Practicing Women

Maybe female athletes will never play like the men. But imagine what they could do.

Downstairs in the blue-walled basketball court of Target Center's Arena Club, the men's team and the women's team are tied with four seconds left. The men's team, a.k.a. the Generals--a randomly costumed squad of Timberwolves front-office employees and their friends--has just pulled even with an insouciant, if perhaps too hasty, three-point basket.

The black-jersey-clad women conferencing in a time-out are professional players from Minnesota's new WNBA team, the Lynx, which debuts this Saturday against the Detroit Shock. Their huddle breaks with a "Lynx!"; the ball is flung in. Guard Annie Lafleur passes to her right and glides toward the basket, where she receives the ball and lays it in sweetly--a perfect give-and-go. An instant later the buzzer sounds.

The men, who could've been bollards for all the trouble they gave the five-foot-seven Lafleur, slink away quietly. The women whoop and group-hug. At the sidelines a male referee jokes to the stat-keeper: "I think the guys were outcoached right there." Very true, especially since the Generals appeared to lack a chief officer during this preseason scrimmage.

Not the aggressive type?: The Lynx's Brandy Reed (left) and Trisha Fallon
David Kern
Not the aggressive type?: The Lynx's Brandy Reed (left) and Trisha Fallon

Nevertheless, Lynx coach Brian Agler did not himself launch the winning shot. Some credit must be given for execution, and one could just as accurately claim that the men's team was outpracticed. It is practice--years of it--that has enabled top women athletes to accomplish this kind of simultaneously thrilling and humbling victory, over amateur male players whose skill level can be judged by the presence among them of perennial Gopher benchwarmer Hosea Crittenden.

Just three decades ago--a year after Lynx guard Tonya Edwards was born--American female basketball players were finally allowed to run the full length of the court. Up until 1966 they could not dribble more than three times before passing. For much of its lifetime, women's basketball was conceived as a "no contact" game--although, as Joanna Davenport's article on rules in Joan S. Hult and Marianna Trekell's 1991 book A Century of Women's Basketball: From Frailty to Final Four shows, officials admitted that "personal contact cannot be avoided entirely...[and] should not be penalized unless roughness has resulted." Guarding vertically was at one point restricted, as was "snatching" the ball from an opposing player. These guidelines, devised mostly by women for women, represented well-meaning attempts to protect players' health and promote teamwork.

To watch Lynx forward Kristin Folkl lunge up toward the basket against two men (and get mugged), or to see training-camp invitee Charmin Smith shove her skinny five-foot-ten frame against a stockier, taller player (and foul him), is to know that those early basketball officials were both right and terribly wrong. This is an extremely fast, physical game, and more than a few Lynx players shine the floor with their butts in the scrimmage. I find myself wincing as one male guard with a rack of shoulder musculature drives full-speed into his female defenders. But bruises aside, the Lynx are standing up to the charges. Their bodies are stronger, bigger, more exercised than women players in 1969 could have imagined. And, darting quickly around the floor setting each other up, they are becoming a team, fashioning a teamwork, more cohesive and intricate than any that existed before women players could run the court.

How did women progress from the constricted grace of the old women's game to the athleticism of today's WNBA? Fifteen hours after facing the Generals, the Lynx are back on the court, running a drill under Agler's exacting supervision. Split into two teams, they line up at a baseline; when Agler tosses the ball toward one team, they all race to the far basket, striving either to score or to defend. Agler's focus is on the defense. When one player gets an open three-point shot, he yells at the slacking defender, "Are you a quitter? BRANDY REED, ARE YOU A QUITTER?" Reed, a six-one forward, shakes her head.

"SO DON'T QUIT. WE DON'T QUIT!" Ten minutes of this, and former Australia Olympian Trisha Fallon ventures: "When are we stopping?" Agler snaps: "When I say so." They continue the drill for ten more minutes, until each squad's defense more consistently prevents a basket--which is difficult when Sonja Tate, from Agler's former Columbus Quest team, keeps beating the field down the court and making easy lay-ups.

After the Tuesday scrimmage, Tate sat slumped on a bench, exhausted. As practice winds down the next day, the 27-year-old, five-eight guard is up for some spontaneous R&B song and dance with Charmin Smith. "I was so tired when I came in today," she spouts brightly, before sprinting off after a stray ball.

Training, writes Australian social biologist Ken Dyer in his 1982 book Challenging the Men: Women in Sport, increases the size of the heart and the arteries serving it, expands lung volume, and can almost double the amount of the oxygen-binding pigment myoglobin in the muscles. These changes help an athlete take in more oxygen and transport it around her body more efficiently; they also act to stave off the buildup of lactic acid, which causes muscle fatigue. Systematic practice, Dyer observes, even helps the nerves transmit electrochemical impulses more efficiently, so that movement becomes more reflexive, more relaxed, and less draining. As women ask more from their bodies, their bodies give more. It ain't rocket science.

