To have fun. To make friends. These are two of the most common reasons young girls begin playing sports.
Social connection is important to girls, and for good reason. It is an underlying value that is ingrained through our sociocultural climate, with girls learning at a young age the importance of cooperation, sharing, being “nice,” and taking care of others.
There is great strength in these strategies. After all, it is this attention to forming connections that allows girls (and later, women) to have compromise, empathy, emotional intelligence, and cohesion – all skills that are related to effective leadership and enhanced performance. The social aspect of sport is therefore incredibly important for girls. More important, perhaps, than coaches realize or dedicate time to addressing.
Of course parents understand the importance of the social side of sports. They see the fun their daughter has when she engages with her teammates, and so they help facilitate bonding activities (such as secret pals and team dinners), and support other out-of-sport activities (like movie nights and sleepovers). Collectively, these great activities help girls to form deeper friendships.
But on the other hand, parents also see the pain that is experienced when team dynamics are negative and maladaptive. They watch when their daughter isn’t having fun, and notice when she dreads going to practice. Sometimes parents notice when their daughter’s performance is affected by poor team dynamics, or even when she loses self-esteem because of a bad experience with a teammate.
Much is at stake when there is disconnection within a team.
As a sport psychologist, I see two related problems that are a part of the complicated picture of female athletes and team dynamics.
First, I hear complaints of teams being fraught with cliques, holding grudges against each other, and engaging in hurtful activities, such as talking behind each other’s backs. These problems occur and are sustained by indirect communication – a communication strategy that our society continues to teach girls and women to use. The most popular short-term strategy of indirect communication is avoidance. It is this tendency for indirectness that leads girls to be hurtful to each other.
When an athlete feels disconnected from her teammates, it can lead to a very painful and helpless feeling. So how can parents help? If you notice your athlete struggling with disconnection within her team, consider the following tips:
(1) Recognize the importance of connection for your young athlete. See it as a developmentally appropriate and culturally constructed need that has great purpose and strength. It does not signal dependency or neediness.
- Share this perspective openly with your daughter, so she internalizes that her connection needs are normal and healthy.
- Express compassion and understanding for the situation.
- Talk about connection and team bonds in this way with coaches.
(2) Encourage your daughter to use direct communication with teammates and coaches.
- Help her practice direct communication by modeling it at home.
- Role play with her to give her practice when there is a situation that needs addressing.
- Encourage her to verbalize her feelings, even if it is just to you, but ideally to those who are part of the problem. Discourage the temptation for her to text it – voice it!
(3) Encourage your daughter to think of her own strategies that would create more inclusion with teammates.
- Help her brainstorm ways she can control and direct engagement with her teammates.
- Support team bonding/building activity ideas, even if indirect but positive (cards, messages, etc.)
- Help her know her own values when it comes to how she wants to act as a teammate.
(4) Help reframe ranking of priorities for motivation in sport and find support in other activities.
- Redirect her focus to other aspects of participation that are important to her (learning, skill development, and other enjoyable aspects of the sport culture)
- Help her see she has other sources for friendships, and support the cultivation of those relationships.
- Broaden opportunities to make additional friends outside of sport.
Finally, the second factor contributing to maladaptive team dynamics is the difficulty and discomfort that female athletes often experience when they are in direct competition with their friends. This goes against a lifetime of socialization, and for females, competing is often seen as a way for disconnection to occur. And remember, the loss of connection is very threatening for girls. Then, add the fact that female athletes are naturally competitive, and girls find themselves in a complicated values conflict. To make matters more challenging, girls usually manage this conflict with indirect communication and avoidance.
The best way to alleviate the problem is through open and direct communication. However, this solution also requires a shift in perspective, one where girls can actually maintain their friendships even in the context of competition. This is a paradoxical thought that might take some convincing for female athletes to adopt!
This is a complicated topic and I’d love to talk more about it. Please join me for ZGiRLS’ upcoming webinar “Cliques vs. Teamwork: Healthy Team Dynamics in Sports” on Monday, February 22nd at 6pm PST.
We will have a more in-depth discussion about ways that you can help decrease the threat of competition for your daughter, and how you can support a healthy competitive team environment filled with connection. I look forward to hearing your stories and ideas. Please send questions in advance to email@example.com that you would like to make sure are answered in the webinar!