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)

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.

Sex, Seduction, Power, and Love

My letter in the Washington Post today (regarding “Ex-swim coach gets 7 years in sex case”):

“I loved him.” Those were the three most important words in Rick Curl’s sentencing hearing. Kelley Currin’s sentiment has been echoed by victims everywhere, including Jerry Sandusky’s. “It was awesome. I loved it,” one boy said of his relationship with the football coach. I felt the same way about the coach who abused me. In my 14-year-old mind, we were having a love affair.
Parents must understand: Children can be manipulated and seduced. All of us crave love and affection, especially from charming, successful adults. Statutory rape laws are based on this premise: Young people are not developmentally capable of handling complicated and dangerous emotional situations.
Secrecy

Our message should not be, “If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, tell me.” Unfortunately, they’re not going to tell us. Even in the face of disturbing and damaging sexual contact, they’re going to preserve their “special” relationships with beloved mentors, coaches, teachers and priests.

Instead, we need to give children and teens this message: We know how powerful love can be. Then we need to demonstrate the power of our love by protecting them.

Tara VanDerveer: “You ARE On the Team”

A week before the WNBA draft I am at the Final Four. Tara VanDerveer has just been named Coach of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.

I tell her that I really appreciate the two receptions Stanford held for former players this year: One chairs-in-a-circle discussion between current players and about ten former players, and one casual conversation in an Indianapolis bar.

“It’s been 33 years since I played at Stanford,” I marvel. “But you make me feel like I’m still on the team.”

“You ARE on the team,” replies Tara. She introduces me to her mother, and to her sister Heidi.

I have accomplished many things since Stanford. I’m socially and professionally connected. Still. It feels weirdly satisfying to have Tara tell me I’m still on the team. Even though I live in the DC area, never get back to Maples Pavilion for games, and — though this is heresy to admit — don’t even FOLLOW the team closely until it’s Final Four time. I’m too busy living my life.

For instance: Tomorrow I’m travelling to Amelia Island, Florida, to speak to the Executive Women’s Golf Association. I’ll be keynoting their annual Golfpalooza. My topic: Competition, Leadership, and Teamwork. Those executive women golfers are also “on the team.” Which is why they attend conferences — why we all do. Sure, we want to learn, but we also want to connect. We want to belong. We want to feel part of something larger than ourselves, and work to achieve goals in collaboration with others who share our values.

“You ARE on the team,” Tara said. Same thing the Minnesota Lynx told Connecticut superstar Maya Moore in the WNBA draft.

Isn’t that what we all want to hear?

–Mariah Burton Nelson, who only wishes she had stood up straighter when this photo was taken! Tall sisters, however — power players who were on magnificent display in Indy during the Final Four — will understand: It’s hard to talk to shorter people without bending over!

Exercise Is Medicine: But Not for Children

My brother, a very active, adventurous dad, concocts a unique obstacle course for each of his kids on their birthdays, so that “in order to turn 7,” for instance, the child has to “pass the 7-year-old test.” The kids train for it, and help design it, and love him — and themselves — for it.

This is a great example of how parents can affirm for children the joys of movement.

Parents should model enjoyable physical endeavors themselves, and invite their children on exciting family adventures involving hikes, bikes, boats, and myriad creative games and sports.

We’re in danger, however, of imposing on children a “move because it’s good for you” philosophy — which could be counter-productive.

It’s appropriate for adults: The American College of Sports Medicine’s “Exercise is Medicine” campaign calls on “all health care providers to assess and review every patient’s physical activity program at every visit.” Brilliant!

Of course exercise is essential to physical functioning; our very cells cannot live without it. The campaign is working, too. How I love it when my own physician asks me about exercise!

But… let’s not tell kids.

Have you ever met a child who likes medicine?

If we approach kids with an obesity-prevention, “you must move for 60 min per day” approach, excercise might become, in their minds, just another thing grownups want them to do, along with homework and housework.

Kids SHOULD be taught the benefits of exercise, along with the nutritional value of food, but let’s ALSO nurture their natural passion for movement, so that throughout their lives they stay in touch with their natural desire to play, explore, experiment, discover, test, and express themselves with their bodies.

When necessary (and if often is), we can offer children or adults appropriate incentives to overcome the inertia of  sedentary lifestyle. But eventually, the incentive becomes intrinsic: moving feels good, during and afterward – especially when it’s in the context of play.

Myriad studies confirm: the primary reason children play sports is this: FUN.

Therefore, to promote physical activity to children, we should not limit our discussion to physical health, mental health, or cognitive function.

What we should be promising is what Frank Forencich (of Exuberant Animal fame) calls “physical happiness” – and who doesn’t want that?

Of course, adults who are lifelong athletes don’t need to perceive exercise as medicine either. We’ve never forgotten how fun it is.

Off to train for my own upcoming (April) 55-year-old test!

Don’t Forget Exercise! When Discussing Depression

The Washington Post reported this week (“Antidepressants Can Be Helpful but Risky”) that the use of depression medication has nearly doubled since the mid-1990s.

The article mentions dangerous side effects — drowsiness, feelings of panic, nervousness, sexual problems, and thoughts of suicide or weight gain — but fails to mention this proven alternative method of treating depression: exercise.

We have known for a while now that exercise can be as effective or more effective than medication for treating depression. A 1990 meta-analysis of 80 studies on exercise and depression showed that:

  • “Exercise was a beneficial antidepressant immediately and over the long term.
  • “Although exercise decreased depression among all populations studied, it was most effective in decreasing depression for those most physically and/or psychologically unhealthy at the start of the exercise program.
  • “Although exercise significantly decreased depression across all age categories, the older people were (the ages ranged from eleven to fifty-five), the greater the decrease in depression with exercise.
  • “Exercise was an equally effective antidepressant for both genders.
  • “Walking and jogging were the most frequent forms of exercise that had been researched, but all modes of exercise examined, anaerobic as well as aerobic, were effective in lessening depression at least to some degree.
  • “The greater the length of the exercise program and the larger the total number of exercise sessions, the greater the decrease in depression with exercise.
  • “The most powerful antidepressant effect occurred with the combination of exercise and psychotherapy.” — “Exercise Can Keep Your Psyche Fit,” Psychology Matters

A September 2009 article in the Washington Post (“Running for My Life”) made this same case: that exercise can cure depression at least as well as drugs — and of course the “side effects” of exercise beat the side effects of depression medications hands down.

Yet The Washington Post and other media outlets tend to forget about exercise when bemoaning the escalating use of anti-depression medication, and the drugs’ myriad side effects.

True, it’s difficult to persuade depressed people to get off the couch and lace up their running shoes. Pill-popping requires less effort. But we need more medical professionals to prescribe exercise, and we need consistent media reminders that the path to mental health, as well as physical health, is through fitness.

Fit Tip #31

Bike trails filled with people
Dodging them could make me blue
But bike trails filled with people: This is my dream come true