My journey with sports hasn’t been easy. Like fellow athletes all over the world, I’ve been cut from a team, yelled at by coaches, and pushed my limitations mentally, physically, and emotionally farther than I ever thought possible. I mean, that’s just part of an athlete’s job, right? Through all of my experiences as a volleyball player, I’ve overcome a multitude of obstacles and developed a sense of grit that I utilize in every aspect of my life today. Each obstacle was seemingly impossible to defeat, but one in particular has been the toughest to ignore on and off the court; my identity as a female athlete.
As a woman in the world of sports, I’ve been gifted with the sixth sense of undeniable fortitude. More often than not, I’ve been told that my femininity is a recipe for failure, that I’m not strong, fast, smart, or good enough to call myself an athlete. On the occasion that I am praised for my athletic abilities, there’s always a counteracting microaggression (Wing Sue, 2007) to remind me that digging a volleyball well equates to a lack of womanhood. For many female-identifying athletes, the journey to success is constantly met with similar challenges that take a toll on our self-perception and in turn, our athletic performance. From Toni Harris and Becca Longo, the first women to receive collegiate football scholarships, to tennis legend Serena Williams’ constant shattering of the glass ceiling, being a victorious woman in this field doesn’t come easy.
In comparison to male athletes, the narratives around female athletes need to change globally in order for sports to become more inclusive, especially when it comes to men coaching women. My collegiate volleyball team was once sent an article from our coach that discussed women’s inability to survive collegiate sports. The author claimed that female-identifying athletes cry more often than their male counterparts, can’t handle the pressure that coaches place upon them simply because they’re women, and included other insulting commentary that was biased, harmful, and unfair. These claims persuaded our coach to label us as “soft” despite our season routine of:
- Practicing five days a week for three hours at a time
- Hustling to the gym two days a week at 6:00am and 4:00pm for two-a-days before and after class
- Travelling for 5+ hours every weekend for competitions
- Lifting at least 5-6 hours a week after practice
- Playing two games in a weekend, leaving Sunday afternoons as our only break from volleyball
Imagine being beholden to that schedule all while trying to eat three solid meals a day, academically succeed, and sleep more than four hours a night. Most, if not all, student-athletes experience a similar routine, thus one group of athletes isn’t more sturdy than the other based on their gender. I know many male collegiate athletes whose season schedules were just as grueling. However, even though identify as a woman, I objectively believe women are forced to practice mental toughness and grit on a daily basis in all facets of life. We shouldn’t have to fight for respect in the workplace and on the court. If you combined the mental and emotional toughness that women use to push for equality with the natural pressure that sports provide, you’ve got yourself an indestructible machine of a woman who can handle anything and everything that comes her way.
I think every athlete, no matter their gender identity, needs to have mutual respect for their colleagues’ sports, experiences, grind, and struggles. This is especially true for coaches who are unaware of how their coaching styles may affect their non-male-identifying players. Coaches should never allow unconscious biases shroud their expectations of a team. There needs to be more awareness of our ability to empower or disempower athletes no matter where we stand in a team hierarchy. With the recent case of Caster Semyena’s public scrutinization fresh in our minds, we need to do better by our girls and women. The field, court, gym, and weight room must be equal now. It’s time for women in sports to be celebrated rather than put down. What are you going to do to proudly say #MeToo?
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About Cherokee Washington
Cherokee Washington is a California native with degrees in Psychology and Honors Rhetoric Studies from Whitman College. At Whitman, she was a member of the varsity volleyball team, an active social justice advocate, and held several diversity and inclusion related positions within student government and community service programming. Cherokee currently works at Crossroads School for the Arts and Sciences as the Administrative Assistant of Diversity Initiatives and a varsity assistant coach for the beach/indoor volleyball teams. Additionally, she is currently pursuing Masters degrees in Sport Psychology and Journalism, while aspiring to play professional beach volleyball with the AVP. Her ultimate goal is to become a Cultural Sport Psychologist and Rhetorical Journalist, combining her passion for equity, psychology, and rhetoric