New research shows mentoring can help level the playing field for female athletes

Posted by George Diepenbrock,

Strong mentors can help female athletes combat sexism, a new study shows.

“Mentorship and the feeling of mattering is really important to female athletes in dealing with issues of discrimination or bullying that can impede women’s full participation in sports, such as playing on a mostly male team or confronting sexual harassment,” says Kathryn Vaggalis, a doctoral candidate in American studies at the University of Kansas.

When mentors instill self-esteem and the idea that the students’ lives matter to others, it boosts athletic ability, provides opportunities for leadership, and can have a positive effect on women’s continued involvement in sports, researchers say.

For the study, researchers conducted 42 retrospective qualitative interviews with college undergraduates who were former high school athletes and identified teachers or coaches as natural mentors. Natural mentors are those that students identify in their school environment rather than  those that a formal mentoring program assigns.

Mentors provide a safe space to receive advice and guidance from a trusted non-kin adult, the researchers say. Further, mentorship offered multiple benefits such as emotional support, reduced delinquency, and instilling a positive work ethic.

Despite the positive findings that mentors can empower female athletes socially and athletically, the findings showed mixed results elsewhere, including how mentors could reinforce problematic gender norms.

Male athletes, for example, cited less emotional support and open communication with their mentors than females. And male mentors of young men tended to reinforce ideas of sports education through rhetoric of traditional masculinity, though participants said that improved self-esteem and work ethic, and also amplified athletic ability and performance.

By reinforcing traditional masculinity, mentors can exacerbate the problematic perception of sports serving as inherently male or masculine, the researchers say.

“Not all sports mentors are positive mentors. They can be problematic, too,” says coauthor Margaret Kelley, associate professor of American studies. “And the gender role socialization differences really spoke to us from the data in this regard.”

The study indicates that natural mentorship and the idea of mattering are crucial in providing a positive influence on adolescents that can help reduce problem behavior and improve life chances.

“Sometimes kids are almost being discouraged from these relationships because there are so many boundaries in place between possible mentors,” Kelley says. “Then they are losing out on these mentorships that can be deeply instructive.”

The gender differences in the study can provide a caution for coaches and teachers who are in a position to guide younger athletes, the researchers say.

“We need to be careful about recognizing sometimes we’re continuing differences in inequalities in the way we treat boys and girls,” Kelley says. “Looking at this allows us to be critical of the mentoring context and critically self-aware of how to help young people learn about gender and the world.”

The findings surrounding mentorship are positive for several reasons, the researchers say, including stemming sexism that can impede women’s participation in sports and serving as a positive influence for male students. The relationship between mentorship and mattering can also be important in conversations surrounding how to prevent violence in schools and among youth.

“As adults we can make commitments to young people,” Kelley says, “to reach out and to nurture them, make them feel like they are important, especially as natural mentors outside their families.”

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