Photograph by Asiya Khaki

Exploring the role of sports in the creation of women leaders

Confidence, competitiveness, resilience, and teamwork are some of the benefits that women gain from participating in sports, especially team sports. The message was delivered by a powerful panel of women athletes who spoke at “Beyond the Game: Women, Sports and Competition” on November 10. The line-up included Erinn Smart ’01 and Sarah Hughes, two Olympic medalists; Jane Geddes, former U.S. Women’s Open golf champion; and Donna Orender, former All-Star player for the Women’s Professional Basketball League. New York Times sports writer Juliet Macur ’92 moderated the discussion.

“Many point to the role of sports in forming their character,” noted President Debora L. Spar, citing a study of women CEOs, which found that 80 percent of that group had played competitive sports in their youth. Some of those character-building lessons gained from participating in sports, suggested Spar, include “how women and men learn teamwork through competitive sports. There’s trust, reliance, responsibility, pulling back when it’s not your turn, and the concept of resilience, which is what gets you through. As the song says, ‘you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.’”

And while “sports may not be the first thing you think of when you think of Barnard, it plays quite a large role at the College,” she added. “Barnard is the only women’s college that offers Division 1 athletics, with 15 NCAA varsity sports and 30 club sports,” as well as many intramural opportunities for students.

There are obvious advantages to playing a team sport, said Orender, who is president of the Women’s National Basketball Association. “The language of corporate America is the language of sports. Winning is something women have to learn how to do. When you’re part of sports, you learn how to do things you ordinarily wouldn’t. One benefit of Title IX is that you’re doing it side-by-side with your male counterparts. It goes back to cultural expectations. In sports, men expect you to be aggressive and expect you to want to win.”

Photograph by Asiya Khaki

Smart, who earned a silver medal in fencing at the 2008 Olympics and now works in the financial industry where 80 percent of her colleagues are men, said, “I keep up with them because I have the confidence that comes from athletics. I’m usually one of the first women to speak up. It’s one of the differences from having been an athlete. I have the confidence to say it. I’m never one to sit back....”

That ability to negotiate and navigate in a man’s world is a clear benefit to participating in sports, said Jane Geddes, senior vice president of tournament operations and player services on the LPGA tour. “Golf is such a world, [but] I’m very comfortable with it. I’ve had the confidence to survive in golf and then survive in business, and keep moving forward.”

There are powerful lessons to learn from athletic defeats and losses that translate into leadership away from the playing field. Setbacks can reveal someone’s character, said Sarah Hughes, a 2002 Olympic gold medalist in figure-skating. She compared athletes who essentially give up after a fall to those who still perform with passion, even if a medal is out of reach. “You like to see a fighting spirit,” she said.

The panel emphasized that women can learn from sports, even if they’re not athletic superstars. “Physical activity and sports are one of the most important things you can do,” said Orender. “The socialization skills are invaluable no matter what level you’re at. It matters that you try.”

- Merri Rosenberg ’78

First photograph, skaters from Figure Skating in Harlem join the panelists (from left): Zjana Ray, Jiordan Ali, Nyasha Franklin, Sarah Hughes, Sharon Cohen, founder of the Harlem skating group, Erinn Smart, Bria Culpepper, and Eliyah McKayle
Second photograph, from left: Donna Orender, Jane Geddes, Erinn Smart ’01, Sarah Hughes, Juliet Macur ’92