Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Girls and the Sport of Guard Part 3: Their Health and Weight

The elephant in the room. How are we as an activity going to address the growing obesity and weight problem among youth in America and more specifically, the documented and well researched growing sedentary behavior of teenage girls in America? Do we have a responsibility and if so, what is that responsibility?

Let me start here. I work in the non profit industry on the government side. We have the money and the non profits want the money. I often get asked how a pageantry organization can get their hands on that money and my response is always the same. Stop thinking about funding your program and think about who in your program should be funded. Most guards are made up of girls. Girls have specific issues. Girls are on the high level of funding priorities right now. So what would I do? I would go after the money tied to the obesity epidemic and it's impact on women. Why would I do this? Because, colorguard in most nationally based programs and even most locally competitive programs are physically taxing and require just as much physical strength and endurance as any other sport women participate in. In my last blog post, the second in the series about girls and the sport of guard, I mentioned that we must stop calling ourselves an activity and call ourselves a sport. Calling colorguard a sport brings up images of discipline, fitness, and teamwork. Calling it an activity allows the parents, the kids, and the school to think it's just some run of the mill after school program.

So why the obesity epidemic? Currently in America, when it comes to females, more research is being conducted on physical activity and weight, than almost any other form of research being conducted on the genders and its impact on the future health of the country. It's a huge issue right now. Here are some basic stats from the Women's Sports Foundation Meta-Analysis on girls health released in April 2015:

  • Among students in the 9th-12th grades, only 17.1% report being physically active and only 30.3% are getting daily physical education in schools
  • Among 12-year old children, girls were found to be less physically active than boys. Puberty increases obesity in girls more than it does boys. 
  • A study examining trends in physical activity starting in 1988, demonstrates that the number of adults reporting no leisure-time physical activity increased greatly over two decades and the number is higher for woman than for men. 
  • Among children and adolescents aged 2-15, almost 17% of all children are considered obese (CDC)
  • 1/3 of all U.S adults are considered obese
  • in 2014, there was approximately $147 billion spent on medical costs associated with obesity in the U.S. 
Think about that last number. $147 billion. Long terms studies conducted on health in America show time and time again that if a child learns healthy behaviors in diet and exercise from birth, they are more likely to grow to be healthy adults with less medical problems, less likely to smoke, and less likely to be sedentary leading to diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis. 

What does this have to do with guard, band, or drum corps? Because, out of that original number of 17% of active high school students, how many of those kids are band and guard kids? This is how we advocate our worth! Think about it. If we talked to the kids about eating healthy and proper exercise, more than just, "Hey...you dropped the toss do push ups," then we are setting our kids up for life. LIFE! Factoring in how many steps are taken in one marching band season, frequent changes in tempo, which changes the heart rate keeping the metabolism always questioning, physical endurance exercises such as running the track, push ups. planks, jumping jacks, and whatever else we make them do, we are most likely one of the most physically active sports in the country. Core strength has become the buzz word in fitness circles all over the world. Your core is the essence behind your posture and building those core muscles has health implication well into middle age. 

What does this have to do with girls? Girls have a higher rate of being overweight once they hit puberty than the boys do. Girls have body image issues that are tied to societal expectations of being thin. Often times when working with girls, you face one of two issues in regards to their bodies. There is the, "I'm so fat." When if fact they are not fat or you get those that are overweight, but fail to see a life of sedentary behaviors and diet as the cause of that. Both work against a guard program. 

