was taken to see how the group did. Every secret athlete had been identified multiple times by multiple participants in the room.
Next, the same attendants were then asked to repeat the game. But this time, each participant was secretly given the name of a female athlete. The female athletes were equally accomplished as the male athletes in terms of Olympic medals or championships won. The game of 20 Questions ensued. At the end of 10 minutes, only two of the female athletes were identified by the entire group.
Now, let's hold that thought, as I tell you about Coach Holly.
This past Friday, Coach Holly spoke to a room filled with the employees of Mercedes-Benz USA. It was all part of a celebration of the commitment of Mercedes-Benz and the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation to support Coach Across America in cities across the nation. Holly told the employees of how girls at the school where she coaches were being tormented by boys. They said, "you girls shouldn't play sports. Don't you know that girls don't make good athletes". But her girls quickly snapped back: "That's not true. Look at Coach Holly. She's a great athlete."
20 Questions. Coach Holly. Title IX. 40 Years Later...
In case you don't know, Title IX was the landmark legislation passed 40 years ago this week that was supposed to level the playing field for girls to participate in school sports. Despite its provisions, this past year was the first year in decades in which the number of girls playing sports has actually decreased, not increased. It's no surprise when you consider how little recognition we give to female athletes and how few schools actually benefit from a Coach Holly. We still have a long way to go.
In the meantime, one thing we should insist upon for all coaches, male and female, is TRAINING. That’s right, training on gender in sports. Girls socialize, learn and acquire confidence in ways that are different than boys. But with most coaches being male, "STOP TALKING" is often the acceptable M.O. at soccer or basketball practice. And while that might work to control a rambunctious group of 10 year-old boys, for girls trying a new sport for the first time it might translate as "STOP PLAYING". At Up2Us, we believe every coach needs to be trained to engage girls in developmentally appropriate manners that respect their different learning styles and increase their passion for sports. This is not just because every girl should experience the joy of sports, it is because every girl should experience the benefits of sport. These benefits are self-confidence, leadership skills, discipline, conflict resolution and determination. Without them, girls may be at a disadvantage not just as athletes but as future businesspersons and world leaders.
The Up2Us Center for Sports-Based Youth Development is developing training to reach thousands of coaches in the next few years. Our Coach Across America program is hiring and placing hundreds of women as coach-mentors to girls in urban communities. It's just a few steps we are taking to make a more equal nation, 40 years later. We believe in a nation in which gender simply doesn't matter on the field, on the court, or in the stadium…and it shouldn't matter the next time you play 20 Questions either.