When Jilyne, the Co-Founder and Executive Director, and my former college teammate, reached out to see if I’d be interested in being a mentor, my immediate gut reaction was “YES!”. I had been watching Jilyne’s work from afar and I was both impressed and envious. I wish that I’d had a female mentor to explicitly teach me the mental skills to get through the hard days, patches and sometimes years of my sport, alpine ski racing. I was thrilled by the idea that I could provide young female athletes an opportunity to learn skills to weather the hard times and to learn to excel in their sport and beyond. Selfishly, I hoped that I could help other girls avoid one of my lifelong regrets, quitting. I grew up as a competitive alpine ski racer. I attended a ski academy in high school and went on to ski for a Division 1 ski team in college. After several knee surgeries and a sabotaging negative mental game that I couldn’t shake, I quit after my sophomore year in college. And to this day, it’s still one of my biggest regrets in life. Maybe my goals as a prospective ZGiRLS mentor were too lofty. Maybe I was getting a little carried away. But I felt confident that ZGiRLS could help girls learn skills to be resilient and brave.
Over the course of the next three months, I began to suspect that my initial hopes as a ZGiRLS mentor were not over the top. What each girl put into the circle, they got out of the circle. If they had an open mind, if they participated, if they did the homework to apply the material, they saw big and small shifts that I have no doubt will change their lives forever. This may seem like a grandiose overstatement. But I sincerely stand by it. This was my expected outcome: the girls would eat up the curriculum and be courageous and strong and steer their lives in a direction that once felt unattainable. Don’t get me wrong, this outcome is not to be belittled, because it’s HUGE. The ZGiRLS curriculum does what it is intended to do. And that alone is incredible. But what I didn’t expect, and what came as a surprise, was friendship.
To set the stage, my huddle included a hodgepodge of five local girls: two of whom had moved to town this past year, one of whom didn’t participate in any sports, one of whom didn’t compete, one of whom competed in an individual sport not well recognized in our town, and two others in mainstream competitive sports. This was not a team who knew each other well. At our first huddle I looked around the room to see hands clasped tightly in laps, downcast eyes, and crossed legs. The ice breaker was a little painful to get through, and as we jumped into the meat of the curriculum I was nervous. As I began asking questions, one girl jumped in with timid exuberance to share that she had been to ZGiRLS camp the prior summer and that ZGiRLS was “THE BEST”. Immediately, I realized the power of ZGiRLS. This girl, amidst a bunch of hesitant classmates whom she didn’t really know took a chance, and bravely shared her love for ZGiRLS. She could have played it cool and resigned to the quiet hesitant demeanor of her peers, but instead she took a risk. She was indeed living courageously. The remainder of the first huddle was strained as I waited for the girls to share their experiences, answer questions, and participate in activities. An hour later, they all quickly said goodbye, found their parents and ushered them out the door. I was worried I might not see some of them in two weeks.
By the end of our second huddle, the girls were being silly, cracking jokes, and encouraging one another with big smiles and genuine words. With each huddle, the girls became more connected. Our huddles continued to gain momentum. I began to realize that the girls were arriving to the huddle earlier and earlier and began to linger longer and longer after each huddle. I would chat with their parents while the girls goofed off together during these pre- and post-huddle hangouts to hear that girls had gotten together to hike or bike, or spend time together. They were craving friendship with other girls who they could identify with and girls they related to. The girls would catch each other using negative self-talk and help reframe their thoughts. They would call out and celebrate each others’ wins for the whole group to honor. It was and is beautiful. And now, I’m even more envious of all of the ZGiRLS and future ZGiRLS out there! By participating in ZGiRLS, girls suddenly find themselves in a group of like-minded, positive, and motivated girls. Middle school can be hard. In my experience it was caddy, dramatic, and relatively depressing, and I walked around with my eyes glued to the linoleum floor. I had some good friends, but none of us were taking control of our mindset, being cognizant of our self-talk, improving our body image, or growing our confidence or setting goals. And let me tell you, ZGiRLS are. ZGiRLS are holding themselves and their fellow ZGiRLS accountable to be their best and most brave selves.
Written by ZGiRLS Mentor, Hannah Gooding