So what do we do about it? First we have to recognize that in an activity of teenage girls, that body image is a true issue and it's not a game. We have to next recognize that other sports may or may not monitor weight, but there is an expectation that they come into the program with an understanding that physical fitness will be the cornerstone to the program. Early morning conditioning is often a requirement, as well as control of diet. Soda's, fast food, and sugar are discussed in pre-season meetings and dietitians are often contracted with. We are an activity where the look of the performer is a factor whether we admit to it or not. Many of the girls in the activity join colorguard without an awareness of the physical nature of it. Many come into it over weight and that has inhibited their participation in traditional activities and sports intended for girls, such as cheerleading and volleyball. Many girls enter into their freshmen year of color guard having been sedentary much of their lives. They simply don't have an awareness of what they are getting into. I watch it every year. That look of total surprise when they have to run a mile around the track....just to warm up. It takes four laps to cover a mile around a high school track and many kids can't make it around in under 15 minutes. In traditional sports, running for warm up is just simply an expectation. A conversation and exercises about the core is a necessity and will go a long way in saving you time in the end bitching and complaining about "standing up straight."

Every year at band camp I watch the girls and how they dress for the heat and what they drink. One girl a couple of years ago showed up to band camp with a Mountain Dew in her hands. My response? "Do you understand how your body reacts to the amount of sugar in those drinks and the heat?" She didn't know. I told her to go home and research it and come back and report to the rest of the guard. I finished with, "I don't ever want to see another soda on this field again." These are the things they don't know. Before we teach the first count of a show, we must talk to the kids about their health. We have to go beyond drinking water and wearing sunscreen and talk to them about their bodies. 

What about the overweight girls? How do you discuss what is probably the most sensitive topic for girls today? Start with an expectation upon entering the program that a healthy lifestyle will be a cornerstone to the program. Engage the girls in conversations about what they ate for lunch. Talk about water and how water doesn't just keep your body from dehydrating, but can help boost the metabolism. Create a Facebook page for the guard and on that Facebook page encourage the performers to post how they conditioned their body in their off time. Encourage friendly contests between them regarding to fitness. Talk with them individually if you need to. Ask them how they eat at home and what they eat when they snack. Teach them that almonds are great for a snack, but chips are not. Tell them you are concerned that they will not be able to manage the intense physical demands that the show will bring if they don't take better care of themselves. Show concern and compassion. Tell them when you see them lose weight or gain time in the morning run. Can't do more than 10 push ups at the beginning of the season, but in the end they can do 30? Tell them you are proud of them! Keep the understanding in the back of your mind that if the parents are overweight, chances are they aren't being encouraged at home to be physically healthy. There's a possibility that you will be working against a familial lifestyle. This goes into the next part.

Don't ignore the parents. If parents think that little Suzy is joining a cute little activity, then they will treat it that way. Parent meetings are crucial in laying the foundation of the program from a health perspective. Work with the parents, not against them. Parents only want the best for their children and if you approach it that way, then you will get most of the parents on board. Here are some other ideas:

  • Create a county wide initiative with other guards. Friendly competition so to speak. Something like, "How many miles did your guard run this season?" 
  • Work collectively as a community pageantry environment and share dollars in bringing in a personal trainer or dietitian before the band season starts and get as many kids in a gym as possible to listen to them speak.
  • Get the kids to keep fitness journals. Sports teams do it all the time.
  • Create a push up chart or plank chart. How long can the guard collectively plank? What's the average push up before the first person falls? Increase that number as the season goes on. 
  • Make every kid in the program buy a pedometer and wear it. It's a physical reminder of the importance of motion.
There's a million ideas that don't require money or a lot of time. It is incumbent upon us as an activity to talk more about health. This physically demanding activity of ours, becomes more rigorous as the years go on and can start resulting in more injuries such as broken wrists, dislocated knees, and concussions as we explore more tricks and blind tosses. We are more than what we spin and we owe it to the kids to create a health based dialog. Finally, what about us? Shouldn't we as instructors and coaches model positive health? We have to ask ourselves, "What do the kids see when they see me and am I an adult that's a do what I say, not what I do?" We don't have to look like the model of health, but we should at the very least strive to better ourselves.  

