Fielding Criticism & Why Female Athletes Have a Leg Up

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This piece was originally published on the ZGiRLS website on October 2nd, 2014.

“If a woman wants to do substantive work of any kind, she’s going to be criticized — with comments not just about her work but also about herself. She must develop a way of experiencing criticism that allows her to persevere in the face of it. And yet, many women don’t have that tool kit”

Reading Tara Mohr’s recent NY Times article struck a chord. In the piece, Mohr explores the fact that many women don’t pursue their passions and avoid confronting challenges because of their dependence on praise or fear of criticism.

It got me thinking: athletes field criticism regularly. It is part of the daily routine. So, what advantage––if any––do girls who participate in sports have over their non-athletic peers when it comes to the degree in which they rely on praise, and the resilience with which they field criticism?

In the early years of ZGiRLS, I remember reading the following testimonial from a participant:

“One thing I learned was how to trust the people who are trying to help me improve. I realized that when coaches critique me, they are not insulting me, but are just trying to help me improve.”

After ten years of fielding criticism on the United States Ski Team, I was so accustomed to processing constructive criticism it hadn’t occurred me that, when some young athletes receive feedback from their coaches, they take the feedback personally. It may seem basic to adults, but what an important realization for a young girl to have: that when a coach critiques her, he is trying to help her, not insult her. The feedback is meant to be CONstructive, not DEstructive.

I’ve read that Target Corporation is known for creating a “feedback culture” based on the philosophy that (a) the more feedback becomes a norm, (b) the more accustomed people become to receiving it, and therefore (c) the more comfortable it becomes. Athletes, whether we know it or not, are entrenched in a feedback culture much like Target’s. Feedback is a norm, so we become accustomed to it, and over time, we become more comfortable with it.

So when researchers look at the female population––our apparent reliance on praise and avoidance of criticism––I can’t help but suspect: this must be yet another area where female athletes have a leg up on their non-athletic peers. If the 2013 study reporting that 96% percent of c-suite women* participated in organized sports is any indication, then I’d say it’s likely my suspicion is correct.

It is reasonable to assume that, in order to rise to the top in today’s business world, those women had to field criticism a time or two… But, just like their experience in sports, those women were probably both accustomed and comfortable with it.

And as athletes often do, those women had the tool kit to persevere in the face of it.

*at companies whose annual revenues exceeded $250 million