About six years ago, the Women's Sports Foundation put together a task force to take a close look at girls' sports programs in New York City. As the founder and executive director of Row New York (a rowing and academic program for girls) I was one of five people on the task force. On our first conference call the group was asked a series of questions. One still stands out in my mind.
"How important is it that competition be a part of your program for girls?"
I was surprised by my peers' responses as, one by one, they talked about everything but competition. Instead they shared their programs' strategies for creating safe space for girls, for giving them a chance to exercise and get fit, and learn to work together to solve conflict and support one another. A couple of program leaders even said they were strongly opposed to encouraging competition among girls as this focus detracted from efforts to build camaraderie and self-confidence.
But why do these clear positives (camaraderie and self-confidence) and competition have to be mutually exclusive? At Row New York, as I explained then and still explain today, we want our girls to have a place in which they feel strong and safe, where they work together as teammates, but where they are also asked to be competitive.
How does learning to be competitive as a young woman help her succeed in college and beyond? It's only in being competitive that we ask ourselves to lean in, to go beyond where we are comfortable, to make an effort and see what results.
Let's look specifically at Row New York for a moment. If a girl wants a seat in the fastest boat, she must work hard for that seat and even compete against her friends for it. The experience teaches her the direct connection between hard work and results as well as the important distinction between what's personal and what's business. No matter what, the other girls on the team are her friends (the personal piece), but her efforts to make the boat are all business.
We must be careful not to discourage girls from competing with one another. Instead, we should show them that it's empowering to be a part of a team that embraces teamwork and camaraderie, which encourages them to feel good about their efforts, but also challenges them to take chances, to risk failure, and not be afraid to toss their hats in the ring.
Right now it's an oar, but in a few years it will be college, and after that, their first jobs. At Row New York we want our girls to become women who are comfortable competing for the highest grade in the class, a political campaign, or a big promotion.