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Girls and the Sport of Guard...Part 2

I'm going to tell you a story. There is a girl in your guard. She's your guard captain. She's strong. Smart. Ambitious. You don't have to worry about her. She has a great, caring family. Her parents are supportive and have done everything in their power to make sure she succeeds in life. Somewhere in her upbringing though, she lost her sense of self. Somewhere along the lines she started to believe that the images she see's in the media of beauty and weight, is real. What if what she saw around her gave her a sense of "less than," because she can't find her ambitions in the images of reality t.v. and the movies. You find out that she has been keeping a secret. That secret is that she dating a boy that isn't nice.  He doesn't support her success in an activity few understand. He hates it when she's at practice. He texts her constantly. He wants to know if there are any other boys she's talking to. He never congratulates her when she wins. He never see's her perform. He convinces her to quit. She believes that he is the best thing she can get, so she does. She tells you that it's because she has too much school work.

What would you do? Would you recognize that she's in an abusive relationship? Do you think her parents know? Does it even matter to you as her coach?

The story you just read is a true story and it's my story, except it didn't happen in high school, but as an adult and I didn't quit, but almost did. This story plays out with teenage girls and women every day and most people have no idea, because we don't talk about it and we keep secrets. It's uncomfortable. It's scary. It's about the power partners keep over us and the self-esteem that society seeks to destroy through the unnatural expectations it has on women regarding beauty and sex. If you read many of my posts, you will see me in them. I veil much of it, but if you read closely, you can see the story of me reveal itself. In my career of color guard, I have endured a hell you wouldn't believe. Strength is my game and strength is a misconception. We place strength on the top of the list of things we want our girls to learn from guard. I know I do. However, sometimes we forget to make sure that strength goes beyond throwing a really great toss. Through a lot of soul searching, I have found that I have had people looking up to me while  I wasn't even look up to myself...and no one knew. Well a few did, but they only started to realize after the game of secrets I was playing started to unravel in front of them, because good friends will always find their way around the secrets. When you don't look up to yourself, you open a door to madness.

When a person is in a relationship that centers around power and control, the control reaches way beyond the home. Your photos on Facebook are monitored. Time frames of coming and going must be kept. Being on the computer late at night becomes a crime. Your whereabouts become about the control of your actions. Lies are told to cover tracks of things that aren't even wrong to do. These were my guard weekends for years. Sunday nights were awful. Awful! I have had my keys taken from me to keep me from leaving for a weekend and had the mileage on my car monitored. I kept it all a secret. Color guard weekends for me were an escape to people who care, but the people who cared were kept in the dark. Why is that? Because I'm supposed to be strong. I've had men who were jealous of my success, so much so, they became verbally abusive just to manage me. Kept it all inside, because coaching young people to be strong does not lend itself well when you are the internal lie of strength.

So what does this have to do with coaching girls? Because, our girls face battles many people fail to recognize and we owe it to them to make sure we do recognize it. Because, a national dialog about who is teaching in our activity and who is performing in it needs to finally begin. The dialog on how we coach must start now. For the record, I know women in the activity (I also know men, but this post if about the girls) who have been hit by a partner. I know single moms who get no child support and who judge on the weekends just to make ends meet. Many women in the activity are techs. Techs get the brunt of the "bad cop" persona.  With that comes the word "Bitch."  In many programs, the techs get little to no pay, while the designers get eat up the bulk of the instructional budget. There are girls performing who are told by opening equipment solo's automatically going to boys, that they aren't good enough. Watch the shows next year. Tell me if you don't see a large number of solo equipment moments going to the males. Many of our girls don't come to us with high self-esteem. In fact, we know that once a girl hits puberty, her self-esteem can drop by almost 50%, to make way for the change in perception of the body. This is why costuming correctly is crucial. This is why we must recognize that building their self-esteem must be an essential aspect of our coaching curriculum. You can be tough, without tearing them down.

We know that when women enter the workforce in male dominated fields that they speak less in meetings and get shut down more than their male counterparts. We also know that women when they do speak up, often times follow with an apology afterwards. This is researched and well documented. Women are a little over half of the U.S. population and earn 60% of all masters degrees awarded. However, they hold just 17% of Fortune 500 Board seats and although women control 80% of domestic spending, they are only 3% of creative directors in advertising. What girls see, is how many of them will be. We can break this, if at the least for our own performers if we are diligent in how we coach them.

