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The real “hurt girls” problem? Wounded warrior culture that says “play through it.”

March 24, 2009 – 1:21 PM

By Sarah Odell

If women play sports, they will get hurt. This is a seemingly innocuous statement, but it’s one that draws strong reactions because it derives many connotations and reactions, especially given the number of high profile articles and books published recently regarding the injury rates of females in sport. The subject has become a new favorite for writers intent on stirring up controversy over the obvious.

I have just completed one of the most provocative books on this topic, Michael Sokolove’s Warrior Girls. Mr. Sokolove kept me interested for the first hundred and fifty or so pages, looking at the injury rates of elite female athletes in comparison with their male counterparts.

He considered Title IX, and how the unintended consequences of the law have ceded control of women’s athletics to men, and created a male-centric sports culture and training environment in women’s sports. Good point. The subject is especially relevant to me because I’ve played squash for 10 years and suffered a season ending injury this year.

This last fall, after playing in three competitions for Wellesley College, I was diagnosed with a herniated disc in the thoracic section of my back. This diagnosis came after seeing six specialists, (five of whom were male), underwent a year of tests, experienced excruciating pain, and – probably worst of all — that pervasive feeling that maybe it wasn’t my body that was letting me down, but my psyche.

Did I just have a low pain tolerance? No one, I mean nobody could actually find anything wrong with me, so maybe I was just a weak female? So I sucked it up and did what I think a lot of female athletes do: I kept my mouth shut, because I wanted to play.

Then, my right leg went numb on me twice in one week. My coach (by the way, the only female coach I’ve had), was firm:

“You have to get an MRI,” she said, “and you have to figure this out.” With the help of a spine specialist who didn’t lose interest when she saw that the problem was not operable and a physical therapist, we got to the bottom of the problem. And not a moment too soon either; if I had continued to play with the herniated disc I may have ended up with permanent nerve damage, or loss of control over my lower extremities.

When I picked up Sokolove’s book, I couldn’t put it down. OK, I even cried when the athletes he covered were told that their careers were over. I could feel their pain. Sokolove’s theories on male coaches taking over female athletes seemed to fit with my own experience—I had worked and trained with men in my ten years in squash, and at Wellesley was working with a woman for the first time.

I agreed that the culture of women’s athletics needed to change: as young women we needed to be benched when we were in pain, not encouraged or rather heralded for playing through life altering injuries. Given that most majority of us will not become professional athletes, is it really worth it to have permanent leg, back or hip problems? I agreed with Sokolove (and so does my coach).

But here’s my problem: Sokolve concluded — at the end, after he had worked so hard to research and consider the history of women’s sports — that it was the parents of elite female athletes that had to change. He stated, in the end, that  as parents it was their responsibility to take a more active role and prevent their children from playing through injuries.

I was stunned and angered. How 1950s of him to say that we needed some sort of authority figure to tell us females what to do. I wondered if he also was going to recommend that I get married right after college because it’s easier to bear children when you are in your early twenties.

As a young woman who has suffered a serious injury, I can tell you that it is not the parents that need to change. I’ve watched parents cringe and blink with every step their daughters take on the field. But what I’ve also witnessed, and even been told by coaches, is to “play through it.”

It is this attitude, one driven by a male- centric athletic environment that values the image of the wounded warrior, that needs to end. And it can. The first person to ever tell me not to play through it was my college squash coach.

As female athletes we need to give the reins back to female athletes and create a female-centric athletic culture that values competition, hard work — and the courage it takes  to say, “you know what coach? This injury isn’t worth it, and I’m going to sit this one out.” As an athlete who had to do that this year, I can tell you that takes more courage than going out there and playing through it.

Sarah Odell is a junior at Wellesley College who will represent the U.S. this July in Squash at the Maccabi Games in Israel.

  1. One Response to “The real “hurt girls” problem? Wounded warrior culture that says “play through it.””

  2. Sarah, I guess men are just jerks..after all when men go to their coaches… they get first rate feed back and support every single time.
    Maybe it’s time you stopped blaming men and stopped whining and started doing your own thinking…
    Your a big girl now…I think!…and you need to stop blaming men for your own weaknesses.
    Grow up!

    By Gordon Hill on Apr 4, 2009

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