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Learning What Team Really Means

by Mariah Burton Nelson

What's going on here? Over 90,000 people flocked to the final game of the Women's World
Cup. The Women's National Basketball Association averaged almost 11,000 fans per game
last year, and that's up 12 percent this season. Even the Women's Pro Softball League
recently got better TV ratings than a (men's) Major League Soccer game shown during the same time slot. How come American sports fans' fascination with female athletes has shifted from skirted skaters (Dorothy Hamill, Michelle Kwan) and tiny teenage tumblers (Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug) to rough, muscular women in their 20s and 30s who grunt, grimace and heave each other aside with their hips? Are we simply wild over their athletic brilliance?

"The difference between a friend and a teammate is this:

A friend loves you;

a teammate supports you to achieve your goals."

Or does the popularity of women's team sports tell us something deeper about how female athletes and fans are redefining themselves, what they really want and who they might become?

One obvious reason for our adoration is that American women are the best team athletes in the world. They rock. They rule. What's not to love? They're good sports, too, apparently unpolluted by the violence and greed that plague men's sports. Then there's the role-model thing: "Little girls need big girls to look up to," said basketball star Teresa Edwards.

But there's something else underlying all the hype and hoopla. I know I learned about more
than hook shots and rebounds when I played basketball at Stanford back in the late '70s and later as a professional, here and in Europe. Now, as millions of girls grow up playing team sports, they, too, are discovering how to embrace victory unapologetically and other essential life lessons. Older women watching the Mia Hamm generation sense this, and want to get in
on the action. Here's some of what team-sport athletes know:

They know who their teammates really are. Most women are good at friendships, but how
many have teammates who don't just sympathize, but help us achieve success? A friend
might say, "I don't want to start a business with you because it might hurt our relationship.
'' A teammate says, "Of course I'll do it with you: we share the same vision and passion, so we'll be successful.''

They know how to compete. Non-athletes tend to avoid competition and believe friends
shouldn't compete, according to a survey in my book "Embracing Victory.'' Athletes don't see competition as divisive; they use it to connect. They play hard in practice, knowing their best efforts help teammates improve. They shake hands with opponents, grateful for the challenge.

They know how to lead. One day when I was 12, the girls on the playground circled around
me, asking, "Can we play softball? Can I pitch?'' I wondered: ''Why are they asking me?'' But
I decided: "If people are going to look up to me, I ought to become the sort of person who's worth looking up to." Later, as captain and leading scorer at Stanford, I tried to bring hope
and enthusiasm to the team each day. That's how people become leaders: they practice.

They know how to bond. When I speak to women's business groups, the complaint I hear
most often is, "The women in my office don't support each other." Girls who learn to compete only over beauty and boyfriends grow up to be women who don't bond in the workplace, don't share information, don't mentor. Team athletes support other women. "Walking side by side over many miles of tough terrain, it brings you closer," says soccer's Michelle Akers. "It's a shared vision of who we are."

They know how to take risks. When we needed to score, my teammates used to pass me the ball-even though I sometimes dribbled off my foot instead. Athletes don't always succeed, but they're willing to take public risks, which inspires women whose fears of looking foolish keep them safely seated on the sidelines.

They know how to ask for help. In basketball, athletes on defense need to yell "HELP!" Such public pleas are humbling, and debunk the Superwoman myth. We really don't have to be the perfect worker, mother, partner, friend. We can and must ask for help-in life, as in sports.

They know how to forgive themselves. When girls start playing sports, they say "I'm sorry"
a lot. But eventually they stop apologizing and focus on their next achievement. How
appealing to those of us who torture ourselves with self-recriminations!

They know that women are strong, successful and free. With their high-fives, hugs and aggressive, competitive play, female team athletes represent who many of us want to be, or want our daughters to be.

By pursuing victory in a context of friendship, support, respect and celebration, team-sport athletes are redefining what it means to be an athlete, and what it means to be female. No wonder we love them. They show us our future: female bonding, and female excellence, at its best.

Mariah Burton Nelson is a professional speaker and national expert on leadership, sports and success.  She is a former college and pro basketball player, journalist for several major publications including Newsweek, New York Times and The Washington Post and wrote the first nationally syndicated women’s sports column.  Mariah is also President of the D.C. chapter of the National
Speakers Association.  For information on her speaking and training programs call 352-438-0261  E-mail  [email protected] or visit www.ExpertSpeaker.com/Speakers/nelson.htm
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