Pat Summit of the Tennessee women's basketball program is probably one of the best coaches of all time. 100% of her girls graduated college. 100%! She saw coaching as a means to help girls realize their full potential of self-worth. She's a hero of mine. It's Pat Summit that lived by the Teddy Roosevelt quote of, "They don't care what you know, until they know that you care." She has spoken publicly about the uphill battle women face in life. In her coaching, she positioned her players to manage life head on.

In the past 5 years there have been three crucial moments that put me in a position to see my worth. The first was a class for adults being offered at my sons karate studio. It was cheap and sounded fun. It was called Krav Maga. I had never heard of it. Basically, the premise behind krav maga is to cripple your opponent so you can get away. One night we were learning how to get out of a choke hold from the back. Without thinking I reacted...strongly. One of the things they teach you is to use your voice to call for help, but to give you breath to continue. So I was choked  (by a black belt mind you) and without thinking I turned around and flattened him and put my foot on his chest and screamed, "Get the f*** off of me!" It was a moment that was visceral and raw. It was a lifetime of feeling less than coming out and everyone cheered. The second and third were two movies that I saw almost back to back. They were the Hunger Games and Frozen. I watched Frozen first and was captivated by the message. As much fun that we make of kids and "that song," have you ever listened to the words and thought about the message to girls?

A young girl is told to hide her magic. She keeps it all inside. She hides her true nature of internal power. Finally, the magic breaks free and she feels that she can once and for all explore who she really is. Sound like the teen girls you work with?

"A kingdom of isolation and it looks like I'm the queen." (She's hiding her true self)

"Be the good girl you always have to be." (The old societal message)

"The fears that once controlled me can't get to me at all." (You are more than what frighten's you)

"It's time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through. No right or wrong no rules for me. I'm free." (Empowerment!)

"You'll never see me cry." (Standing up for yourself)

"Let the storm rage on." (There will always be a storm. How you see yourself in that storm is crucial)

There is a reason why the movie was so powerful and it had nothing to do with Olaf. It empowered a generation of girls and I know women who use the song to get them through hard times and to inspire them. I did. I do. When I finally got to see the Hunger Games I started to see that the tides were shifting in America. Women were starting to once again, be shown as figures that could stand up for themselves and their families. As women we've always done that. Hollywood however, usually paints a much different picture...Sexy, Bitchy, Catty, and Needy. Most people can't be what they can't see, so they play out what they do and we see that in schools all over the country. We have a responsibility to show them what they can be and what they should expect in a partner and a job. There is a reason Pat Summit was so successful. She coached the woman first and basketball second. She was tough. She expected nothing, but excellence. She required discipline on and off the court. She expected that her players presented with a sense of class. The following is what I suggest:

1) We have to stop calling ourselves instructors and calling ourselves coaches.

2) We need to start using the word "sport" in describing what we do. Sport has a connotation that means competition, expectations, discipline, and practice. Stop using the word "activity."

3) We need a certification system. Every sport has something. With that, we need conventions or conferences where dialog goes beyond how to write a good show. We need to discuss what it's like to coach kids today. What do girls face? What do gay boys face? What do straight boys face? What do lesbians face? Why does that matter? We need to discuss the obesity epidemic and how to talk to the kids about their weight. We need to discuss the rising cost of the activity and how it's pushing kids out. We need to discuss dating violence and what to do when we spot it, because we are an activity of teenage girls and dating violence is real. We need to discuss bullying. We need online materials and an expectation that anyone coaching at the national level understand those materials. Every sport...every single sport has something that is required of its coaches and we don't even have the most minimal basics of risk management and youth development.

4) We need to actively recruit and retain young women to become leaders in the sport of the arts. We need to fill circuit boards, national boards, judging panels, and show coordinators with women. We need to show women that they too can design and choreograph. Most national programs are male designers as the lead. There are exceptions, but we have to be honest with ourselves here and look at the big picture.

