This month we read Sisterhood in Sports - an in-depth look at women and girls in sport, telling the stories of a variety of female athletes. Dr Joan Steidinger is a licensed clinical and sports psychologist and a former competitive ultrarunner. She draws on a wide range of qualitative and quantitative data - from athlete and coach interviews, to anecdotes from her practice, to neurology research. While there could have been the inclusion of counter-arguments to some of the studies she referenced, it presented food for thought.
“Maintaining the relationship at all costs is the female brains goal.” Brizendine, The Female Brain.
The female brain operates differently from the male brain. The differences in how we function explain our differences in behaviour. Talking is a primary form of communication and essential to our success and overall experience. Understanding this need for connection helps us better understand female athletes.
Women think differently
There are dozens of studies evidencing how the female brain and hormones operate quite differently than those of men. In ‘The Female Brain’, Dr Louann Brizendine (1) states that “we are hardwired to be more social and verbal than our male counterparts”.
A number of behaviours can be explained by the function of the brain. Hormones like oxytocin, oestrogen and dopamine, for example, are all found in higher levels in the female than the male brain. In a study called ‘Inclusion of women in clinical trials’ (2), Jesse Berlin and Susan Ellenberg found that high oxytocin levels push females toward a wish for intimacy, oestrogen guides women on a daily basis toward deeper emotional connection, and dopamine directly relates to pleasure and motivation. These hormones have been shown to contribute to women’s desire for bonding and the tendency to focus on relationships.
Dr Brizendine establishes the significance of words to women, “language is the glue that connects one female to another”. Based on her research, she hypothesises that women use around 20,000 words per day, while men use 7,000. Other studies dispute the number of words suggested, but agree that women talk more about other people and relationships than men. Language and social connections are critical to women’s satisfaction and success in life.
Female athletes need connection
“Female athletes have different needs from male athletes” (Brizendine, The Female Brain), and this is especially true in how women communicate and form relationships. Women look for ongoing and regular spoken communication with those in their training network to feel connected and supported.
When under extreme stress and pressure, as is often the case in training and competition, female
athletes look to their relationships for assistance. This could be from a coach, team mates, training partners etc. The results of ‘Tend and Befriend’, a study that looked at women and stress (3), exemplified this fact. The study shows that emotional intimacy plays a pivotal role in women’s lives and that ongoing verbal communication and strong interpersonal relationships are integral to the success of females in training and competition. Having personal connection and support allows women to reach their maximum potential - or as we like to say, helps them realise their power.
Here are a few ways to approach your female relationships within sport.
- Importance of shared experience - the connection is strongest when you do the same sport.
- Value vulnerability - open forum for what’s difficult, how you’re feeling, why it’s hard.
- Truly celebrate each other's successes - reach out and congratulate.
- Think beyond just training partners - emotional connection is important with coaches too.
1. Dr Louann Brizendine, The Female Brain, 2006
2. Jesse A Berlin and Susan S Ellenberg, “Inclusion of women in clinical trials,” BMC Medicine 7, 2009
3. Dr Shelly E Taylor, ‘Tend and Befriend’, 2000