Inspiring girls to be as mentally tough as boys

FCBK 1Blog post by Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

In covering sports for 40 years, and observing the qualities that allowed great athletes to become solid, even hardened professionals by their early 20’s, I was determined to find out what made them so different from the rest of us. Obviously, they were more physically gifted. But what really distinguished them from me was the realization that they were also much more mentally tough than I was.

I thought of this again when I read an article in Psychology Today by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D, titled, The trouble with bright girls with the sub-title, For women, ability doesn’t always lead to confidence.”

“Bright girls,” Halvorson writes, “when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up–and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts, rather than give up.”

She further observes that at the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject. The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty, when material seemed hard to learn. Bright girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to girls 3become less effective learners as a result. Research reveals that more often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice. 

Since just trying to get 5th grade boys to sit still and pay attention is such a challenge, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort and are told things like, “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” or, “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.” So when learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart”, and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.

I am occasionally deliver a motivational speech which I call, “The 5 life lessons great athletes teach us,” and reading this article about girls enabled my points to ring even clearer.

Loosely, here are 5 things that allow great athletes to become stars while others fall short:

  1. They accept that life is tough; bad breaks happen. They learn to pick themselves up and move on
  2. They believe in themselves and their abilities. In other words, “If you believe you can or you believe you can’t, you’re right!”
  3. They’re accountable. You rarely hear an athlete make an excuse. Pointing the finger at others identifies you as a loser
  4. They accept scrutiny. Some people want you to fail and sometimes you do. To Hell with them. Tomorrow is a different day
  5. They happily pay the price. Every practice, every drop of sweat gets you closer to your goals. The greats don’t “Pay the price, they “Enjoy the price”

In raising girls to be achievers, it’s good to know the inherent differences in their makeup as compared to boys. In this case, it’s their willingness to give up in the face of greater challenge. The good news is that so many women have fought to break through everything from the traditional “woman as homemaker” emotional straight jacket to the so-called “Glass ceiling.”  Now we have real role models to use as examples of women who didn’t give up. Maybe soon they’ll even have a U.S. president as an example!

In summary, we need to help girls overcome some of their inherent roadblocks with inspirational examples of mental toughness that have always been – but don’t have to be — exclusively assigned to boys.