5) We have to start collecting data. It's the only way you can truly advocate and find gaps in your programming. We don't really know who is performing and who is instructing. This sport is a multi-million dollar, international, multi-faceted sport. If you ran a private business that generated the amount of money the pageantry arts does, you bet your ass you would be collecting data on your users.

How did I, a strong woman, articulate and educated end up in not one, but three abusive relationships? Because no one told me that it could happen to me and the more I climbed the ladder of success in career and guard, the more I hid what was inside. It happens to our girls all the time and it's happening in our programs, right under our noses. Many girls feel their power is diminished and we don't even see it. Many of us don't talk to our performers, but at them. I have. I did. And I regret it.

Finally, we must start telling the real story of the sport of the arts. We are a touchy feely group of people who fear honesty sometimes. The behind the scenes stories are the real ones and those stories are what brings us together. The personal struggle of the lives we lead keep us coming back to the safe environment of the gym and football field. We just have to make sure that we are looking out for each other and that the kids are being coached to be the best future selves they can possibly be.

I'll never teach counts again. Those counts will be coached. What we are inside is who we present to the kids. Our ego's and fears come across in our body language and tone of voice. We owe it to them to explore our own worth and then help the young people explore theirs.

As for me...

It's time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through. No right or wrong no rules for me. I'm free. I'm never going back. The past is in the past.

The cold never bothered me anyway.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Girls and the Sport of Guard

Somewhere about 5 years ago I made a decision that my role as a guard instructor would change. I decided to focus less on teaching the counts and more on coaching the team and specifically the girls. In my own work, I've been lucky to be able to focus on what those of us in social services call "gender specific programming." Through this work of research and then pairing it with my knowledge of youth development, I started to realize that my work in an activity of primarily teenage girls, must take on a larger role than just 5,6,7,8. Don't get me wrong, 5,6,7,8 is important, but the way I went about it would change forever.

dallas_cowboys_cheerleaders_1382096331_1382096350.jpg (1431×1072)In my research, I was asked to look at how the media portrays women as sexual objects. For the most part, women are either presented as needy and weak or bitchy and powerful. Statistics tell a story where women during the NCAA Tournament receive only 2% of the air time to men and the same holds true for World Cup Soccer.  When women are presented in sports, it's as a cheerleader or sideline model on the field at the football game. In a review of movies and films, only 23.3% of the time will a female drive the plot. The Hunger Games is an anomaly. The book was called, Harry Potter, not Hermione Granger. Articulate, strength based television characters where a woman speaks her mind, stands up for herself, is career oriented and NOT crazy are few and far between. When reality t.v. entered the scene, we lost sight of characters such as Julia Sugarbaker, Maude, and Roseanne. All shows that specifically dealt with issues related to women.

So why do I bring this up? Once I started looking at the research and tying it to the issues we are seeing with teens in the schools such as bullying, I started to see it in my own colorguard kids. Regular, everyday middle class girls that the radar tends to miss, were dressing provocatively, engaging in relational aggression, and dumbing down their own intelligence. In one crucial rehearsal five years ago, I watched a seemingly strong high school girl get yelled at by me in rehearsal. She started to cry and then on a break walked over to her boyfriend and pouted, while he put his arms around her and "made it all better." I watched all of this. My inside voice screamed, "WTF!" My outside voice said, "You are not a toddler who needs her boo boo's kissed. Get back over here!" That's when I decided what was important to me, which was to build up the girls to stand on their own and to rescue themselves through hard work and discipline.

