Girls should do competitive sports to ‘build confidence and resilience’. Really?
The chief executive of the Girls Day School Trust claimed this week that girls should take part in competitive sport as a way to build confidence and resilience. The claim is particularly about taking part in sports where one wins or loses. As far as is reported, these claims are not based on studies showing the psychological effects of participation in competitive sport, but are nonetheless presented as a supplementary argument for girls to do more sports in schools. Obviously, the primary argument will always be that doing sport is good for your health.
Without large scale empirical research, the claim that taking part in competitive sports builds transferable confidence and resilience remains a hypothesis. I am going to suggest that it is not a particularly convincing one (especially when applied to all girls, and in particular to the girls whom Fraser hopes will take up sport) and that any rhetoric accompanying a drive to promote exercise should stick to the more fundamental argument that it improves health.
Building confidence and resilience
Behind Fraser’s claim that competitive sport builds confidence and resilience is the suggestion that sport can help girls cope with failure. Fraser argues that “Girls who are in schools which focus solely on academic achievement can experience success after success, and may never learn that you can have a real setback and come back and recover”. Considering sport as a route to a sort of ‘reality-check’ to balance otherwise unfettered success, she suggests, “The experience of losing a hockey game three-nil and carrying on to another match builds resilience”.
In making her claim, Fraser cites research that suggests that more than 80% of senior women business leaders played organised sports while growing up. She says similar high proportions of female executives believe sport made them more disciplined, resilient and competitive in their careers. She cites examples of women of formidable success who took part in competitive sports: former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was once a competitive figure skater and tennis player; the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, was in the French national synchronized swimming team.
Teaching young people that they will encounter failure in life and that this is not a disaster is indeed a laudable aim. However, I do not think that sport is always likely to be the route to achieve this, especially for girls who are not inclined to do sport – the very same individuals Fraser is trying to persuade most with her argument.
A ‘failure’ only really counts for someone as a failure if the person is invested in succeeding (in that domain)
I think it is doubtful that coming to terms with failure in sport will transfer to attitudes towards failure in academic and career domains unless the individual places significant weight on sporting success and failure. It might objectively be the case that my team lost in a hockey match but if I don’t care about the result then I will not use that experience of losing as a lesson for how to cope when I don’t do well in an exam or fail to secure a business deal at work. For most people, a loss in a game of snakes and ladders would not teach them anything about resilience. For girls who are not inclined towards competitive sports, losing in a game of tennis may be of similarly small consequence. The key is in Fraser’s use of the word ‘real’. For some girls, losing a sports match will not constitute a ‘real setback’, at least not in the way required to learn about hard-won success. If Fraser’s aim is to encourage less sporty girls to participate, it is problematic that those she is attempting to encourage are not likely to be particularly invested in their sporting prowess.
What about the women who claim otherwise?
The women who attribute their discipline, resilience and competitiveness in their careers to participation in sport may well have benefited from it in this way. However, I suggest it is likely that they were individuals who would have been inclined towards sport, without need of encouragement. As accomplished sportswomen, the examples of Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde are not representative of the average girl who needs to be persuaded to participate in sport. Whilst it might be true that competitive, resilient sportswomen often cope well with the challenges of business and politics, this does not entail that encouraging the average girl to participate in sports will lead to her developing these traits.
Again, I am not suggesting that competitive sport is never beneficial in the ways Fraser suggests. The businesswomen who attest to its developmental importance are testament to its potential positive psychological effects. My claim is that sport will only build confidence and resilience in those who are unlikely to need persuading to participate in sport.
What lessons might the athletically-disinclined learn from competitive sports?
Perhaps there are other psychological benefits to participating in competitive sport that would accrue to the girl who does not take winning and losing seriously or even dislikes all competitive sport. She might learn that ‘sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do’ or ‘you will have to face embarrassment and anxiety from time to time’. Such lessons could lead to a sort of resilience – perhaps beleaguered resignation - but I doubt this is representative of the confidence-building, positive effect that Fraser has in mind. In these cases, instead of competitive sport building great resolve in the face of uncertain success, the athletically-disinclined girl will learn that sometimes it’s just not worth trying; one just has to endure. This is not quite the inspiring, ‘go-get-um’ message I think Fraser wants to convey.
Emphasise health benefits
This is not an argument against promoting sport in school. The importance of good nutrition and exercise (competitive and non-competitive) should be taught and encouraged, and sporting opportunities should be readily available. Rather, my suggestion is that the reasons given in support of this should appeal to health benefits, and not to effects on confidence, especially when the aim is to get unsporty girls to participate. For some girls who haven’t really tried sport, being persuaded to participate might lead to the discovery of new talents and interests. But for the girls who know they don’t like sports, telling them that competing and facing failure will build their confidence might be seen as patronizing and could undermine the key focus on keeping healthy in a way that suits the individual.
 Whilst the arguments here are about girls, it would be interesting to consider whether the same confidence-building rhetoric would be advanced in relation to boys’ participation in competitive sports.