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What makes a good athlete? When I talk to coaches, they typically say something about being coachable. Hard working. A team player. Ability to self-reflect. Driven. Encouraging. They rarely talk about skills, though, of course, skills are important, and yet that is not what coaches talk about. You can be the fastest sprinter or the best shooter or the best pitcher, scorer, striker, defensive player, etc. but if you don’t listen to the coach, play with your team, or if you struggle with being mentally focused, you won’t play or see much success. Skills matter, but so do about a hundred other factors related to your perception of yourself as an athlete, how well you understand the game or the sport, the strategy, the team, your role on the team, your relationship with the coach/coaches, and the referees, just to name a few.

When I played the team sport of roller derby, I quickly discovered I was not the quickest skater and did not have great footwork (largely due to the physics of my height), but I had great endurance, a good sense of the game and strategy, was an especially good blocker (also largely due to the physics of my height), and encouraging and supportive of my teammates. A few players got upset easily, and I was good at calming them down. A few players, especially newer ones, would get anxious and nervous, and I was good at reassuring them and helping them feel more confident. So where do I rate as a player? My physical skills were fair to medium, and yet I was a valuable part of the team. I loved playing roller derby. That also matters.

And yet, though nothing I just wrote is dependent on gender, sport is all about gender divisions. Kids and families and friends may play together, but if you want to take sport seriously, you have to follow the gendered divisions of sport. Gendered divisions have long predated Title IX legislation, passed in the 1970s. In the 1830s, medical ‘experts’ showed concern over the frailty of (primarily upper class, white) women and advocated moderate exercise. In particular, skeptics were convinced that sport would turn the female body into a facsimile of the male. According to sport historian Susan K. Cahn, “the female athlete kindled acute anxieties about the erosion of men’s physical supremacy and the loss of distinct male and female preserves” (20). Sports and athletic prowess are associated with masculinity, so girls that wanted to play sports needed to have different rules, different regulations, and separate leagues to keep sport more moderate, and thus, more feminine. What would happen to our ideas of gender, masculinity and femininity if girls played better than boys or if the women beat the men? Better to keep them separate and not deal with it, our society decided, with some small exceptions.

Today’s divisions along gendered lines for sport are usually supported to give girls and young women a chance to play separate from the boys. There are many assumptions about inherent advantages that boys and young men have in sport. While that may be true in some instances, the list of what makes a good athlete is not gendered.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds recently signed a law that transgender girls could not compete in sports offered in Iowa schools, colleges, and universities. Reynolds believes this is a fairness issue. She said, “Great things happen when women have access to the fair and equal playing field they deserve, but what would it say about a commitment to this principle if we let actual playing fields — the courts, fields, rinks, pools and tracks of youth and collegiate sports — be tilted in favor of biological males with inherent physical advantages?”

Every person has physical advantages and disadvantages, to be sure. Given my height, I am far better at long track skating than short track skating. But I can still enjoy doing both. I’m curious about what advantages and disadvantages look like for athletes as children, adolescents, and young adults. Some of us grew very quickly in the 5th grade while others didn’t reach full height until college. Some of us were really good at a sport for a few years, and then lost interest. Some of us were never very good at a sport, but enjoyed playing anyway. Some of us were exceptional athletes, but struggled mentally and never performed very well. Some of us were pretty good, but didn’t have the time or money to play a sport or buy the right equipment and gear. Some of us were coachable, and some of us didn’t like authority or rules and didn’t listen well. Some us lost our tempers too often. Some of us are very muscular, some of us are better at endurance, some of us are very strong but don’t look muscular. Some of us don’t have the right form, and some of us, occasionally, find a better form or better way to play.

What is good about sports? For most people, sports allow us to earn self-confidence and a degree of comfort with our own bodies, learn leadership and teamwork, how to work hard, set goals, deal with disappointment, deal with various personalities and physical or mental obstacles, mind over matter when training, and many other mostly positive outcomes. Sure, there can be a great deal of ego in sports, especially professional sports, but overall, our society agrees that sports are good and valuable. Sports teach lifelong values – that is why sports are a part of our educational experience, whether in physical education classes or organized sports.

