Female Role-Models in Sport – What are we actually asking of them?

Hollie-profle_195x150_acf_croppedHaving played tennis since the age of 4 and travelled Europe to compete professionally, Hollie is now the Head Coach of a Tennis Club in Cheshire as well being the Director of her own Tennis coaching Company.  Alongside her coaching duties, Hollie was recently selected by Leeds Beckett University (UK) to pioneer their pilot mentor scheme for up and coming female performance coaches.  And, in her spare time (if she has any left after all of that) she is studying a  Masters in Sports Directorship.

‘Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.’

– Serena Williams

When we think about role models in sport there aren’t too many that can rival Serena Williams when it comes to sheer grit, determination and an inspirational ‘so what’ attitude when it comes to dealing with her, sometimes numerous, critics. Serena is unquestionably one of the most successful athletes of her generation, if not ever, therefore the reasons why she comes under so much criticism from various
quarters are interesting to explore.

A good example of the ‘damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t’ position faced by Serena in her relationship with the media and the public came at the end of last year when she won Sports Illustrated’s coverted ‘Sports Person of the Year’ award and celebrated with a glamorous and powerful photo-shoot for the front cover. Often body-shamed for not looking feminine or pretty enough Serena was now criticised for being too provocative and setting back the feminist cause by objectifying her body. This captures the double standard we seem to apply as a society when we judge our female role models in general and most especially in sport – they are asked to be tough, fierce winners but to do it nicely and in a ladylike manner.

The same issues arise in many stories surrounding Serena’s career. The tennis world is full of little anecdotes, some truer than others, about how demanding she is at tournaments on and off the court, about her alleged high opinion of herself and her ruthless self-advancement. But I put the question why wouldn’t she be this kind of character? You don’t get the success Serena has achieved in sport, or any other arena, without being very tough, very determined and totally undaunted by the opinions or criticisms of others. To put it bluntly when a top male athlete behaves like Serena he’s called a champion, when a woman does it she’s labelled a bitch.

While this difference in attitudes towards powerful men and women is nothing new, it becomes increasingly shocking to observe as we progress well into the 21st Century. Many men, and sometimes women, are disquieted and threatened by female role-models like Serena who are unapologetically strong, successful and confident in themselves and their bodies.

Sport offers us so many outstanding role models, both male and female, and provides us with a wonderful platform for influencing the beliefs and aspirations of future generations. Yet as we encourage and search for more iconic women in sport we must remember we can’t ask them to be all things at once. There is no such thing as a nice, inoffensive winner; there are only strong, powerful, single-minded and determined winners – and surely this is what we want to endorse and encourage the young women of the future to aspire to be?