Team spirit

Be­ing part of a squad teaches girls lessons both on the pitch, and off it

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - WELLBEING -

THERE are a few com­monly sug­gested ideas to help women achieve gen­der par­ity in the work­place. De­pend­ing on who you lis­ten to, women should bridge the con­fi­dence gap, be­come more as­sertive and, to quote, Sh­eryl Sand­berg, ‘lean in’.

Most women try­ing to get ahead in the work­ing world will agree that these are im­por­tant self-de­vel­op­ment goals — per­haps with­out re­al­is­ing that they can com­plete the hat-trick by do­ing just one thing: team sports.

The link be­tween team sports and ca­reer suc­cess is by no means ten­u­ous. Study af­ter study has proved that young women who play sports — team sports es­pe­cially — go on to se­cure bet­ter po­si­tions in the work­place, and earn higher salaries.

When Ernst & Young sur­veyed 821 high-level ex­ec­u­tives in the US, they dis­cov­ered that 90pc of the women played sport. Closer to home, re­searchers in the UK dis­cov­ered that peo­ple who par­tic­i­pate in team sports are 3.5pc more likely to land a job.

An­other study that came out of Cor­nell Univer­sity, and ap­peared in the Jour­nal of Lead­er­ship & Or­gan­i­sa­tional Stud­ies, found that teenagers who played sports de­vel­oped stronger lead­er­ship skills, worked bet­ter in teams and demon­strated more con­fi­dence.

The take­away is that the lessons young women learn in a team sport en­vi­ron­ment stand to them in later life. Com­pet­i­tive­ness, per­se­ver­ance, de­ter­mi­na­tion — it all comes into play once they en­ter the work­ing world.

Would a woman who has learned how to de­fend her po­si­tion on the foot­ball pitch back down dur­ing salary ne­go­ti­a­tions? Would a woman who knows how to tackle on the hockey pitch be bet­ter at get­ting past what sales ex­perts call “gate­keep­ers”?

Like­wise, it is of­ten said that men are bet­ter del­e­ga­tors than women, but we should re­mem­ber that girls who play team sports are taught when to pass the ball.

Meg Whit­man, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was a keen sportswoman dur­ing her school and col­lege days, play­ing lacrosse, ten­nis and bas­ket­ball.

In her book, The Power of Many, she said she con­tin­ues to strate­gise in sport­ing terms. “I liked team sports the best,” she writes. “When I’m pulling a busi­ness team to­gether, I still use those bas­ket­ball apho­risms I learned as a young per­son: ‘Let’s pass the ball around a lit­tle be­fore game time.’ ‘Do we need manto-man or zone defence?’”

It stands to rea­son that women who play team sports are more ef­fi­cient com­mu­ni­ca­tors, who make their point clearly and em­phat­i­cally — some­thing to think about if you pref­ace email re­quests with ‘just’ and en­ter con­ver­sa­tions with the ver­bal tic of ‘sorry’.

An­other in­ter­est­ing study from Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity found that women work bet­ter in fe­male-cen­tric groups. How­ever, if a com­pet­i­tive col­lab­o­ra­tor is added to the mix, the group dy­namic dis­man­tles.

“Women con­trib­uted less and less to the team’s cre­ative out­put when the com­pe­ti­tion be­tween teams be­came cut­throat, and this fall-off was most pro­nounced in teams com­posed en­tirely of women,” said the study’s lead au­thor.

Con­sider this in sport­ing terms. A young woman will in­vari­ably be on a team with peo­ple who are faster, stronger and bet­ter than she is, but she quickly learns to over­come envy and anx­i­ety for the greater good of the col­lec­tive.

The world’s most cel­e­brated fe­male team play­ers have talked about the per­ils of in­ter­group com­pe­ti­tion and the com­par­i­son trap.

For­mer pro­fes­sional soc­cer player Mia Hamm, for in­stance, al­ways pointed out that she was one of many and “no bet­ter or worse than any sin­gle player on this team”.

When they are part of a group dy­namic — on the pitch or off it — women who play team sports are al­ways think­ing of the united ef­fort. Sure, they are aware of their own unique abil­i­ties, but they are also keenly aware that ev­ery­one has a role to play.

It’s a mind­set that no doubt comes in handy when fe­male ri­val­ries and so­cial hi­er­ar­chies emerge in school and, later, in the work­place.

Writ­ing in Sis­ter­hood in Sport, Dr Joan Stei­dinger says cliques will of­ten de­velop in young women’s sports team dur­ing what she calls the “Mean Girls years”, but a good coach will al­ways do what needs to be done to bring the team back to a co­he­sive unit.

“When cliques form within a sports team, which they in­evitably will, dis­rup­tive girls may be taken aside and talked to,” she says. “Even if great play­ers on the team, they may need to be benched dur­ing games, pulled out of events and so forth.”

This sis­ter­hood pro­vides a later life net­work — an op­por­tu­nity that men have long played to their ad­van­tage. We’ve all heard of Wall Street’s ‘Lacrosse Mafia’, and no­ticed how men who play rugby to­gether tend to do busi­ness to­gether too.

It is also said that men tend to ben­e­fit more from busi­ness men­tors. Could it be ar­gued that this is be­cause they have more ex­pe­ri­ence of the coach/player re­la­tion­ship? A good coach is much like a good men­tor — they act as cham­pion, cheer­leader and con­fi­dante; recog­nis­ing the po­ten­tial of their player and push­ing them to­wards it.

This in turn builds self-es­teem and con­fi­dence, which we all know is just as im­por­tant as com­pe­tence in the work­place.

In an in­ter­view with this news­pa­per ear­lier this year, Ir­ish women’s rugby cap­tain Ni­amh Briggs ad­mit­ted that she didn’t have a lot of con­fi­dence when she was younger, “but play­ing sport at a high level gives you that be­lief that you can be what­ever you want to be”.

Sportswomen ev­ery­where will no doubt agree.

Would a woman who has learned to de­fend her po­si­tion on the foot­ball pitch back down dur­ing salary ne­go­ti­a­tions?

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