But for kids, teens, and young adults in Iowa, apparently the most important part of sports is your gender identity.

Susan K. Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport, (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 2nd edition.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Ann says:

    Cheers to you Rebecca! (Ever hear of Bloody Mary, Texas Rollergirls?)

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Yes! I’ve never met her or played against her, but I would love to meet her 🙂

      • Ann says:

        She’s my niece 😁. Quite the force, managed the world league, but no longer skating.
        [I know. This is not a very “spiritual” or “insightful” reply. Carry on.]

  • Tom says:

    Ummmmm – – how about the fact that swimmer Lia Thomas, ranked 554th in the men’s 200m freestyle two years ago before beginning transition, is now #1 ranked in women’s swimming for the same event. And that’s after two years of hormone therapy to suppress testosterone. It’s not that there are “many assumptions about inherent advantages”, it’s just the facts, ma’am.

    So, yes, it is about fairness and giving girls and women a chance to participate, not about ‘gender identity’.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Lia Thomas is clearly a gifted swimmer.
      So…..every single transgender athlete will dominate their sport?

      • Tom says:

        I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole, but in short – yes, in any sport where physical strength and stamina are important that will be true (granted, that obviously depends on when someone ‘transitions’. I suppose if you do all the medical interventions before puberty, the differences may be minimal).
        Lia Thomas going from #554 as a man (not that ‘gifted’, at least relative to other collegiate swimmers) to #1 and setting records in women’s swimming is a pretty good apples-to-apples comparison. The physical structure and capacity once a boy has gone through puberty is just different. So, while any particular transgender person may not dominate their sport, they will certainly be more ‘gifted’ competing on the women’s side that they would have been had they not transitioned and competed on the men’s side.

        • Mike Kugler says:

          If I follow you, Tom, the success of a single U of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer warrants the Iowa legislature and governor to pass a law barring all transgender athletes? This new law will protect young Iowa female athletes from a significant number of Iowa transgender athletes waiting for their opportunity to play on women’s teams?

          • Tom says:

            No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that any boy who transitions after puberty, because of the inherent physical structure of the male body, will be more athletically ‘gifted’ compared to the female cohort than he was vs the previous male cohort. To which your response is probably “so what? Some girls are faster and stronger than other girls, that’s just the way it is.” And that’s true. So, I guess the fundamental question is whether or not a young man who transitions truly becomes a girl. The answer seems obvious to me. I expect it also seems obvious to you. So, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

  • Keith De Witt says:

    Spot on!

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Iowa h.s. girls’ basketball has quite a history:

    including the split-court, 6-on-6, two-dribble format, because the sport was deemed apparently too strenuous

    If you want to frustrate a h.s. boys gym class in any state of the union, have them play this game for a week. :?)

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Iowa has quite the girls’ basketball history, according to their state h.s. athletic association’s own website.

    I had to look elsewhere though to find the description of Iowa’s early emanation of basketball, girls’ style: 6 – on – 6 players, limited to either half of the court / no crossing the half-line, 2-dribble limit, etc. Apparently those inventions were to protect femaies, being less physically-robust than the males . . .

    If you want to frustrate a h.s. boys gym class (aren’t most P.E. classes co-ed now?) have them play “Iowa rules” basketball for a week.

    • Emily Brink says:

      I grew up playing with Iowa rules in Grand Rapids MI, and in my first teaching job in Churchill Montana Christian School, introduced the high school girls to BB with those rules. This to girls who grew up on ranches and played softball in ways that clearly demonstrated their energy and skills way beyond my city-bred softball playing growing up. They played so well and loved it, despite the half court two dribbles. Thankfully, those rules are gone!

  • James Schaap says:

    Thanks, Rebecca. I couldn’t help finding the ceremony connected to our Gov’s signing of that bill–dozens of young women athletes righteously looking on–as particularly sad. . .no, odious. The takeaway for any trans kid couldn’t be worse.

  • So it’s not about participating; it’s about winning. Very American. Poor Jesus.
    Thanks, Rebecca.

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