Interview with Caroline Silby

January 2001

Rainbow Ice: Why a book on girls (as opposed to girls and boys)?

Caroline Silby: Two factors converged leading me to write Games Girls Play:
-- Explosion: There has been an explosion in the number of women participating in sports. There were a record number of women competing in the Sydney Olympics -- over 40%. I think everyone would agree this is positive progress.
--Why It's good? Women who participate in sports have been shown to have higher levels of self-esteem, do better in school and are less likely to join gangs, do drugs or have unwanted pregnancies.
-- Lack of Information: However, coupled with this explosion in participation was a complete lack of information to help meet the unique needs of female athletes. In my practice, I began to see that girls experienced tremendous performance problems during pre-adolescence and adolescence. This may be attributed in part to the fact that during adolescence girls show a marked decline in self-esteem -- some studies cite as much as 30%. Adolescent girls are more likely to lose interest in activities that challenge them, less likely to believe in their own abilities and less likely to question authority even when they believe the authorities are wrong. They worry about meeting external standards and pleasing others. This can lead them to feel moody, self- critical, and depressed. As a result, girls drop out of sport at a rate much higher than do boys. Clearly, young female athletes have unique physical and emotional needs. Yet, there was no information to assist parents and coaches in meeting these challenges. I felt compelled to write the book.

RI: In what capacity are you involved with the USFSA right now?

CS: I am a member of the Sports Medicine Committee. Once again I am serving as a faculty member for the Team 2006 seminar [Ed. note: a training program conducted at the national figure skating championships for novice-level competitors]. In the past, I have been involved in many of the training camps and coaching colleges. However, I have begun to direct my energies to getting applicable and useful information out to a broader audience.

RI: When a skater needs your help, how do they contact you?

CS: Typically, my business comes from word of mouth. The skater, coach or parent calls me (703)535-1967 or contacts me via e-mail:

RI: What is the USFSA procedure for informing skaters about sports psychologists, and where to find them?

CS: The procedure is really an informal one. At this point, we are trying to identify qualified people and start inviting them to participate in the camps, seminars, and testing programs to insure that they have some experience working with skaters. However, this can be a difficult task as US Figure Skating refuses to pay for your services. I receive numerous calls (it can be overwhelmingly time consuming) every month from skaters and coaches looking for psychologists in their area. I use my network to find an appropriate match. Also, the USOC has a registry of sports psychologists. Typically, referrals are best done when you can find out some specifics so that you can determine the best professional for the client. David Coppel, Gayle Davis and myself are the psychology team that currently serves on the Sports Medicine Committee. Many skaters also use Sean McCaan who heads up sports psychology for the USOC. The USFSA also offers sports psychology services to the Podium 2002 [Ed. note: a program funded by the United States Olympic Committee to identify and assist skaters who are contenders for the 2002 Olympic team] skaters and now through the dance and pair retention program.

RI: Have you had skating clients coming to you to deal with issues of sexual orientation? If you could not take on such a client, what counselors or resources would you recommend for such a skater?

CS: This issue does come up. Typically, this requires long-term counseling. Therefore, I make appropriate referrals. There are numerous organizations dedicated to the acceptance of sexual minority youth. The Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL) is the primary agency in Washington, DC and deals with youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In Boston, there is a youth run social support group for lesbian, gay and bisexual youth called the Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth (BAGLY). The Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York City is well-known for the social services, education and advocacy it provides to lesbian, gay, bisexual and homeless youth.

RI: I must challenge you. On page 267, you state, "Other teams, however, will recruit only lesbian athletes." Unlike virtually the entire rest of the book, this is a statement you make without backing it up whatsoever. On what do you base this statement? It is provocative and interesting; it stands out; it begs comment. It even raises the corollary question, "Are there men's sports which recruit only gay male athletes?"

CS: There were a few different articles that discussed the recruiting process and what coaches will do to try and make a cohesive locker room. The sexual make-up of a team can influence where a recruit enrolls. The most cited cases are those of coaches openly stating that they will not recruit lesbian players. However, in my discussions with coaches and athletes it has been mentioned that some coaches would just prefer to recruit all lesbians or all heterosexuals. The Penn State coach [Rene Portland, mentioned on p. 267] is an example of the latter. I don't have a specific example for the former but felt it was worth mentioning.

