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Christopher Holshek

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Learning From the Girls

Posted: 07/19/2011 12:50 pm

Last Sunday's Women's World Cup final was a triumph, regardless of the outcome. It showed that women's football (yes, that's what everyone else in the world calls soccer) has, in only 20 years, reached a level of play that rivals men's sports. It was by far the most watched international women's sports event to date, and apparently the most tweeted event of any kind minute-by-minute.

More than that, the best part is how the match was won -- and lost -- with superb grace, humility, and sports(man)ship. The overpaid and pampered boys on the pitch, the diamond, the gridiron, and the court could do well to emulate them. Those ladies were simply world-class.

During and after the match, I realized we could also learn a lot more.

One thing is that it's now quite clear that the U.S. no longer dominates the sport. This is a good thing, and it reflects in the quality of the game. Brian Phillips, writing for Slate, noted:

The bad news for Team USA is that the American women's structural advantages in organization, funding, and training seem to be dissipating as the level of technique in the international women's game rises. If anything, Team USA is slightly less technically proficient, and more reliant on raw power, than the squad that won the 1999 World Cup. As long as Brazil's players look like they've been introduced to each other in the bus on the way to the game, the American women's superior cohesion and fitness might neutralize their opponents' superior individual touch. But if the rest of the world starts to close the organization gap -- and there were signs at this World Cup, with France and Japan, that that's happening -- then the U.S. women will need more than the glorious battering ram of Abby Wambach's head to keep them near the top of the sport. In that sense, actually, the final was its own silver lining: The Americans showed that they could thrive with a more nuanced game, even if they didn't quite win with it.

These changes, coincidentally, parallel the diminished dominance of the U.S. on the world playing field of international interaction as well. And that is also a good thing, if we see it that way. Whether in business, foreign policy, or national security matters, we Americans will have to get in the sandbox and play with others -- more on their terms than ours. That requires more collaboration, finesse, sophistication, sympathetic understanding of foreign cultures and mindsets, and humility than we've been used to. Sure, it will mean that we will have to give up our 19th-century notions of sovereignty and "exceptionalism," not only because it's now a globalized, interconnected, multinational world out there (which, by the way, we largely created), but because we must now operate increasingly from a position of strategic scarcity. The era of cheap capital, for instance, is over -- we can no longer simply throw money at the problem, or call in the Marines (even if some of them are women) or employ other battering rams of hard power to address security challenges.

Put another way, we can no longer afford to merely rely on "being lucky than good," to use the sports adage. We will have to be better than lucky, which also means thinking more ahead and with the bigger picture in mind (i.e., more strategically). In all aspects of "comprehensive engagement," per president Obama's National Security Strategy, we have to play more like Wayne Gretzky, who was a superior hockey player because he skated to where the puck was going, not to where it was. We can also ill afford, as Team USA did in the first minutes of the match, to be wasteful with opportunities to do the right thing. Our surplus mentality also needs to go by the wayside. Second, third, or fourth chances are something else we can no longer take for granted.

When you no longer dominate, you can't dictate. But you can still lead. That requires, quite logically, more leadership skills. More cooperation than coercion.

It means we have to change the way we look at the world and ourselves in it. Just as much as our dynamic, multicultural society, contextualized in our national ethos (e pluribus unum) positions us exceptionally well to compete internationally, the willful ignorance, sense of entitlement, and insistence on maintaining the status quo that characterizes our "splendid isolationism" is our greatest handicap to winning in the future. It amazed me to see how the sports talk shows in New York and other places paid little attention to what had happened in Frankfurt, Germany last Sunday. Instead, they went on about the Mets and Yankees (looking to play in what we erroneously call the "World Series").

You can tell a lot about a country and a culture by its sports. For Americans, the world is more like baseball and (American) football -- set-piece, legalistic and obsessed with risk to an extreme, points-productive, with a clearly envisioned end-state, and overly commercialized and monetized. And, as in much of our society, contentious to the point of dysfunction off the field -- just witness the latest labor-management squabbles of the NFL and NBA. We need to come together in a whole new way.

For the rest of the world, it's like (soccer) football -- interpretive, free-flowing, transitional, and with outcomes often difficult to see and reach. Yet, with a collaborative, patient, and disciplined approach, as the Japanese women showed us. Perhaps watching the Women's World Cup has helped us inch a bit closer to that insight. We have to change, and we know it.

Randy Bernard, the CEO of the Indy Racing League, put it nicely: "It is really important in all of our lives to embrace change. When you step outside your boundaries, you grow in a different way." No doubt, with enviable generosity of spirit, the women of Team USA saw that up close and personal. Hopefully, we can learn that from them, too. It will make us a better country and a better people.

 

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