Gender and Competition Excerpt

It's a bit lengthy to read on a web page, but here's the Prologue from the book, which will give you a preview of what you'll find when you read it.


On an oppressively hot summer day two volleyball coaches sat on a wooden bleacher in a balcony overlooking a gym floor. Below them eight volleyball courts held a hundred high-school-age girls. From their perch, the gym floor resembled a popcorn popper, white volleyballs rebounding in random sequence from different courts.

Both onlookers were college coaches on recruiting trips. They held prospect lists on their laps and pencils in their hands. They watched the play with the sclerotic blankness of people who could no longer see the link between their present activity and their future. The man was head coach of women’s volleyball at the University of Colorado. The woman was head coach at the University of Kentucky.

They were good friends: he, part of a growing cadre of men entering the women’s coaching ranks; she, a veteran of ten years. Prior to accepting the women’s position at Colorado, he had spent a number of years as an assistant coach with the men’s national team. They had worked several clinics together and enjoyed debating each other about training techniques and match strategies.

As they aimlessly scanned the courts for an athlete who would make them pick up their pencil, he said casually, “I consider you a friend. Can I ask you a personal question?” Even with friends, she hated conversations that started this way, but without a ready excuse, she said, “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Why aren’t women competitive?” he asked in a matter-of-fact tone that assumed he was stating a truth and simply wanted the rationale behind it.

She stiffened. “You’re crazy,” she bristled, “Women are competitive!”

“No,” he countered assuredly as if settling down a child, “Women aren’t competitive like men are competitive.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” she snapped back incredulously. “Women are just as competitive as men and sometimes more so. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’ll tell you then,” he said, “Listen to this.”

He recounted a poignant memory from his days as an assistant coach with the men’s national team. They were playing an important match against Russia, a team that had dominated men’s volleyball for many years. On this night the American team was poised to upset them. A win would announce to the world that the United States was a team to be reckoned with on the international scene.

Late in the fifth game, the American head coach called his final timeout. The contest teetered in the balance; both teams had battled fiercely for two hours with neither able to gain a sustained advantage. This moment would be the head coach’s last chance to impact the outcome.

He made a few tactical adjustments. Then he turned to the team’s best player, a man named Karch, and said in a challenging voice, “It’s time for you to step it up. You’re our best player; you’re one of the best players in the world. Show that now! Win this thing for us.”

Karch set his jaw, looked the head coach straight in the eye and nodded. The other team members huddled closely around Karch and the head coach. They knew this was their chance. They all crowded together, joined hands and rousingly cheered, “USA!” before returning to the court.

Karch played the rest of the match with unwavering self-confidence and incredible energy. He made a critical defensive save, blocked a much taller opponent, and hit with a viciousness unusual even for him. His aggressiveness and sureness seemed to invigorate the rest of the team. The U.S. team won the match.

The male coach on the bleacher recalled the timeout and the win with a degree of reverence. He considered it a masterful bit of motivation by the head coach and filed it in his mental Roledex for future reference.

Several years later, a head coach himself, he was in a similar situation with his women’s intercollegiate team. They had a chance to beat Nebraska, a perennial power. A win would catapult them onto the national scene. The situation was the same—fifth game, close score, final timeout.

The male coach turned to his best player and repeated the words of his mentor, “Susan,” he said firmly, “it’s time for you to step it up. You’re our best player. Tonight you can prove you’re one of the best players in the country. Win this thing for us. Now!”

Susan quickly looked away from him and paled slightly. Puzzled, he increased the intensity of his challenge, “You can make yourself an All-American today, Susan! This is the match that gets it done. Prove it right now!”

Still looking at the floor Susan said through clenched teeth, “You don’t have to put this all on me.” Completely bewildered, the coach noticed that everyone on his team looked uneasy. They had physically moved away from each other, expanding the perimeter of his huddle.

Susan thrust out her hand decisively as the circle of her teammates widened. Still looking away, she said pleadingly, “Come on, let’s just play.”

What he had intended to be the most dramatic time-out of his career ended with a whimper instead of a bang. The team managed a weak and uncoordinated, “Go Buffs,” and returned silently to the court.

Susan’s play after the timeout was tentative and error filled. She shanked the first pass into the stands. On the second play, she hit the ball so far out of bounds that only the gym wall stopped its flight. On match point, the male coach’s team let a “free ball,” a routine play, land on the floor between two players. Point, game, match—Nebraska.

“I’ve never been so upset in my life,” the male coach moaned as he finished the story, “My team didn’t even compete. They just gave away the chance of a lifetime.” His female colleague could see in his countenance that the telling of the story had re-opened the wound caused by the loss. “Now do you see why I think women are not competitive?” he demanded.

“You’re a friend,” she said in her most conciliatory tone. “I feel like I can give you straight-forward, honest feedback.”

“Yeah, please,” he said, leaning toward her.

“You’re an idiot!”

“What do you mean?” he protested.

“I don’t know exactly,” she responded, “but I knew when you were telling me the story that what was said to Karch was not going to work with Susan.”

“Why?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said edgily, “but it has nothing to do with their individual competitiveness. I know that.”

“Then what?”

“I’m not sure,” she said her mood turning pensive, “but I knew it wouldn’t work.”

That exchange is the genesis of this book. I was that female coach and I wanted to figure out in my head what my gut told me was true. As I did, I realized it was a truth I had spent a great deal of time fighting, a truth I had denied to my own detriment as both an athlete and a coach. And yet, once it dawned on me, I knew it was a truth I had been living all my life.

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