This past winter season as Paradigm was finishing its final rehearsal before leaving for Dayton, in a fit of blind rage, I had a moment that I'm sure will become a top 5 iconic Paradigm moment of all time. You see, when you teach a guard that is gender mixed, many of the girls tend to do what's called, "giving their power away." The boys are naturally stronger in the wrist and upper body. It's often easier for them to get through work that is often times, if not most of the time written by a grown man. So, in this one rehearsal, I wanted a particular count to move aggressively across the body. We did it over and over and over and over. The boys had no issues. The girls? Well, I can only describe it as "mousy." So out of the stands I went. Went to the floor and took the flag out of one of the girls hands and said, "If I was a woman...WHICH I AM...I would take this flag and take my body and attack the count AGGRESSIVELY! I would stop giving away my power and I would stand up and say I will not live in a world where I am second!" Now somewhere in that speech where I blacked out I'm sure, I was told I mentioned something about them accepting minimum wage and just trying to be rescued by a prince on a white horse. I'm not sure why all of it came out, but you know what? They hit the damn count...AGGRESSIVELY! You know what it showed? That it's in their mind and that many of them have been conditioned to believe what society tells them. Some of them see themselves as weaker and less than. I've seen it. I've talked with them about it.

One of the things I've started doing when working with girls is asking them what other competitive activities they have participated in besides the pageantry arts. Many of them who have been competing in something since elementary school, come to competitive color guard with thicker skin as do their parents. It's just opinion, but I bet I'm right that girls who play hard when they are young, grow to be girls of the color guard world that are tough as nails.

I watched my son play baseball the other day. Balls being thrown at his head, diving to base, and getting dirty. He also takes karate. Since the age of 5 when he started both activities, he has been expected to survive in a competitive and disciplined world. We know through research from the Aspen Institute that girls start competitive sports a full year after boys, if they start competitive sports at all. Participation in girls participating in soccer and softball is on the rise, but girls drop out at a much higher rate once they reach middle school than boys do. Once children reach middle school, participation in competitive sports drops by a little over 60% and for girls it's 75%, because of the push for competitive school teams, and a number of cultural and societal factors. This is why co-ed intramural activities is crucial. So, without any legitimate, peer reviewed research at all having ever been done on color guard, my hypothesis is that by the time the girls reach high school, many of them have either never participated at any length in competitive activities or were pushed out in middle school. When the girls leave the sports behind and interaction in media takes over, where they are told they are either weak or bitchy and must be beautiful, then this is what we get by the time they reach high school. Now, before every one reading this says that "the girls in their guard are not like that," remember that we are talking about a nation of girls and not just one gym full. I also ask that you look at your entire guard and not just the veterans.

My guess is that the winter guard activity is made up of approximately 90-95% performing female members and the head positions of design and choreography is 90-95% male. This is purely guess as we don't collect data, but observation from years of teaching and judging. The head of the activity is male. Most judges on a panel of 5 are male. Most women are techs. Does it matter? I don't know, but what I do know is that we need strong women in front of our girls to guide them and tell them that it's o.k. to be assertive and to take your place in the world. We always say that it's in competitive activities where children learn how to manage the struggles of day to day life. I think women of the activity have a responsibility to the young women coming up in the activity to expect independent thinkers, strength of spirit, and the courage to stand up for themselves. We should talk with them about their self-esteem. They live in a world where they are expected to be beautiful first and smart second and where an equal wage is still not equal. We should talk to them about moving through space with a sense of purpose, because rape is real. We should discuss what it's like to be classy in dress and speak and expect the same of a partner. When I left drum corps I was strong willed, but my self-esteem was in the toilet. I never thought I was pretty and that played in how I attracted men. When you attract men who feed that societal image of beauty, then you attract not so nice men. I spoke to a friend this year in Dayton who just got out of an abusive marriage. How can an articulate woman be in a marriage like that? She said it was because she never really saw her worth. I've been thinking about her since Dayton.

I write this today, because as we start another marching band season it's crucial that we coach first and teach the counts second. Remember that most of us, for the most part, are responsible for teaching girls. Girls who care about how they are costumed and care about boys and care about their body image. They care about college and careers. We have a responsibility to make sure they leave us better women and women who are capable of taking their place in the world with strength and resilience. I leave you with the quote I tell all girls I coach. "Don't come in here expecting that a prince on a white horse will rescue you. This is not Disney, you are not Cinderella, and I am not a fairy godmother. Take your place on the stage. "