Friday, November 21, 2008

Book Report: Warrior Girls.

Last weekend, the PP gave me my favorite birthday gift so far (even more than the yarn, in terms of enjoyment so far!), Michael Sokolove's Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports. Even though it is That Time of the Semester and I have been knitting up a storm, I have almost finished this book: I have about 50 pages to go, which means I am entering the Protective Phase of reading, where instead of racing along in a book I am enjoying, I slow down, so it does not end too soon.

But the fact that I have not finished it will not keep me from writing about it for you today. What? You never wrote a book report about a book you had not finished? I thought so.

Anyway, you might have come across this guy's writing in other places, such as the big NYTimes magazine article last May. I also heard him interviewed on a nationally syndicated public radio show called "51%," which focuses on women's issues.

His book focuses primarily on soccer to discuss (1) the fact that girls suffer more sports injuries--especially but not exclusively ACL tears--than boys and (2) what might be done to prevent these injuries, short of pulling girls out of sports.

I really appreciate that he makes a big point of noting how beneficial sports and physical activity are for girls. He emphasizes this point throughout the book, noting in numerous ways how essential Title IX has been. I suppose he does this in part to fend off critique from people who might accuse him of denigrating women in sport in suggesting that women's bodies work differently from men's. But mostly he says it because he believes it. He talks frequently of how important sport--swimming--has been for his own daughter, and he seems to make similar observations of other women and girls through his research. He writes at one point:
Girls, through sports, gain the joy of physicality and spirited play that has long been the staple of a boy's childhood. They get to compete in a wide range of sports through high school and college, no longer just field hockey and softball and a handful of others, and they play the games well--better, in fact, than the boys if the measure of quality is team play. Girls indulge in far less posturing than boys, less look-at-me chest beating, less taunting of opponents. Athletics help shape girls into women who are both competitive and collaborative, a formidable combination that most management experts now recognize as the best model of leadership. They take ownership of their own bodies. They go after what they want. Their strength gives them power.
He also writes about how women tend to describe their athletic performance differently. He tells the story of the "Battle of the Sexes" between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. He tells how King beat Riggs in straight sets, and then considers her response:
Depending on how you looked at it, either King affirmed some point about women's abilities in athletics or she avoided leaving a negative impact, which seemed to be her view. "I thought it would set us back fifty years if I didn't win that match," King said. "It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem."

Her reaction was telling. Female athletes, even mature, confident champions like King, rarely gloat in victory. They're just relieved they haven't let anyone down.
Much of the book is dedicated to case studies of high-performing athletic girls, pretty much all of them soccer players. He discusses how they pursue their sport during secondary school, looking not just at the characters of these young athletes but also at the sports culture surrounding them--a culture that through its urging to focus on one sport to the exclusion of other activities and its opening of more opportunities for competition than a body can really endure actually breaks their bodies down rather than making them stronger.

[I hereby apologize for the length of that last sentence, but it is my blog and I am leaving it there.]

Sokolove notes that many of these girls suffer one ACL tear after another, yet keep playing. Most ACL "repairs" are really replacements: the destroyed ligament is replaced with tissue from other tendons in the athlete's own body or from cadaverous ACL tissue. The injuries do not make these girls consider quitting their sport until there is no more tissue to use for replacements, until they have usually busted out both knees and usually more than once.

Sokolove devotes a good bit of attention to work that is being done to figure out why girls tear their ACLs at eight times the rate boys do, and why the activity that causes the tear is often so much less intense. Is it a question of how girls' bodies develop at puberty? Girls' wider Q-angles, the measurement of the line from knee to hip? The way they run? The way they land when they jump? The laxity in all their joints that is a side-effect of the need of female bodies to be able to adjust to carrying a baby to term? That athletic girls tend to work "through the pain" more often and longer in order to avoid being called cry-babies? Or some combination of all or many of these things?

The book is a great read, particularly if you are interested in sport culture, injuries, and what it means to grow up as a girl. (Who, me?)

There are a few things, though, that I wish he treated in greater detail. For instance, thinking back to that first paragraph I quoted above, about what girls gain from sports: if sports are so good for girls, and give them a way to negotiate a wider culture that seems constantly to argue that as a woman you never fully have ownership of your own body--or at least of the demands placed upon it--then what happens to injured girls (and women) when they suddenly lose the ability to claim their bodies through sport?

And this: One chapter opens with these two sentences that had me saying (but not quite in the spirit of Molly Bloom) YES YES YES: "A young woman who suffers a serious athletic injury respond in an intensely personal way and has a limited capacity for reflection or self-protection. She is in pain--physical as well as emotional, because she has lost the thing she loves--and her response is to rehab as quickly as possible and get back on the field."

And then that's it, and he is on to the rehabbing. But wait: what about the very important points that preceded the second dash. Is that all there is to say? No insight into ways that a young woman might learn or be taught to manage this pain and sense of loss? In a book devoted to considering how to protect our daughters from this epidemic, might some attention be devoted to helping them manage the illness once they have contracted it?

And finally, I wish there were room in here for thinking about other sports and other injuries. I know that soccer offers the most dramatic example, because so many girls play it these days and because the injury percentage is so extreme. But what about injuries in other sports? Sokolove frequently mentions his own daughter, a swimmer, and how she managed pretty well in her sport with the exception of "one major injury" that cost her a full season. I can well understand why he would not want to write his daughter's own story--or why she might not want him to--but as an injured swimmer I am starving for that story. And given that there must be other injured girls and women out there who have hurt themselves doing something that is not soccer, I am certain that I am not alone.

I suppose what I am really saying here is not that these are problems with Sokolove's book, which focuses on the dramatic examples in order to make people pay attention, but rather that I hope that Sokolove's book opens an avenue for further discussion of these issues.

1 comment:

Scott said...

No need to apologize for a sentence's length if it is well constructed and flows. That particular sentence could have been written by Churchill. :>)