“In the male paradigm, acceptance is earned through performance.  In the female paradigm, by contrast, acceptance is a prerequisite to performance.”

—Kathleen J. DeBoer in Gender and Competition

Growing up in a household with two older brothers,  in order to be noticed, I learned to perform.  There was a song that my brother would sing that was early motivation for a tomboy like me:  “Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.”  It made me feel confident, and I have always enjoyed competition, whether against girls or boys.

But not everyone likes the concept of “I win,” “you lose.”  There are competitive athletes who prefer to compete against the clock, against a distance, against a weight, against a mountain, against themselves.  But there are  plenty of us who enjoy competition with other athletes.  Not many years ago, a girl who competed–perhaps prevailed–against a boy in sports would have been diminished socially as a result.  I am so glad that times have changed!

As DoBeor explains, boys and girls can be equally competitive in sports, but their goals and the methods by which they are motivated differ.  My first team coach in basketball was just out of college teaching math to seventh graders.  He had high expectations of what we could do as individuals and as a team.  We would have jumped over the moon to please him.  He was tough!  We loved playing for him and as a result of hard work, effort, and his leadership, we produced a championship.  What we understood was that he related to  us not only as players, but he valued us as individuals.

My daughter also had a male coach during her stint playing basketball.  He had been a state champion boys’ coach and we were excited to have someone knowledgable leading the team.  However, the result was not the same.  She ended up not enjoying the experience and the next year decided to focus on track and field.  What was the difference I wondered?  He was tough, he challenged the players, he understood basketball, yet my daughter’s team experience had been difficult.  The players and parents were unhappy.  Performance suffered.  There was no doubt that the coach was very successful when he had coached boys. What had made the difference?

One of our female coaches who had played in college and was an All-American,  coached the 6th grade girls in basketball. Each day before practice, she would gather the 12 year-old girls around her in center court and ask them: “How was your day?  How is everyone feeling?” After some verbal exchange and an emotional “check-in,”  it was time to get down to work.  After practice she would challenge them to shoot the most shots before the next practice, with the winner receiving their favorite candy.  Before dismissing them, she then directed them to get into their cars and promptly thank their parents for driving them to and from practice. She reminded them that sacrifices were being made for them to have this experience.  In the end, her teams were consistently successful, winning games while enjoying the experience.

Each example demonstrates the value that female athletes place on relationship.  Although girls enjoy athletics as much as boys, the experience is perceived through contrasting mindsets.  In Deboer’s book, she discusses motivation and goals which are distinctively different for each gender.  Boys are productive because of heirarchy, with those boys at the top having proved their value to the team based on performance and skill.  Boys are motivated by the desire to be the best.  Girls are innately concerned with connectivity, more like a web. When each player belongs, they are willing to perform for the good of the group.  Don’t single out a girl to go “win the game” for you.  However, issue that challenge to your most skilled male player, and he will likely perform at a higher level.  Girls value relationships first.  Boys value performance first.

Just to be clear, these tendencies are not mutually exclusive.  As Deboer explains: “Traits do not exclude either gender, but do appear more frequently in one than the other.  Behavior is not gender-specific but it is undoubtedly gender-related.”

In my next post we will focus on the boys in competitive sports.



  1. I’m pretty sure you started this blog just for me!!! I feel a little special after reading your latest!!! Please don’t ever forget you were a HUGE part of our success and enjoyment.

    Liked by 1 person

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