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Sisterhood in sports: Competition their way

While men might be from Mars and women from Venus, the differences in how we communicate and handle emotions doesn't have to mean that one is the weaker sex.

While men might be from Mars and women from Venus, the differences in how we communicate and handle emotions doesn't have to mean that one is the weaker sex. Dr. Joan Steidinger as an athlete and a sports psychologist has been studying for years the way women collaborate and compete in the sports arena. Ever since the book, Women Who Love Too Much came out in 1988 criticizing women for being too emotional, she has wanted to show that female athletes don't have to be just like men to be tough competitors.

In her new book, SISTERHOOD IN SPORTS: How Female Athletes Collaborate and Compete, she celebrates the female athlete instead of penalizing her for showing her emotions. She explores who we are as women and what we need, and reveals what drives female athletes – emotional and intimate relationships, verbal and detailed communication, sense of community and applying female collaborative competition. For her research, Dr. Steidinger interviewed 40 female ultra runners as well as other female athletes.

Dr. Steidinger herself has always loved sports. She played badminton, ran cross-country, and was an ultra runner in the early 90s. "I have been a life-long athlete from 3 on and now I am 60. I have never stopped being an athlete," she said in a phone interview.

As a sports psychologist, she works with athletes that are injured, and those dealing with depression, anxiety, body image and eating disorders. She also works with teams on confidence-building. Although she has worked with male athletes as well as female, most of her work has been with female athletes. She is currently working with the San Francisco State University softball team.

"When injured, athletes get impatient to return to full form and end up re-injuring themselves. Many get depressed and no longer seem themselves as athletes. They fear that they won't be able to come back from the injury," she explained.

"One gal had a career-ending back injury and had to learn how to redefine herself. She kept re-injurying herself and had to realize that she couldn't go back."

Dr. Steidinger uses cognitive behavioral therapy when working with athletes. Her method could be best summed using the following acronym:

Positive thoughts

Operating with confidence

Working with motivation

Energizing focus and concentration

Rehearsal both mental and visual

Female athletes tend to negate their abilities so she helps them list all their skills out. Often she has worked with college athletes wrestling with self-doubt despite being there on a scholarship. "I had to remind them that their skills are what got them the scholarship in the first place," she said.

Collaborative communication

Besides, helping female athletes deal with injury, stress and self-doubt, she has also been studying how females communicate. According to Dr. Steidinger, research has shown that females tend to bond more, and are more collaborative when stressed. They are also much more empathetic, intuitive, and spend more time worrying, planning, and organizing. "We cross over more hemispheres in the brain than men do," she explained.

In her book, she gives a new model for female collaborative communication. She talks about the importance of talking, positive relationships – relationships that encourage you to grow, collaboration – still an issue that is hard for women, embracing competition, and having fun, which is especially important for young athletes.

"Women talk a lot more during sports and need to be communicated to more by their coach and teammates and given more details during a game or race than men do," she added. "It is a good model for sports but also for life."

She went onto explain that a sense of belonging in the group gives women a better sense of connection and helps them play better. She suggests that when coaches to need to give criticism or corrections to a female athlete that it will be more effective when they make sure to offer detailed explanations for the needed changes.

In a Q & A about her book, she has said, "The way women compete is just different. Their minds work in many different ways than men both from a psychological and brain functioning perspective. Recently, I was speaking with a woman in her mid-forties who rows on an 8 boat. She told me just the previous week, her coach had told the women, when they were being emotional, 'You just need to me more like men.' I responded, 'He needs to learn how to understand women.' As Alison Dunlap, an Olympian and World Champion mountain biker has stated, 'Women are not small men.'"

"Understanding and working with female athletes is not about coddling but rather understanding them enough to get them to work for you and the team in sports and life," she had added. "In this book female athletes confirm that our intense emotions about relationships are part and parcel of who we are and describe how all of our relationships impact us. We enjoy and revel in our sisterhood."

Her book, SISTERHOOD IN SPORTS: How Female Athletes Collaborate and Compete, was recently listed as a finalist in Foreword Reviews INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award. You can find it here on Amazon.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.