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