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September 27, 2010

Are You Ambitious Enough?

Women who abandon competitive sports after high school may be giving up on ambition and losing their game.

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woman crossing finish line

Photo Credit: Getty Image/Getty Image

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I avoid losing, which also means that I avoid winning. I don't play board games, place bets, or actively follow a sports team. And when I play tennis, I don't keep score. My hitting partner and I stick to ground strokes, standing at the center of the baseline, thwacking the ball like a well-balanced metronome. Once in a while, the heat rises and I thread a backhand down the line or she rips a forehand crosscourt. But we'd sooner hurl our rackets at each other than actually beat each other. In our games, social niceties seem more important than winning—I would hate it if someone didn't have fun.

I didn't always feel this way. In high school, I loved tennis matches. Through competing, I knew I was learning important things—how to be a good sport, how to strategize, how to handle pressure. Then, at a certain point in college, while the guys joined club or intramural athletic leagues, we girls started heading to the gym, where we stepped onto the elliptical and stopped keeping score. Athletics became about fitness, not a release valve for aggression or ambition. Now out of school and navigating adulthood, my female friends and I face competitive situations all the time—at work, in negotiations, even hailing a cab. By avoiding the kind of organized competition we had in high school, might we be missing out on some kind of important training? Could thinking about game plans on a tennis court help us be strategic about other, more important things?

It turns out women's tendency to avoid competition does have consequences, which researchers are just now beginning to examine. In a 2005 study titled "Do Women Shy Away From Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?" economists from Stanford and the University of Pittsburgh gave both sexes the option to compete in a tournament involving solving math problems. Despite performing just as well as the men, the women were less than half as likely to choose the tournament. Women's aversion to competition, the authors concluded, might explain workplace gender discrepancies, including wage differences. Other studies have shown the benefits of playing competitive sports last long after girls hang up their racquets. Wharton economist Betsey Stevenson has studied how the Title IX legislation has affected women's professional paths. She found that increased athletic opportunities for girls in high school and college account for about 4 percent of the rise in the female labor force, and about 15 percent of the rise in women employed in "male" occupations, like construction, since 1972. It's easy to imagine that those benefits might be even greater if girls continued competitive athletics into adulthood.

With this in mind, I signed up for a weekend-long tennis camp last summer—not to pretty my strokes, but to practice competing. For six hours a day, I thought about when to lob, when to serve wide, and when to approach the net. And I kept score. (When I play with a girl outside camp, she rarely wants to tally points, no matter how good she is. Guys, even those whose swings look painful, more often do.)

During the first round of mini-match play, I made dumb errors and lost a lot, to players I should have beaten: a ropy woman with a swing like a marionette, a plastic surgeon who had recommended Botox for tennis elbow. And then, as the end of camp ap-proached and I began to relax—focusing on the point at hand and not the outcome—my doubles partner and I started winning. After one weak backhand into the net, I looked over at my partner, a former community-college tennis coach, and apologized. "No big deal," she said. She was happy, soaking in the sun. Then she caught sight of one of our opponents, the last of the day: the plastic surgeon. "That's the kind of guy who tells you he's a doctor first thing," she said, and wolfishly grinned. "Let's mess up his face."

We won that match, and I was having fun: moving into the ball, being more aggressive, and perfecting a better balance on my shots. Suddenly, I had a sanctioned outlet for blowing off steam and winning—unlike in college, when my competitive energy, and that of hundreds of alpha girls, I imagine, got redirected into sizing each other up in the classroom, the dining hall, and even on the elliptical.

Our coach gave me a big hug, saying he was proud of my improvement. And when I came home, a newfound assertiveness crept into the way I planned my work and days. Soon after camp, I was delayed for hours on a train trip due to an accident ahead. The next morning, it occurred to me—as it never had before—to call Amtrak and argue for a voucher for the ticket price. It was granted, much to my satisfaction. Perhaps that was the point of competition, after all. Cultivating confidence, knowing when to take risks and when to wait, wanting to succeed but recognizing the possibility of failure—those are lessons taught on the athletic fields.

Louisa Thomas is a writer in New York. Her first book, Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family—A Test of Will and Faith in World War I, comes out next summer.


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