Historically, however, women haven't asked nearly as much from their physical selves as they could have; they weren't expected or encouraged to do so. Whenever people have defined what's possible for women athletes, they've tended to be insulting. Until the 1980s, Olympic officials, for example, put off attempts to add long-distance track events for women because they were "too strenuous": The marathon wasn't introduced until 1984, 17 years after women started sneaking into races in Boston and New York; the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races were instituted in 1988. It makes you wonder what activities now largely off-limits to women will become tomorrow's popular female pastimes: Football? Sumo wrestling?

These changes notwithstanding, women athletes continue to exist at once as athletes and women; and the qualities important to success in sports, such as competitiveness and aggression, are still not qualities widely considered important to success as a woman. Any defiance of low expectations for women in sports must walk hand in hand with a defiance of social expectations for passive, pretty "femininity."

At least you'd think so. And it did start that way, back in the 1970s. But eventually it has worked out that sports have become a safe haven for women to exhibit and cheer the forceful behavior they do not always feel free to display in their "regular" lives. All the Nike ads in the world have not made it okay for women to be openly aggressive in business--or in dating, for that matter. And more than one feminist critic has pointed out how some women athletes model extreme feminine behavior off the playing field, as if to say, "Don't worry, at home I'm a lady."

Strung between these two imperatives, female athletes often must push themselves to do things that come "naturally" to men. "My coaches are always telling me I'm not aggressive enough," says Lynx forward Fallon, a slight six-foot-three at 165 pounds. "I'm pretty quiet, generally; I'm not the aggressive type, so it's something I'm still working on. It's something you have to do day in and day out. You can't say, 'Oh, I don't feel like training today.' You've got to be aggressive every day, whether it be on the court, or on weights, or any type of training you do for your sport. As you do it every day, it becomes natural, and you don't think about it."

Fallon, age 26, has been playing basketball since she was 14; Smith, age 24, since she was four or five. Coaches have been pushing them to develop a combative "instinct" most of their lives. What's strange, at least to me, is that the traditional American method to instill competitiveness in athletes is humiliation. When I shrink at Agler's hectoring--which is no more brusque than, say, the courtside manner of female University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt--I'm not sure whether I'm objecting to the teaching technique or exposing my own "feminine" reluctance to meet the challenge.

"I had a great coach as a kid," remembers Smith, a 1997 Stanford graduate who is fighting for a spot on the Lynx (the 13-player roster is slated to be cut to 11 on June 9). "He was really hard on me--he was a screamer. He always had us in tears. But it made me tougher for things that I've gone through in college and even here, so I really appreciate that." I'd like to believe that a teaching based upon respect rather than shame would result in the same inner toughness. That could be a feminist fantasy. I guess there is a difference, though, between telling a woman she can't physically accomplish something and telling her she can't yet, but could if she'd only try harder. "WE'RE NOT QUITTERS!" is not bad as a slogan for women working to make up ground.

The last half of this century--when women began to play sports in significant numbers--has seen amazing improvements in female athletic performance: A chart mapping world records in any women's track event will show a steep cascade of dropping times, while men's times inch down relatively slowly. Sports sociologists like Dyer and Staffordshire University professor Dr. Ellis Cashmore have begun to talk about women competing with men, particularly in sports such as long-distance running, cycling, and swimming where endurance--something women's bodies seem to be built for--counts most.

Given the struggle the Lynx had with the Generals, any union of the NBA and WNBA looks like a distant dream. (When the USA national team played an exhibition game against the French junior men's national team, Folkl recalls, they lost by a basket.) And that's all right: The point of women engaging in sport is not necessarily to compete with men, but to make inroads into the uncharted land of their own potential. None of the Lynx players I've talked to feel they've reached their peak as players.

"It's nice to be an underdog," says Folkl, "nice to not know what your limits are." Playing with men, Fallon stresses, pushes you toward those limits: "Obviously they're stronger and a bit quicker and more physical, so it gets you ready for teams that play like that. It's hard work--and it improves your game." Folkl, Smith, and Fallon all cite the dunk as the imminent female achievement in basketball. At six-foot-two, Folkl can and does dunk in practice, as do other women in the league, but she has not yet attempted it in a game. She says that right now most women need a step or two to get above the rim, "and most big players aren't going to get breakaways." She laughs. "It's evolving. 'Cause it's only recently that people started saying, 'Hey, why don't you just try it?' And as you keep trying it, you get a technique down."

That's what practice is for, observes Smith: "That's when you can take a chance and make the mistakes. Your teammates know your weaknesses--they know what you can't do, so they try to make you do those things. And that's what makes you better."

All the Lynx I spoke with shoot extra baskets after the Lynx's six-days-a-week practice and do weight training three times or so per week. That still leaves them practicing at least an hour a day less in their inaugural preseason than the Timberwolves regularly do--a common discrepancy, writes sports journalist Adrianne Blue in her 1987 book Grace Under Pressure: The Emergence of Women in Sport. If women trained like men, if they were expected to train like men...well, let's just say the future's a big country and you might have to dump some baggage. ARE YOU A QUITTER?

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