Oppressive Stereotypes for Strong Women

My letter to the editor in the Washington Post, February 19, 2014:

With all due respect for a brave person who is determined to chart her own path, Marion Cory [“Genderqueer at the gym,” Outlook, Feb. 16] inadvertently reinforced the very gender stereotypes that oppress her.According to Ms. Cory, derby cars, self-discipline, adventure, challenge, sports and weightlifting are masculine. Has she never heard of feminism? That, in part, was the point: freedom from gender roles — for all of us. Has she never watched the Olympics? When women lift weights, they’re not acting masculine, they’re acting like people who want to get stronger.And why in the world would she want to use the men’s locker room? That’s for men. She’s a self-disciplined, adventurous, strong woman — just like millions of other women. The word for these people is not genderqueer; it’s athlete.
— Mariah Burton Nelson, Arlington
Marion Cory in her apartment building’s gym. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

I Don’t Want to Become a Stiff, Sore, Old Person

I don’t want to become an old person with sore joints.

Is this inevitable?

Maybe. Frankly, I’m already a middle-aged person with sore joints.Mariah in the pool, post-swim

But I have a hypothesis: Stiff, sore people get that way by “baking” muscular tension into their (our!) bodies.

Whatever we practice, we reinforce. By “practicing” chronic tension, perhaps we create necks, backs, and shoulders that become permanently tight and tired.

Josh Hanagarne, who has Tourette’s, explains in The World’s Strongest Librarian that it’s “exhausting” to experience a continual onslaught of muscular contractions. Maysoon Zayid, a comedian, uses the same word – exhausting – to describe what it’s like to “shake all the time” due to cerebral palsy.

Might all of us be exhausting ourselves by inadvertently contracting, clenching, and clamping our shoulders, backs, and necks – not just at work and home but in the water, too?

As a Total Immersion student, I’m learning to swim and relax at the same time. (This one-lap video  illustrates that attempt.) During the recovery phase, for instance, Terry Laughlin teaches that the leading hand should dangle as it skims above the water.

Now I find myself wondering what might constitute a “recovery phase” on land. Can I achieve what Terry calls “effortless endurance” here, too? When walking, for instance, do I need to marionette my shoulders up toward my ears? When working, must I vice-clamp my jaw?

Not surprisingly, Terry’s way ahead of me.

“Since I started focusing on pinpoint relaxation (relaxing neck muscles to hang head, hand muscles at all times, the ulnar muscle for a ‘suspended’ forearm,) I find I’m much better at being conscious of unintended, unproductive muscular tension at all times, often related to ordinary living stress,” he explains.

I studied Tai Chi in college, and one day my teacher invited an 80-year-old Japanese master to demonstrate. Before he began moving, she said proudly, “Look at his flaccid muscles!”

Flaccidity had never been my goal. But she made a good point: Muscles are for motion. To tense them unnecessarily is to fatigue and even injure them.

This is not an argument against strength training. It’s an argument for conscious, efficient movement, in the water and on land. I don’t know if we can become flexible, pain-free, energetic old people, but I suspect that the actions we take – and don’t take – right now might make all the difference.


This is a guest post for Terry Laughlin’s “Swimming That Changes Your Life” blog

A former Stanford and professional basketball player, Mariah Burton Nelson is the author of six books about female athletes, including We Are All Athletes and The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football. She’s in charge of innovation for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

A Splash-Free Life?

What would it mean to lead a splash-free life?

To splash is “to cause water or other liquid to move in a noisy or messy way.”

In swimming, leading a splash-free life means gliding smoothly forward, without wastefully dissipating one’s own energy in messy, noisy, random directions. This is what first attracted me to Total Immersion: The stunningly beautiful, preternaturally graceful, splash-free stroke demonstrated by Shinji Takeuchi in his popular “Most graceful freestyle” video.

Then I heard Terry Laughlin explain why splashing is inefficient. It takes energy to send water up into the air, and this represents energy diverted from moving you forward. And—since Terry notes that human swimmers, by nature, are energy-wasting machines—a focus on minimizing even the smallest form of waste is the simplest way to acquire what he calls ‘Effortless Endurance.’  

This makes so much sense! As a lifelong swimmer, I’m shocked that I have logged 50 years’ worth of miles, including many competitions at many ages, without ever wondering how I might “shape my vessel” to slice cleanly through the water without creating a noisy mess. Dolphins don’t splash! Why should we?

I’ve been an enthusiastic Total Immersion student for about six months now, practicing mindfully and relishing my new grace and power. I’ve become a TI evangelist too. I can’t help it. Every time I meet a swimmer or potential swimmer, I feel compelled to tell them about streamlining, slipperiness, reducing drag, and the amazing power of the hip-drive.

My most recent convert is 89-year-old Mom, featured in the clip above talking passionately about Total Immersion, while demonstrating the method — and demonstrating how much energy is required for her, at this age, simply to get dressed and get into the pool. Why waste that precious energy splashing?

Now I’m wondering if it might also behoove me (us?) to splash a bit less on land, too. After practicing Total Immersion in the morning, I stride onto the surprisingly firm land like a sea creature that has recently become amphibious. Still high on the satisfying sense of grace I just experienced in the water, I wonder if I (we?) might practice the same grace with colleagues, family, and the above-sea-level world as a whole.

For example: Must I interrupt others when I’m really, really eager to share my views? Isn’t that simply splashing?

Must that colleague across the hall sing out loud all day? Splashing!

What about Metro riders who elbow aside elderly passengers on their way to the seats? Looks pretty splashy to me.

We can only control our own “splashiness,” of course – and, being fallible humans, we can’t entirely control that either. But I find that my own attempts to “splash less” make me more, rather than less, compassionate for others who are noisily and messily moving through the world. After all, isn’t that what I’ve been doing, lap after lap, for most of my life?


