By NICK CHILES
There were many joys I expected from having little girls, but I didn’t expect this one. I knew that if I played my cards right, if I managed to show my little girls just a fraction of the love that I felt in my heart, I could potentially be on the receiving end of some serious little girl adoration. But I never expected that I would be overseeing the rise of two little girl jocks. Over the past year or so, it has become increasingly apparent to me that my 9-year-old and 6-year-old daughters are gifted athletes. And what has caught me even more by surprise is the crucial role that daddies play in nurturing the athletic impulse in their daughters. I would even go out on a limb and say that in most cases the dad is probably the most important ingredient in turning little girls into top athletes.
I must admit that I get more of a thrill from watching my girls excel on the soccer field than I ever got from my own athletic conquests, or even from watching my son destroy opponents on the football field (he’s a defensive lineman, so destruction is very much part of his job description). While I expected that my son would probably be an excellent player, I had no such expectations when it came to my daughters. Perhaps some might ascribe this to some latent daddy sexism, but that would be too simple. A more apt reason would be ignorance. I didn’t really have much of an idea what went into the creation of a female athlete. I grew up around active sisters and a mother who was formerly a high school basketball player (though this was back in the 1950s, when they apparently didn’t even allow the girls to dribble, according to my mom—they could only advance the ball by passing it), but none of them ever really made sports a priority in their lives when we were younger. What’s becoming clearer to me is that most girls and their mothers will never make sports a priority without a significant push from dad. Unless they were serious jocks themselves, many mothers don’t seem to envision their daughters spending hours on end every week sweating and running and shoving and even bleeding out on a playing field. There needs to be some other presence, some additional impetus, to push the girls off the default position. In the case of most of the female athletes I see around me, that impetus is dad.
Very often, especially in the early years, we may be the only real advocates in the house for the girl as athlete. My wife Denene is clearly not sure about the future of this whole sports thing for her daughters. She didn’t play sports herself growing up and I can tell that she has no idea of the sacrifices and sometimes pain that goes into turning your body into a finely tuned instrument. At least every few months she and I face off in an intense argument about Mari and her sports participation. Mari is at the stage where others are recognizing her potential and trying to push us into committing even more of her (and our) time and energies. I know that as she and her younger sister Lila get better, the demands will only get worse—to the point where we will be forced to make some tough decisions about where it all leads. At times I grapple with self-doubt—Are we pushing her too hard? Is the time too much? Is her body in danger of breaking down (she had to stop track because of a pain in her left knee)? Would she be better off maybe trading in the cleats for ballet slippers? I never faced any of these questions with my son—the assumption was always that we all would keep pushing until someone else decided that he couldn’t go any further. But things are different with girls. I live with the ever-present fear that one day my wife will wake up and decide all this sports nonsense needs to end. And I suspect my daughter herself likely won’t be weighing in on her sports future until she’s well into adolescence—when I am trying to gauge whether I might be pushing her too hard, her response is usually to look into my eyes and tell me that she wants to do whatever I think she should do.
It’s astounding how closely their on-field personas mirror their personalities off the field. Mari is disciplined, cautious, intense and thoughtful—the kind of girl who will watch the clock as we are driving to practice and ask me every two minutes if I think she is going to be late. On the field she is a precise athlete, able to command her body to do what she wishes by the force of her will and her precocious powers of concentration and discipline. When she ran track as a 7-year-old for a local—and nationally regarded—track squad that had several runners who were among the tops in the country, she was usually one of the first to perfect some new technique the coach was trying to teach. This made her a natural for the long jump because, while every other 7-year-old would step over the line on the take-off, Mari never faulted. She was too exacting to make a mistake like that. And boy does she have heart. I was amazed the first time I realized that noise I heard while she ran around the track at practice was my little daughter crying because of the pain. But not once did she ever stop. On that day I don’t know which one was bigger—my enormous pride or the lump in my throat. She moved from track to swimming to soccer, where her discipline and attention to detail has helped her in one short year go from a beginner to an all-star and member of the traveling team.
Lila the younger is the wild child, the bold, brash warrior who will run over anyone who gets in her way. Soccer is the only sport that she has played thus far, but every time I watch her I am stunned by her fearlessness. Mind you, this is a little girl who can summon tears at home if she decides that someone is looking at her too hard, who is so tender-headed that she starts screaming when my wife just reaches for the comb. But on the soccer field she turns into a little brown bulldozer, running through anyone who gets in her way, using her speed and agility to stay away from anyone trying to catch her, utilizing her smarts to stay two steps ahead of the other team. At six, she is outplaying girls two years older than she is. My little girl is fierce.
When I read all the studies that reveal the huge impact sports has in helping girls develop a positive self-image and more self-confidence and having them delay the start of sexual activity, my conviction is renewed: I need to make sure they get a chance to run and sweat out there for as long as possible. And I’ll be right there on the sidelines, holding the towels and the water bottles, and cheering my girls on.
About Our MBB Contributor:
Nick Chiles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of six books, and the editor-in-chief of the travel magazine, Odyssey Couleur. He's an avid sports fan, and can be found most weekends on the sidelines of football and soccer fields throughout the suburbs of Atlanta, GA, cheering quite loudly for his brown babies.