When a swim coach challenged my 3-year-old daughter to race against her 5-year old brother, she beat him so badly that it seemed the toddler swim equivalent of the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s 13-0 thrashing of Thailand in their opening game of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
My daughter did not worry about embarrassing her brother. She just did her best and won.
That is why I cheered alongside millions when the U.S. women’s national soccer team advanced to Sunday’s finals of the 2019 Women’s World Cup after a hard-fought semifinal victory over England. My cheers were not only because the women have the opportunity to bring home their fourth World Cup victory, but also because the lessons in leadership that sports can teach to girls and women were on display to the world.
As a soccer fan, recreational athlete and youth sports coach with a brief stint as a collegiate athlete, I apply multiple lessons that I learned from sports to my professional roles as a professor and administrator at a major medical school. The critically important lesson for the success of female leaders is to embrace competition.
Former national team coach Anson Dorrance said that the type of player who thrives in his women’s soccer dynasty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a player who loves to compete. He fosters that trait by encouraging a competitive cauldron that emphasizes toughness and an aggressive desire to win.
In his 2005 book, “Vision of a Champion,” Dorrance notes that even in the highly competitive world of collegiate athletics, many young women are socialized to cooperate and get along. Too often, cooperation and making friends become the antitheses of competition.
The practice of discouraging competition persists for women in the professional world. Female leaders are routinely celebrated for their collaborative leadership style, a focus on consensus-building and their contributions to a positive workplace culture. As valuable as these traits are, fewer female executives hold leadership roles in divisions responsible for profit and loss, which are the gateway to the C-suite.
Once when I interviewed for a leadership position at a medical school, a search committee advised me not to overuse the pronoun “I” in describing my accomplishments. Rather, committee members suggested I emphasize what “we” had done to accomplish “our” goals. The advice was well-intentioned, but I wonder whether men receive similar advice.
If one of the six women seeking the Democratic presidential nomination for 2020 highlighted her qualifications in building culture and consensus over her expertise in foreign policy, negotiation and economic growth, I wonder if she would appear qualified to tackle critical issues we face today about human rights, ongoing conflicts in the Middle East or gun control.
When young girls are encouraged to participate in sports and — more importantly — challenged to excel, they can develop confidence, discipline and persistence.
These traits have emboldened our women’s national team players to challenge inequalities in pay between the women’s and men’s national soccer teams, to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, and to bravely speak out about the sexual mistreatment of women by individuals at our highest levels of government.
To be sure, collaboration and consensus building are critical for success in a world that requires multidisciplinary talents to innovate and succeed. Of course every girl or young woman will not want to play sports. Performance arts, debate, spelling and STEM competitions, which emphasize personal excellence, are equally valid ways to teach girls how to compete.
What is not acceptable is the message that competing and winning will destroy camaraderie, culture and friendships; it must be stricken from our socialization of girls and women.
Rather, we should encourage every girl’s unfiltered desire to do her best.
As mentors to girls and women, we can promote excellence by celebrating competition. The next time my daughter or another young girl asks me what it takes to win, I will tell her about our U.S. women’s national soccer team and how they are winning in life by embracing competition.
Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s championship game, it’s a win-win.
Mercedes Carnethon, Ph.D., FAHA is the Mary Harris Thompson Professor of Preventive Medicine and Chief of the Division of Epidemiology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.