This is a guest post for Terry Laughlin’s “Swimming That Changes Your Life” blog

 A former Stanford and professional basketball player, Mariah Burton Nelson is the author of six books about female athletes, including We Are All Athletes and The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football. She’s currently in charge of innovation for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

How Can I Promote My Book?

Friends ask me this all the time. Here’s today’s answer:

To the degree that I have been successful, it’s because I have developed expertise within a niche (women’s sports), then, because of my own passion for that subject, I show up (speeches, conferences, etc) where people interested in that subject congregate. Social media makes that much easier than the old days when you had to get on airplanes… but it’s a much more crowded space now too.

Whether in person or online or (ideally) both, the point of this approach is not to think of it as promoting a book, but as sharing a message. 
So you “go” to the places where those interested in that message spend time. And you continuously re-establish your expertise by blogging, tweeting, or writing a newsletter or articles so when someone thinks of that topic, they think of you. By contributing a steady stream of ideas, advice, insights, research, and commentary, you become known as a thought-leader on that topic, rather than the author of a single book.
Of course, you also identify yourself as the author of that (latest) book, so that if they’re interested in the subject of the article/blog/speech, they’ll be curious about (and MIGHT even buy!) that book.
Photo: I’m on the right (easy to spot in EVERY photo :-)) with good friends and authors Sam Horn and Maggie Bedrosian, at a National Speakers Association event.Image

A Phone for Dad

A Phone for Dad

Three-minute fiction contest by NPR. Read on air by Anne Patchett

Game-Changer: Let Athletes Major in Sports

I sometimes joke that at Stanford University, I “majored in basketball.”

Truth is, I spent hours each day immersed in a highly educational experience involving leadership and team-building lessons that were far more hands-on than anything I might have picked up at the Biz School. I also took those lessons and used them as a foundation for a career as a sportswriter.

The author shooting (#12)

But what if athletes could really major in sports? In today’s Washington Post, always-thoughtful sportswriter Sally Jenkins makes the case that NCAA Colleges Should Consider Offering Sports as an Academic Major.

Jenkins’ proposal is a game-changer because her plan would legitimize sports participation for the educational experience that it is – and encourage universities to create integrated curricula including existing courses such as sport science, sport psychology, sport sociology, sport management, physical education, kinesiology — and the currently missing piece, the connection between theory and practice: varsity participation.

Most athletes are not football players, and most sports do not generate revenue (nor do most football teams, but that’s another story). Her main point has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with challenging the way we think about sports as an educational experience.

Congrats, Sally, for raising a fascinating new subject.

Maybe if I had been encouraged to study sports as an academic discipline, I would have thought of your wonderful idea myself! 🙂

Mariah Burton Nelson now serves as Executive Director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Civil Rights and Association Leadership

This is a mini-speech I gave in June at the Detroit reunion of Diversity Executive Leadership Program (DELP*) participants.

New York State just legalized gay marriage.

Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, surely everyone here appreciates this as a civil rights victory, right?

One by one, the states (six, plus the District of Columbia so far) are freeing Americans to marry whomever they choose.

“Same-sex” marriage is not really about gay people having the right to marry. It’s about everyone having the right to marry the person of their choice, regardless of gender, skin color, nationality, etc.

The 44 states where gay marriage is still illegal cling to a pattern of discrimination no less unfair than the miscegenation laws, which made it illegal to marry someone from a different race (and persisted in some states until 1967).

So civil rights are on my mind because of New York’s recent victory, and also because the topic came up in some of the educational sessions this morning.

And of course civil rights came up when we toured the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.

What an educational — and emotional — experience.

I started asking myself, Is DELP an extension of the civil rights movement?

It’s not promoted as such. It’s a professional preparation program. The focus is on leadership and learning, not politics.

But at its core, DELP is about education and equal opportunity. It’s about helping people achieve their potential, and thus strengthen the whole. Aren’t those core concepts of the civil rights movement?

Of course, civil rights goes by many other names, such as the women’s movement (does anyone remember feminism?), the gay rights movement, and the disabled rights movement. All are about education (including but not limited to consciousness raising) and opportunity.

I once heard this definition of the difference between politics and spirituality: Politics is about what divides people, and spirituality is about what unites us.

Politics is about what keeps us separate, and spirituality is about what brings us together.

Seems to me that perhaps DELP is not just professional, but also political and spiritual.

Because it’s enfranchising disenfranchised groups, it’s political.

Because it’s bringing diverse people together as a professional family, it’s spiritual.

As I look around this room, I see a lot of smiling faces: not only in my “newbie” class of scholars, but also on the faces of the alums who return to Detroit each year for a reunion.

I feel so welcomed by this group. It occurs to me that this is what everyone wants, in any group: to feel welcomed; to feel accepted and even celebrated for our unique talents and contributions; to feel a part of something larger than ourselves.

We want to associate with each other without prejudice or discrimination.

Here’s what ASAE is doing, with support from Detroit: Supporting diverse association leaders who are raising consciousness, opening doors to new opportunities, bringing people together, demonstrating inclusion, and facilitating productive associations of all kinds.

Whether we think of this as a professional program or also a political or spiritual one, I’m sure of this: It’s quite an honor to be on this team!

Each year, the American Society for Association Executives selects twelve members from underrepresented groups (gay people, racial minorities, and people with disabilities) for a two-year fellowship that provides education and training in association leadership. The ten-year-old program is sponsored by the Detroit Convention and Visitors BureauThe goal is to develop a more diverse leadership pool. I was delighted and honored to be selected in the 2011-2013 class of DELP scholars.