How Sports Gave Me Swagger

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood reveals how high school athletics influenced her career.

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I am shy. I also have a big ego. Practically speaking, that means everyone is looking at me, and it makes me uncomfortable. Actually, "big ego" has a negative connotation. I'll say "healthy ego." Which, sadly, for women, still has a negative connotation. We aren't supposed to have an ego. It's unseemly. It's arrogant. It's not ladylike. Serena Williams was called cocky when she said she wanted to be the best in the world. Well, what the hell is she training so relentlessly for, to be the 37th best in the world? (No disrespect to the 37th best in the world.) A poster of Serena in mid–epic scream should be required on every little girl's bedroom wall so they can be reminded daily how beautiful it is to be a badass.

But back to me. When I was little, I was pathologically shy. I was so shy I couldn't even trick-or-treat. My siblings would stand at a neighbor's door and point to the sad little Raggedy Ann at the curb to get candy for me. In my one and only attempt at acting, I played the sun in an elementary-school play. I begged my mom to make my costume a life-size papier-mâché yellow ball so I could hide inside, but she didn't have the time, or that much flour and newspaper, to indulge me. Instead, she cut out two large yellow circles from construction paper and tied them to my front and back. I had one line. I was so petrified I forgot it. I just stood there glaring at the audience until Mercury put me out of my misery and said it for me.

So now I'm grown. I'm still shy. I'm the woman at a party standing alone in the corner with a beverage in my hand because it gives me something to do. If I'm introduced to someone, I say, "Hey, how are you?" After that, I got nothing. So how do I control my film sets? How do I stand in front of hundreds of people and give speeches? How do I walk into meetings with the heads of studios to persuade them to give me millions? How did I make it out of adolescence and my high-school years intact? Where does my healthy ego come from?

Sports. As long as I can remember, my parents had me in organized sports. It started with soccer. Back then, there weren't enough girls to field a girls' league, so I played with boys. Not all of them were happy about that. I used to get kicked and pushed. And sometimes I would cry. But my parents sent me back out there to keep playing. When I was on the field, I was never told to "slow down." No one ever said, "Don't be so aggressive." I was told to "run faster," "be more aggressive," "play harder," "go after it." So I did. And it was the most natural thing in the world.

When I got to high school and played basketball, volleyball, tennis, track, cross country, and softball, and later, when I ran track at UCLA, I was told to "go get her," "don't let her outwork you," and "leave it all out on the floor." Sports instilled in me the desire to be the best. I worked my ass off every practice so I could beat the girl next to me. And I usually did. Sports gave me the belief that I was the baddest chick on the court, on the track, on the field. Sports gave me swagger. On the court, I didn't have to be cute, or funny, or extroverted. I just had to be good. Being good got me applause. And I needed the applause. I was not cute in high school. I did not know how to dress (contrary to popular belief, espadrilles do not go with everything). I could barely string two words together. And I was a black girl, adopted by white parents, growing up in an all-white area, with no sense of self. In my recent film Beyond the Lights, the lead character, Noni, who was once suicidal, says to the man she loves, "You saw the goodness in me, and that was enough to keep me going until I could finally see it in myself." That's what sports gave me. It gave me something good to see in myself. It's why girls who play sports in high school are less likely to do drugsengage in abusive relationships, or get pregnant.

A poster of Serena in mid–epic scream should be required on every little girl's bedroom wall so they can be reminded daily how beautiful it is to be a badass.

I have been asked how one gets swagger if they never played sports. My answer is this: Work out. I wish it were sexier. And didn't involve working out. I actually hate exercising. But I love the feeling after. The sense of accomplishment. Overcoming the pain and fatigue. Pushing yourself beyond what you thought you were capable of. Not giving up. The way you do one thing is the way you will do all things.

At SoulCycle (my exercise obsession), I am dying by the second-to-last song. It's dark in there, and if I half-ass it to the end, no one will know. But I'll know. So I take a deep breath, put my head down, dig deep, and race to the finish. On set, I am the same. I go nonstop, ignore obstacles, push past fatigue, and always believe I'm going to get the shot. And when you exercise, you become more in tune with your body. You can feel yourself getting stronger. It affects your posture, your gait. You feel like an athlete, a warrior, powerful. That's swagger. So start running, do Pilates, try P90X, take a kickboxing or ballet class (shout out to Misty Copeland).

My favorite stat: 90 percent of female CEOs played sports. Swagger is the belief that we belong in any setting. That we can succeed in any setting. That it is okay to want to be the best. To be in charge. To lead. To have say over our own bodies. To demand equal pay. To be president. Talent has no gender. Leadership has no gender. Badass has no gender.

I remember sitting outside Mike DeLuca's office at New Line, waiting to go in to pitch Love and Basketball. I was literally shaking—I'd never directed a film before. Why would he ever give me millions of dollars? Biggest moment of my life, and I was gonna choke. Finally, I took a deep breath and told myself to just walk into the room like I used to walk onto the court: eyes up, smirk on my face, mad confident in my abilities. I left that meeting with $14 million to make my first film. Without swagger, I'm just that shy girl who can't find her voice. With it, I am the baddest chick in the room. So go find your swagger. Run faster, be aggressive, go after it. And leave it all out on the floor.

Gina Prince-Bythewood is a writer-director who loves making movies and loves playing ball with her two boys, but after two C-sections, her body no longer obeys her mind, and her ego can't take losing to children, no matter how good they are, so she now just cheers them on from the sidelines.

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