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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.[1] 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.

[1] 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.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. In principle the same arguments could be advanced regarding “have a go” advice in pretty much any realm. Music, dance, art,
    performance… they can all be a source of anything from joy to humiliation depending on how you feel and how your audience reacts. If you’re not inclined towards those endeavours then you’re unlikely to get much out of them. Just as your hypothetical hockey player gets nothing out her 3-0 loss (or win), neither would my friend Owen get anything out of choral activities, since he is, is resigned to be, and is comfortable with being, the world’s worst singer.

    But I’m not sure where all this leads. Surely it’s not a big deal if representatives from sectors occasionally act as boosters for the things they’re interested in. You could argue it would be worse still if headmistresses* were obliged to give only the most brutal assessments of these things, e.g. “Sport: not for you, fat boy.” Or “Acting: it’s for the pretty ones.” Or “Charity: so you can feel good about yourself.” etc. And different endeavours do emphasise and enhance different virtues (and vices). Sport famously gives people some flavour of the martial virtues**, many of which really are virtues – courage, fortitude, teamwork, initiative. Sport isn’t the only place people can get this stuff, of course, but it’s one way. Dance may, for some people, encourage virtues, too. I have no idea what they are, but I guess persistence, physical fitness, and something about generally jumping up and down might be in order.

    But I think what the headmistress was getting at was that learning to lose, get over and not take it personally it is something which some people think some women are sometimes not perhaps qworld class at.***

    *Et cetera.
    **For example, I think the Duke of Wellington said something about the 2011 General Election being won on the playing fields of Eton.

  2. Argh! That posted before I had finished. After the first *** I meant to say this – my sister once went on a gender in the workplace course. She had been on many such courses and the usual story was basically that women’s workplace attitudes=good; men’s workplace attitudes=bad. I’m paraphrasing, of course – it’s supposed to take 3 hours and cost a thousand quid. But that was basically the message. Anyway, this one course said they thought that men did one thing well – that they could argue/fight for something and lose, and it wouldn’t affect workplace relationships. That was something, according to the course, that women were often less good at doing. For my sister, this was actually really really valuable, since she had seen that pattern a lot in her work life. I think this basic point is something like what Fraser is getting at. That sport is a great way to teach people how to lose gracefully, which you accept is valuable. And perhaps – and this is complete speculation – the folks (men or women) who are worst at personalising loss as adults may correlate with those who viscerally hate sport as kids. As you say, this is an empirical question. But I don’t think Fraser is going too far by speculating that there may be a link between workplace success and the learning of certain virtues as a youngster.

  3. I enjoyed reading Dave Frame’s rejoinder that Fraser is ‘’not going too far by speculating that there may be a link between workplace success and the learning of certain virtues as a youngster.’’

    I agree Fraser didn’t necessarily present convincing arguments of an empirical nature. As for the statement that ‘’without large scale empirical research, the claim that taking part in competitive sports builds transferable confidence and resilience remains a hypothesis and not a particularly convincing one. ’’- I’m not as judgemental. There is some data worth understanding.

    It’s a while back I read it but I recall Prof Betsey Stevenson, also chief economist at the US Department of Labor researched Title IX, the 1972 Education Amendments to the Civil Rights Act, which expanded high school athletic opportunities to include girls, revolutionizing mass sports participation in the United States. Girls’ sports participation rose dramatically both following the enactment of Title IX and subsequent to enhancements to its enforcement. She found that girls’ participation in high-school sports had increased dramatically.
    She identified a cause-and-effect relationship between school sports participation and achievement later in life. Increasing girls’ sports participation had a direct effect on women’s education and employment – a 10 per cent increase in women working full time and a 12 per cent spike in women employed in traditionally male-dominated occupations such as accounting, law and veterinary medicine. As Stevenson discovered, it is not just that the ‘people who are going to do well in life play sports; sports also help people to do better in life.’ As Stevenson concludes, and indeed as some empirical research I did (elite sports performers work talents psychologically compared to CEO’s) sport develops and rewards a lot of skills that are valued in the workplace: discipline, good-natured competition, teamwork, and the ability to engage with adults and a diverse set of peers.

    One of the specific conclusions Stevenson reached was,’’Quasi-experimental” evidence that high school sports yield traits that are productive in the labor market for the marginally treated woman.’’ Files/Children/SciResearchFam/Betsey Stevenson Estimatin causal Effect.pdf

    There wasan intriguing observation too that ‘’examining individual high school students, sports participation was seen more frequently among those with a privileged background: white students with married, wealthy, educated parents are more likely to play sports.’’ …….This finding pointed to an overlooked fact – while Title IX benefited girls by increasing the opportunity to play sports, ‘‘these benefits were disproportionately reaped by those at the top of the income distribution.’’ So yes that might well support the view that some individuals inclined to sport don’t need encouragement.

    Yes I agree it is easy to nitpick on some of Fraser’s claims. For every Lagarde (fascinating to speculate how her experience as a synchronised swimmer helped her career and composure on TV) and Rice there are female leaders who were not sporty. further even if you had masses of empirical research it would be open to interpretation in trying to separate correlation from association and pin down cause and effect and deal with the complexity of the variables.

    That said my own empirical psychological research and anthropological observations of female world champions and elite performers suggests that sport can dramatically accelerate talents and confidence central to workplace success. As to Maslen’s claim that’ sport will only build confidence and resilience in those who are unlikely to need persuading to participate in sport,’ I can’t say (long time since I read it ) whether Stevenson’s work disproves it or not but suspect that rather than dismissing it out of hand there is something in the role of sport (for both men and women) and the link with confidence, composure and network building worthy of further exploration.

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