RI: How would you advise a young gay or bi male skater whose coach is anti-gay? What about if his parents are anti-gay, and oppose his being a skater because they think it's a gay-friendly sport?

CS: You are asking about situations where I would need much more information to answer appropriately and intelligently. I don't have one agenda or piece of advice that I would give every athlete in these types of situations. I must listen to the concerns of the athlete and consider where that athlete is in his emotional development. I would definitely want to find out how the athlete was emotionally coping with having a coach who did not accept all aspects of his personality. It can be a difficult process for gay youth to confront the sexual values and beliefs of those close to them. The gay adolescent often faces difficulties as he/she tries to adapt to his/her sexuality. Typical, responses are repression or disclosure. The repressed youngster may act out and feel inadequate or unacceptable to others. Gays who disclose their sexual identity are often alienated and neglected by their heterosexual peers.

RI: How do you counsel male skaters (regardless of their personal sexual orientation) about the anti-gay harassment they get from non-skating peers?

CS: It's important for athletes to recognize that regardless of their own sexual orientation they may be vulnerable to name-calling and harassment. First, you must assess the situation for actions that discount, intimidate or exclude. It's often more productive to focus on behaviors rather than attitudes. When dealing with this issue, I try to find out how the anti-gay harassment influences the thoughts, feelings and actions of the athlete. For those who are very secure with themselves and their sexuality, they may feel minimal to no impact. However, adolescents coming to terms with their sexuality- be it heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual may be more sensitive to comments related to sexuality. Athletes who will never be lesbian, bisexual or gay may feel compelled to act out more rigid sex roles and may be fearful of speaking out against homophobia for fear of being labeled gay. The gay label is often used to intimidate heterosexuals into silence.

RI: What role do you think this kind of harassment plays in losing male skaters from the sport?

CS: Certainly we have seen this issue arise in women's sports. The Women's Sports Foundation discusses how labels applied to an entire group (i.e. all figure skaters are gay) serves to intimidate young people from participating in certain sports or for certain teams. I think this is an interesting issue that would be worthy of some scientific investigation. Yet, we must also consider that the sport of figure skating requires a participant to have both athletic and artistic talent. These requirements in and of themselves probably eliminate certain people from pursuing the sport competitively. They may simply feel they don't have enough talent in one or both of these areas to excel. Another factor to consider is the role of parents. Typically, our first sports experiences are determined by our parents. Their perceptions about the sport and their willingness to make a financial and emotional commitment may influence participation.

RI: You say, and I have observed first-hand, that coaches teach male skaters to retort that they get to spend all their time with girls. (Pretty, desirable girls, at that.) But this retort may only reinforce a gay skater's feelings that he is pressured to be in the closet or pretend he's something he's not. What other approaches might be more suitable for the gay teen skater?

CS: I try to remind young people that regardless of their sexual orientation they are athletes. I encourage them to focus on the aspects of their personality that allow them to excel at their sport. They skate not because they are gay, bisexual or heterosexual but for personal reasons that may be shared by others. They are not just gay or just an athlete. There are many aspects to their personality like friend, son, athlete, student, spiritual follower, and community volunteer. It's important that they do not define themselves by only recognizing one aspect of their personality. When they can value all aspects of themselves, they will have much more to discuss with others than whether or not they skate because of the girls.

RI: From some members of the skating world, I have gotten the impression that gay issues in skating are something they'd like to keep under wraps; it's a volatile subject, at any rate. My feeling is that this can't be healthy, in general or for the gay athletes plus the gay coaches, other pros, or officials involved. What is your take on this? Do you think sensitivity to sexual orientation issues is something important for the sport as a whole to address?

CS: I'm not sure I agree with your impression that "gay issues are kept under wraps." I believe that many involved with the sport of figure skating are quite open and willing to discuss issues concerning sexual orientation. In past years, the sports medicine committee has provided educational sessions about sexuality and specifically AIDS education. Perhaps, your impression is more a reflection of society than the sport of figure skating. For many in our society, gay rights remain a source of confusion. The USFSA does have a responsibility to insure that there is absolutely no discrimination or harassment resulting from sexual orientation. Perhaps, a first step would be to investigate (scientifically) whether or not harassment on the basis of sexual orientation occurs in the sport of figure skating and if so to what extent. The athletes themselves can also play a role. Research has shown that contact with "out" gay people who embrace their sexual identities reduces prejudice.

Back to Menu