When girls play sports, tears will be shed

January 25, 1998|By Susan Reimer

ON NEW YEAR'S Day, Nike launched a new advertising campaign, one that is chronicling the championship season of the Charleston Cougars, a fictional, high school girls' basketball team.

In a series of 10 ads to be released between now and March, Nike will introduce us to the players in vignettes that deal with one or another aspect of team sports:

Tryouts and the moment when you see your name on the team roster; the feeling of a brand-new uniform; the tortures of practice the day after you lose to a team you should have `D beaten; playing on the home court of last year's champions; hanging out in a hotel room when the team is on the road; the night when all your shots fall through the hoop.

"The ads are going for the universal experiences of sports," said Kathryn Reith, spokeswoman for Nike's women's sports division. What it is like to be part of a team, whether you are on a high school girls' basketball team or a pro football team.

"It is about the experiences athletes share."

I asked Reith if there was crying.

"Crying?" she asked, a little confused.

Yes, I said. Crying. That's the shared experience of all the young female athletes I know.

I never played sports, so I can't speak from personal experience, I said. My husband played many sports, but all of them with his brothers and other boys.

But after careful observation of our daughter and her friends and teammates, we have concluded that crying must be the universal experience of girls in sports.

"There is no crying in basketball," exclaimed one soft-spoken dad/coach when one of his players burst into tears after his mildly impassioned instructions.

He was baffled, he told me, and I am sure he thinks he must hand out future coaching directions on flowered stationery.

Relationships are the meat and potatoes of girls' lives, and they don't leave them on the bench with their warm-up jackets and their water bottles.

It doesn't matter what kind of talent you have on the floor, if the girls are sulking or angry, the team will lose.

If they are feuding on the court, they will feud in real life. If they are feuding in real life, they will feud on the court.

A coach can't bench one player and start another in her place without first making an appointment for a group-therapy session.

If he yells at a player, he might as well remove her from the game, because she will be paralyzed by shame and self-doubt. And yet these same sensitive creatures can rip each other to shreds behind their backs.

The coach can't call for more passing, because the last one to take a shot will think he is talking about her, and she wouldn't shoot again if she were alone on the court.

He can't ask for better team rebounding because every player will think he is complaining about her rebounding.

And this appears to be true, not just at the recreational level, but at every level of girls sports.

"With men, coaching was a constant process of lancing overgrown egos," Anson Dorrance, head coach of the legendary University of North Carolina women's soccer team, once explained. "With women, it's a constant process of building egos up."

His dynasty has won 15 national championships in 17 years, and lost only four games in the last 296 it has played. He has coached the best women to ever play the game of soccer, and he says:

"I am constantly amazed by how little confidence even my most talented players have."

Dorrance's success can be explained by the tremendous players he recruits, his brutal conditioning program and his head for the game.

But the first building block in his program is "camaraderie." He convinces his players that they are playing not for North Carolina, not for a national crown, but for one another, for the players who have come before and the players who will come after.

In other words -- relationships.

"If you have been involved in sports long enough, the sport itself loses its allure," Dorrance said before his team won this year's NCAA title. "But what I think always captivates you are the people you spend four years with.

"You want to do well by them."

Title IX was not enough. Girls sports are not just about money, scholarships, coaches, facilities and opportunities. All the money the world can't buy a girl's freedom from the tyranny of her tender feelings, her need to please, her need to build relationships.

To succeed in sports, a girl must give in to the natural forces of competition and excellence and stop wondering if her teammates like her or if her coach is mad at her.

She must be what they say about the best men players: "He was unconscious."

The final installment in the Nike advertising series is called "The Championship," and you can guess the happy ending to the Charleston Cougars' season. It hasn't aired yet, of course, and I bet the girls will be crying.

That's the thing about girls' sports. After a big game it is hard to tell the winners from the losers, because everybody is crying.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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