You Hit Like a Girl

You hit like a girl!

I was sitting in the bleachers at my school enjoying a youth football game when I heard those words come from a coach directed at his running back. Apparently, the running back was not being aggressive enough and as a way to motivate, the coach decided to use that sentence.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard that sentence. I remember the first time I put on a helmet and was asked to tackle my teammate in a drill. I lined up, barely able to see out of my helmet because it had come down to cover most of my eyes when I heard the whistle blow.

The ball carrier ran towards me and I was terrified. I closed my eyes, opened my arms, and braced for impact. The wind was knocked out of me and I started to cry.

“Get up, Leath,” coach says.

I could barely breathe. My teammate helped me up and the coach walked over to me.

I finally catch my breath only to receive the next devastating blow, one that will hurt me much longer than the previous one.

“You hit like a girl, and now you are crying like one,” he says.
I can’t see through my tears and I try with everything in me to catch my breath.

“Go to the end of the line, and come back when you decide to man up!”

I was nine years old.

It was years before I realized how damaging that can be to a young boy. When a coach tells a young boy in front of his friends he is playing like a girl, that has the power to destroy him.

And more importantly, what does teach him about girls? It took me a long time to answer that question for myself. In that moment, I was taught that girls are physically weak; that crying is an emotion that displays weakness and therefore reserved for girls and that behavior won’t be tolerated.

Children get the foundation of their identity, beliefs, and values from the people they meet on their journey through childhood. Parents get the first shot at passing on their knowledge and experience to their kids, but as they get older, teachers, religious leaders, and coaches gain credibility in the eyes of the student and an identity is formed that will later define who that young person becomes.

So when Cam Newton expresses how it is “funny” that a woman can understand routes in football, he takes all the fall out (and he should have consequences for such an ignorant statement). But we forget that apparently the many men in his life were either silent on negative gender specific stereotypes or a more likely scenario is that those men encouraged male-dominant behavior. Yes, he apologizes, but how unfortunate that he even said it in the first place.

A great coach will take Newton’s terrible choice of words and use it as a teachable moment for young boys to learn that young girls grow up into strong women and the world needs both strong men and strong women, working together.

I think a great myth in America is that sports build character. This is false.

Respect for women is learned when men model that behavior to the young boys who want to be just like their coach. As coaches, we have been given a transformational voice that, if used intentionally, can help create a future where we don’t repeat our mistakes. It is an honor to have that voice, and we should all be reminded that we will be held accountable for our actions for every athlete who has us listed in their phone as “Coach.”

Two girls I coached that were among the best on the team.

  No written word, nor spoken plea
  Can teach the kids what they should be.
  Not all the books on all the shelves
  It’s what the teachers are themselves.
               
            -Ronald Gallimore, quoted by John Wooden
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As a Leadership Coach at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, James Leath teaches athletes from the professional ranks all the way down to elementary school about character and leadership of self, team, coaches and critics. His widely read blog at jamesleath.com is a top resource that educates athletes, coaches, and parents in sport psychology and personal development. James is currently finishing a graduate degree in Performance Psychology.