Fostering the ‘female warrior’ in sports

Athletics experts on nurturing strength in women and girls


I have seen over the years some athletes so mentally tough they would run through a wall when asked, get up, dust themselves off and repeat the feat. I’ve also seen some athletes who virtually were wuzzes — couldn’t handle the least bit of pain or saw adversity as higher than the highest mountain to overcome.

(l-r) DeLaSalle Girls’ Basketball Coach Faith Johnson Patterson, U-M kinesiology doctoral candidate Vicki Schull, Prior Lake Soccer Club Coach Kari Ornes and U-M Associate Head Volleyball Coach Laura Bush
Photo by Charles Hallman

Here’s the Carly Simon question — I bet you thought the former was a male, and a female the latter (buzzer sounds) — you’re wrong. Unfortunately the perception still exists that female athletes can’t be tough, resilient or competitive, and sometimes that perception is carried by females as well as their male counterparts.

The University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center last month co-hosted a day-long Women’s Coaches Symposium February 7 at the school’s football stadium as part of the Women’s and Girls in Sport Week. “Developing the Female Athlete as Warrior” was explored and discussed by a panel of three current coaches and a U-M kinesiology school doctoral candidate and former college coach.

Developing “that warrior mentality” indeed is challenging, noted DeLaSalle Head Girls’ Basketball Coach Faith Johnson Patterson. “I’m dealing with a group of kids that lack confidence,” she disclosed. The only female basketball coach in 2011 named as one of the top five coaches in Minnesota’s 100 years of state high school basketball tournaments reiterated that female warriors also are “focused on their goals … [and have] a good work ethic.”

“We want all our players to be female warriors” but too often when a female athlete displays warrior-like traits, they’re seen as “a b***h,” said Minnesota Associate Head Volleyball Coach Laura Bush. “From my perspective as a coach, it’s recognizing that there are some athletes who simply do not want the female warrior’s role. Then there are athletes who naturally put themselves in that female warrior’s role, where they are ready to just assume these behaviors — they learned it somewhere.”

Depending on the sport, you will see female warriors, Bush added. “Under pressure or stress, whatever the occasion they are able to instinctively be available to perform under all conditions.”

“What we value in warriors and what we value in leadership is traditionally [defined] in terms of masculinity, maleness and men,” said Vicki Schull, who before pursuing her Ph.D. coached college softball for 11 years. She examined female college athletes’ perceptions for her dissertation.

Kari Ornes polled her Prior Lake Soccer Club players on what they think a female warrior is: “Some of the little kids came up with adjectives such as ‘fast’ and ‘quick’ — very skill-related [terms],” revealed the club’s coaching director. “When I got to the 16 and 17 year olds, they came with a little more cognitive [thinking] and talked about being fierce and courageous, being empowered and being engaged.”

Bush pointed out that it’s her responsibility as coach to let the female athlete define what being a warrior means to her within her personality.

“As coaches, how do we provide the environment for the female athlete where we can encourage their warrior spirit to come out?” asked Ornes.

Johnson Patterson said she constantly advises her players to be “strong women … Don’t care what others think. I’m constantly educating our athletes … that’s it’s okay” to be both female and tough.


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