Triathletes / Interviews

Sisterhood in Sport: How Female Athletes Collaborate and Compete

Triathletes / Interviews

Interview by Susan Lacke (@SusanLacke) | Pics: Phil Wrochna“Women are not small men, and should not be coached as such.”

That’s the prevailing theory behind the work of Dr. Joan Steidinger, sports psychologist and author of Sisterhood in Sport: How Female Athletes Collaborate and Compete. In more than 20 years of working as a sports psychologist, Steidinger has noticed distinct differences in the way male and female athletes approach training and racing: namely, that women’s athletic endeavors are more likely to be driven and affected by relationships, a notion Steidinger termed “collaborative competition.”

The approach is one that aligns well with the coaching philosophy of Siri Lindley, one of the most successful coaches in triathlon today. Many of her athletes, including Ironman World Champion Mirinda Carfrae, credit Lindley’s strong relationship-building skills and positive attitude as contributors to athletic success.
firstoffthebike sat down with both Steidinger and Lindley to get their take on collaborative competition, confidence, coaching, and why gender parity in Kona matters.
FOTB: How would you describe the differences in the way men and women approach training and competition?
Siri Lindley: Both genders work hard, with great intention and with passion. The one difference I notice occasionally is that my female athletes tend to put a lot more pressure on themselves in training. Sometimes I have to really make sure that each athlete is focusing on themselves as opposed to how they are performing in relation to the others. With the males, I don’t see this as much.
Dr. Steidinger: Many women approach sports from a connected and collaborative perspective and want to like their teammates.  Men are analytical and thinking about sports and don’t mind putting up with a teammate that they don’t like if he is a talented athletic.  Men are often friends with their competitors and leave the competition on the field, whereas women tend to take situations more personally when a race doesn’t go well.
FOTB: Confidence (and the lack thereof) is a recurring theme when it comes to working with female athletes (and in Sisterhood in Sport), yet you don’t hear as it often when referring to male athletes. Why? How can coaches instill this confidence?
Dr. Steidinger: Confidence is often one of the biggest issues for women.  As my book says,  girls and women are more likely to underestimate their athletic abilities.  Boys and men are more likely to overestimate their athletic abilities.
Siri Lindley: Confidence is a huge part of racing well. It is a necessity. But I am not talking about a false confidence; the confidence must be “honest confidence” coming from doing the work. I set the athlete up with training that will prepare them to be at their very best on race day. Hard work brings honest confidence, which comes in especially handy on race day.
I ask my athletes to keep a daily log…before a race, I will suggest they go through that log and look at all the great work they have done, how much they have improved along the way. This is a great reminder on race week, where so many athletes start to self-doubt the closer they get into the race. I have my athletes present themselves with the facts – that helps a ton in keeping them confident and ready to race.
FOTB: Triathlon is typically seen as a solitary sport, but research says women who train with other women perform at higher levels in competition than those who train alone. Why is that?
Dr. Steidinger: Women require support and encouragement in sport. Training around others provides this support. With three sports to train in, training with others is not always possible. Many women swim with Master’s swimming groups and have running and cycling pals as well. Female collaborative competition provides a framework for their naturally collaborative nature. We thrive on that support and encouragement.
FOTB: Siri, you seem to make a concerted effort to create this environment of “collaborative competition” as a coach, providing ample opportunity for your athletes to spend time together in and out of training. Why is this important to you?
Siri Lindley: I see my squad as my family. I have been given the gift of being asked to help these amazing athletes achieve their dreams. My athletes know that everyone here has a big dream and is willing to put their hearts and souls into achieving that dream, so there is a great feeling of mutual respect within the group and a great camaraderie that forms when they are working hard together. Each day, athletes show up with the same great intention as the person beside them. This formulates a respect and friendships. My athletes know that their teammates will help bring out the best in them. They know that they are here not only to learn from me, but from one another.
FOTB: While we’re on the topic of differences between male and female triathletes: Currently, the female pros of Ironman Triathlon have been working together to fight for an equal number of male and female spots at the Ironman World Championships in Kona (there are 35 spots for women and 50 spots for men). Why is this an important cause?
Dr. Steidinger: It’s a fight about power, money, and equal interest in women’s and men’s sports.  The acknowledgement that women can be just as capable can be very threatening. I believe that the only sport where there is real equality is tennis where women get equal prize money to men even in the big majors.  The drive for this began in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s with the “Original Nine” led by Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals.  These early tennis pros fought for years, and today, through playing on level fields, there is as much interest and knowledge about both the female and male pros.
The irony [of the inequality in Ironman World Championship spots] is that women are built better for endurance, such as triathlon. If you look at the starting and finishing results of 100 milers,  you will often see a larger percentage of women finishing as opposed to men.
Siri Lindley: The level of triathlon is so great right now. The performances truly are becoming exceptional and in some cases unbelievable. The women’s race in Kona is always so competitive. Every race is like this.
It makes no sense to have more men than women, but at the same time, I do not want to see the men’s numbers being cut to allow for more women. My belief for Kona, for example, is cut both the numbers down to, say, 30 men and 30 women. No matter what it should be equal. There are rad men and rad women in this sport, not one more than the other. Equal opportunity is something that should have been given a long time ago. Let’s celebrate greatness on both sides!
About the author:
Susan Lacke
Susan Lacke, Editor-at-Large
Writer. Ironman. Frequent Flyer. Adventure Junkie.