Girls and the Sport of Guard

shelba waldronCoaching With Intent, Featured

Somewhere about 5 years ago I made a decision that my role as a guard instructor would change. I decided to focus less on teaching the counts and more on coaching the team and specifically the girls. In my own work, I’ve been lucky to be able to focus on what those of us in social services call “gender specific programming.” Through this work of research and then pairing it with my knowledge of youth development, I started to realize that my work in an activity of primarily teenage girls, must take on a larger role than just 5,6,7,8. Don’t get me wrong, 5,6,7,8 is important, but the way I went about it would change forever.

dallas_cowboys_cheerleaders_1382096331_1382096350.jpg (1431×1072)In my research, I was asked to look at how the media portrays women as sexual objects. For the most part, women are either presented as needy and weak or bitchy and powerful. Statistics tell a story where women during the NCAA Tournament receive only 2% of the air time to men and the same holds true for World Cup Soccer.  When women are presented in sports, it’s as a cheerleader or sideline model on the field at the football game. In a review of movies and films, only 23.3% of the time will a female drive the plot. The Hunger Games is an anomaly. The book was called, Harry Potter, not Hermione Granger. Articulate, strength based television characters where a woman speaks her mind, stands up for herself, is career oriented and NOT crazy are few and far between. When reality t.v. entered the scene, we lost sight of characters such as Julia Sugarbaker, Maude, and Roseanne. All shows that specifically dealt with issues related to women.

So why do I bring this up? Once I started looking at the research and tying it to the issues we are seeing with teens in the schools such as bullying, I started to see it in my own colorguard kids. Regular, everyday middle class girls that the radar tends to miss, were dressing provocatively, engaging in relational aggression, and dumbing down their own intelligence. In one crucial rehearsal five years ago, I watched a seemingly strong high school girl get yelled at by me in rehearsal. She started to cry and then on a break walked over to her boyfriend and pouted, while he put his arms around her and “made it all better.” I watched all of this. My inside voice screamed, “WTF!” My outside voice said, “You are not a toddler who needs her boo boo’s kissed. Get back over here!” That’s when I decided what was important to me, which was to build up the girls to stand on their own and to rescue themselves through hard work and discipline.

This past winter season as Paradigm was finishing its final rehearsal before leaving for Dayton, in a fit of blind rage, I had a moment that I’m sure will become a top 5 iconic Paradigm moment of all time. You see, when you teach a guard that is gender mixed, many of the girls tend to do what’s called, “giving their power away.” The boys are naturally stronger in the wrist and upper body. It’s often easier for them to get through work that is often times, if not most of the time written by a grown man. So, in this one rehearsal, I wanted a particular count to hit aggressively across the body. AGGRESSIVELY! We did it over and over and over and over. The boys had no issues. The girls? Well, I can only describe it as “mousy.” So out of the stands I went. AGGRESSIVELY! Went to the floor and grabbed a flag out of one of the girls hands and said, “If I was a woman…WHICH I AM…I would take this flag and take my body and attack the count AGGRESSIVELY! I would stop giving away my power and I would stand up and say I will not live in a world where I am second!” Now somewhere in that speech where I blacked out I’m sure, I was told I mentioned something about them accepting minimum wage and just trying to be rescued by a prince on a white horse. I’m not sure why all of it came out, but you know what? They hit the damn count…AGGRESSIVELY! You know what it showed? That it’s in their mind and that many of them have been conditioned to believe what society tells them. Some of them see themselves as weaker and less than. I’ve seen it. I’ve talked with them about it.

When I have had issues with parents over the years, it has for the most part been the parents of girls who have been rescued.

“Mary Beth came home last night crying.”
“And?”

“You made Sally Mae do push ups and run laps.”
“Your point?”

One of the things I’ve started doing when working with girls is asking them what other competitive activities they have participated in besides the pageantry arts. Many of them who have been competing in something since elementary school, come to competitive color guard with thicker skin as do their parents. It’s just opinion, but I bet I’m right that girls who play hard when they are young, grow to be girls of the color guard world that are tough as nails.

I watched my son play baseball the other day. Balls being thrown at his head, diving to base, and getting dirty. He also takes karate. Since the age of 5 when he started both activities, he has been expected to survive in a competitive and disciplined world. We know through research from the Aspen Institute that girls start competitive sports a full year after boys, if they start competitive sports at all. Participation in girls participating in soccer and softball is on the rise, but girls drop out at a much higher rate once they reach middle school than boys do. Once children reach middle school, participation in competitive sports drops by a little over 60% and for girls it’s 75%, because of the push for competitive school teams, and a number of cultural and societal factors. This is why co-ed intramural activities is crucial. So, without any legitimate, peer reviewed research at all having ever been done on color guard, my hypothesis is that by the time the girls reach high school, many of them have either never participated at any length in competitive activities or were pushed out in middle school. When the girls leave the sports behind and interaction in media takes over, where they are told they are either weak or bitchy and must be beautiful, then this is what we get by the time they reach high school. Now, before every one reading this says that “the girls in their guard are not like that,” remember that we are talking about a nation of girls and not just one gym full. I also ask that you look at your entire guard and not just the veterans.

My guess is that the winter guard activity is made up of approximately 90-95% performing female members and the head positions of design and choreography is 90-95% male. This is purely guess as we don’t collect data, but observation from years of teaching and judging. The head of the activity is male. Most judges on a panel of 5 are male. Most women are techs. Does it matter? I don’t know, but what I do know is that we need strong women in front of our girls to guide them and tell them that it’s o.k. to be assertive and to take your place in the world. We always say that it’s in competitive activities where children learn how to manage the struggles of day to day life. I think women of the activity have a responsibility to the young women coming up in the activity to expect independent thinkers, strength of spirit, and the courage to stand up for themselves. We should talk with them about their self-esteem. They live in a world where they are expected to be beautiful first and smart second and where an equal wage is still not equal. We should talk to them about moving through space with a sense of purpose, because rape is real. We should discuss what it’s like to be classy in dress and speak and expect the same of a partner. When I left drum corps I was strong willed, but my self-esteem was in the toilet. I never thought I was pretty and that played in how I attracted men. When you attract men who feed that societal image of beauty, then you attract not so nice men. I spoke to a friend this year in Dayton who just got out of an abusive marriage. How can an articulate woman be in a marriage like that? She said it was because she never really saw her worth. I’ve been thinking about her since Dayton.

MoNe_Davis.jpg (550×400)I write this today, because as we start another marching band season it’s crucial that we coach first and teach the counts second. Remember that most of us, for the most part, are responsible for teaching girls. Girls who care about how they are costumed and care about boys and care about their body image. They care about college and careers. We have a responsibility to make sure they leave us better women and women who are capable of taking their place in the world with strength and resilience. I leave you with the quote I tell all girls I coach. “Don’t come in here expecting that a prince on a white horse will rescue you. This is not Disney, you are not Cinderella, and I am not a fairy godmother.”