Sunday 8 December 2019

Sinéad Kissane: 'Equal treatment in sport also means understanding massive mindset differences between females and males'


Sinéad Kissane

Let's start with a primary school classroom. Former Ireland international Tania Rosser can easily tell which copy belongs to a girl and which copy belongs to a boy in her job with the support teaching team in St Brigid's Primary School, Dublin.

"Girls are very neat. They like to be perfect and please the teacher," Rosser says.

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"Whereas boys will just get down the ideas, they'll get the work in. But the girls want it perfect and that's from a very young age. And it carries on to the sports-field as well."

Trying to understand the differences between girls and boys, and women and men, comes with the obvious disclaimer that there are generalisations involved and everyone is different. But what can sometimes get bypassed in the effort to treat every boy and girl in sport the same is the appreciation that girls and boys can respond differently to things.

If, as Rosser points out, some girls from an early age want to be perfect and please the teacher, how does that mindset manifest itself when they play sport?

In The Female Brain, neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine wrote: "More than 99pc of male and female genetic coding is exactly the same. But that percentage difference influences every single cell in our bodies - from the nerves that register pleasure and pain to the neurons that transmit perceptions, thoughts, feelings and emotions".

Sports Coach UK and the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation produced a series of fact sheets aimed at coaches who coach women.

The 'Female Psychology and Considerations for Coaching Practice' section makes references to the book 'Inside Her Pretty Little Head' which describes six main areas in which academic research has shown men and women to be different.

One area of difference is 'base reaction' - to which men respond with 'action' while for women it's 'feeling'. For 'innate interest', for men it's 'things', for women it's 'people'.

Under the heading 'survival strategy', for men it's 'through self-interest, hierarchy, power and competition' while for women, it's 'through relationships, empathy and connections'.

Rosser became the first female in Ireland to coach a male rugby team when she took over as head coach of the Clontarf second team and she also works with the senior men's team.

Has she noticed obvious differences in the mindset of male and female players?

"Yeah, definitely. I think female athletes are more emotionally involved.

"When something goes wrong, sometimes, they take it on emotionally whereas guys would tend to let it go a lot easier.

"Females have heightened emotions, I think, more so than males. What I find from coaching is that males don't take it personally."

Cork women's Gaelic football manager Ephie Fitzgerald has coached women and men. He thinks mistakes made on the pitch linger with female players.

"It maybe festers with them internally and they can lose confidence quite easily, maybe, at times," Fitzgerald says.

"I think, in general, most girls would back their way through but they would be still very het up about it afterwards that they made a silly mistake.

"I don't think it impacts that much on their performance on the day. It would be something that would be in the memory bank and it could come out in training or if you were doing analysis. And a lot of the girls we have would be some of the toughest people I've ever come across - they would be very committed.

"I don't know is it a kind of a comfort thing that they, women, just don't like praise! Now they do like affirmation, (but) they're very self-critical, I find often. Whereas with fellas if you say they had a good game they'd be: 'Yeah, yeah I did'."

Why are female players so hard on themselves?

"I think coming from the base that they're coming from in terms of what they had - facilities wise and all the rest - they had very little, so everything's a bonus.

All of that feeds into 'ah sure, we're only women really, you know?'. Now, they don't feel like that, I'm sure. But maybe it's in their own minds, that we're not as important as the men.

"There have been huge strides but I do think that unless there is an affiliation with the GAA in some shape or form that the game won't develop," Fitzgerald concedes.

If some women have more of a tendency to be self-critical or allow mistakes to linger, could that lead to less self-expression on the pitch?

Before the start of the women's Six Nations, Ireland head coach Adam Griggs spoke about how he hopes his players will develop.

"I'm big on making sure we take our chances and sometimes you're just a little too safe where you think that you might need to go a phase or two more before you use the ball," Griggs explained.

"So, they've just got to take their chances and throw a little bit of caution to the wind. Whereas before they might not have been so used to that.

"You look at the execution over the decision and making sure that if the decision was right and the execution wasn't, well I want you to try it again. I don't want you to go into your shell."

That's a breath of fresh air. Women's rugby in this country is obviously at a different stage of development to the men's game and therefore the skill level isn't as evolved.

But if nature, nurture and social conditioning etc show - again, generally speaking - that girls respond differently to boys, does that also mean that females are more cautious when playing, more risk-averse compared to males?

We get sold this idea that perfection - in any walk of life - is a good thing. But not always.

It is a far-fetched ideal which could stifle creativity and create a horrible fear of failure and of making mistakes. The default mode can be to play it safe rather than push the boundaries.

"I think as coaches we've got to somehow allow them (women) to feel that they can take a risk or that they can be creative," Rosser says.

"I don't know whether it's taking the risk or letting them just be players. I think as coaches we need to move away from perfectionist and let them grow as a player."

Female players also learn differently.

"I'd be learning from the girls and they'd be learning from me but sometimes they do take things more literally and will try to carry out things to the letter of the law," Fitzgerald says.

"Whereas, fellas, you could be talking to them and some fellas will take it in, other fellas won't. Girls are very intense at that level and very focused.

"Sometimes, maybe, they do need to play with a little bit more freedom, that's probably something that we all need to work on in terms of giving them more responsibility."

"Female athletes ask questions," Rosser offers.

"They're asking it because they purely want to know why they're doing something.

"What I find is that they tend to pick up what you're trying to coach a little bit quicker. Whereas with guys you can just say, 'right, we're doing this drill', they tend not to ask the questions.

"I've dealt with male coaches throughout my international career and a couple of them just couldn't cope with the questions!"

It's a great trait to have. And a reminder that we should constantly question how we think and why we think it. The value of equality lies not just in the right for everyone to be treated the same but also in the right to be different.

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