May 28, 2010

Study looks at effect of ‘mean girls’ on sports teams

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Just because girls play together doesn’t mean they like each other.

“I’m finding girls are just as mean to each other in sports as anywhere else,” said Julie A. Partridge, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

“One thing that seems to be a little bit different is that there can be more of a physical component. I’ve heard stories of players intentionally hitting someone with a ball and acting like it was an accident. But making fun of people behind their backs, giving dirty looks, excluding them -- all the mean girls’ ‘greatest hits’ -- happen regularly on girls’ teams.”

Partridge, whose research interests include social influences on sport participation and performance enhancement, has looked at a number of factors that influence both, including the roles of parents and coaches, the effects of embarrassment and shame, and the influence of peers. She currently is conducting individual interviews with teenage girls about their experiences with their teammates.

This project grew out of an earlier survey of 105 young athletes (most of them female), which included questions aimed at uncovering whether the players had been victims of physical or verbal bullying or other hostile acts.

“I just didn’t find much so I thought maybe because sport is a physical endeavor there wasn’t as much of it going on, but the coaches were telling me it was happening even though I didn’t see it,” Partridge said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’m just not asking the right questions,’ so I decided to take a more qualitative approach -- do interviews rather than using the pencil-and-paper tests.”

Partridge began interviewing last fall and to date has talked with 10 girls ages 15 to 17, most of whom play a team sport. She plans to talk with another 15 athletes, including younger girls and those in individual sports, before the study ends.

“The girls have been very interested in talking about this issue,” Partridge said. “They’ve all had experience with it, either as observers, victims, or in one case, as a perpetrator.

“What I’m finding is that it affects everyone one way or another. The team environment is negatively affected -- as the girls would say, ‘There’s a lot of drama’ -- and it affects performance, too. If you have people who don’t speak to each other, you don’t do well.”

In sport, jealousy triggers mean-girl behavior, Partridge said, with girls on the bench likely the meanest of them all.

“They talk about the players, they laugh if they make mistakes,” she noted.

But players have their own mean streaks.

“A girl will exclude someone else on a play, even if that person is the best on the team, just because she doesn’t like her,” Partridge said. “Or she won’t pass her the ball or she’ll roll the ball at the other player to make her trip. It makes no sense -- it decreases your chance of winning.

“The functional response to jealousy should be, ‘What do I need to do better? What can I learn from watching this player?’ Instead, we see this bizarre coping response: ‘I’m going to take her down.’ That doesn’t help anyone improve.”

Several of the girls interviewed said mean behavior occurred most often at practice rather than during games.

“The irony is if you do that in practice, you’re not going to do as well in the game,” Partridge said. “When the time comes, will you really trust that person who’s been mean to you? Probably not.”

While many dismiss feminine meanness -- “Girls will be girls,” they say -- Partridge thinks it should be confronted. She says coaches have the power to put a stop to it, but the girls reported that only the female coaches seemed willing to do so.

“I think the male coaches hope if they don’t say anything, it will go away, where the female coaches have had the experience that it just gets worse,” Partridge said.