Review - Games Girls Play: Understanding and Guiding Young Female Athletes
by Caroline Silby, Ph.D. with Shelley Smith

by Lorrie Kim
Originally posted to on January 9, 2001

A lot of skating books purport to tell the inside story on what it's like to train for years as a skater. But the book that does this job the best, in my opinion, isn't trying to do that at all -- it's not even about skating, in particular. It's called "Games Girls Play" and it's by Caroline Silby (with Shelley Smith), a sports psychologist and former skater who works with some of the top athletes in the U.S.

The subtitle is "Understanding and Guiding Young Female Athletes," and I recommend it for anyone who has a young female skater in their lives, especially parents. There's so much anxiety among skating parents about whether you're in the loop, knowing the magic things a parent can do to help and not hinder the child's skating. Never mind the right costume or trying to lobby the judges -- I say read what's in this book, and you'll be set.

I didn't warm up to the book at first. Among the shortcomings: careless proofreading (enough to distract me), and a tendency toward dry writing in the earlier chapters, which focus more on general background. But as the book moves on to specific problems and solutions, using actual cases, it becomes warmer and much more readable. By the end, as the book tackled serious issues such as eating disorders and abuse, I was grateful for the moderate tone. By not playing the readers' emotions with sensationalistic writing, the authors convey the feeling that even devastating situations can be dealt with and understood.

The cornerstone of Silby's philosophy is an original concept she calls "the pressure loop," a figure-eight-like shape :-) wherein one circle represents external pressures that the athlete can't control (such as the judges, other competitors) and the other represents internal factors under the athlete's control (body language, positive imagery, the ability to feel prepared). It is natural for competitive athletes to feel nervous, but if they combine the nervousness with fixating on external things, they can psych themselves out. Combining the nervousness with internal things they have practiced and controlled can turn that nervous energy into an advantage.

As I read one instructive example after another of how different athletes learned these principles, I understood for the first time that "skater speak" means something very real -- it was just that I didn't speak that language myself. When someone says "I just want to focus on my own program and not think about others," it's not a line for PR -- it's shorthand for "the last time I worried about my competitor, I lost concentration and fell on my triple loop; but then I learned to focus on my own program instead, and keep my mind on the technical details as they come up, and I've hit the jump much better since."

These things might seem obvious, but the more I read of the book, the more insight I gained into the competitive athlete's mindset. I even started using it as a how-to book to apply the principles to my own non-athletic endeavors. We could all use more practice in letting go of what we can't control, keeping track of what we do to bring on good and bad days, and reframing setbacks so we don't hold ourselves back with overnegative beliefs.

The book is refreshingly practical. It gives examples of how to deal with a range of sticky situations, from coaches who play favorites, to parents who interfere with other people's kids during practice. I noted with gladness that Silby does not hesitate to take stands and back them up with sound observations and research. She believes that intimidation does not work as a coaching tactic. That sports organizations ought to have abuse policies and let them be known. That weigh-ins are not a good method to use in training. That parents should not use the drive home from a competition to grill their athlete about what just took place -- too soon for processing when the athlete needs rest. That above all, parents have the responsibility to pay attention to their daughter's opinions and self-evaluations, teaching her that her thoughts have worth.

I read with particular interest the final chapters on eating disorders, abuse, and sexual orientation. The abuse section gives examples of different things that can be considered sexual abuse and harassment, and shows how a coach who is abusive will damage the training environment for everyone, including students who are not directly being abused. Her advice on how to handle specific situations is sound and reassuring without understating the seriousness of abuse. As for sexual orientation, she makes it clear that coaches have the responsibility to educate themselves about how to guide athletes of all orientations, and parents of straight athletes who are worried about gay peers can use this as an opportunity to teach their kids about diversity. It's good to know that someone who's been so active within the USFSA is knowledgeable about such things.

The book even works on the level of simple advice on how to deal with kids. It's well worth a look. I hadn't budgeted for it -- I checked it out of the library -- but ended up buying a copy. I'm sure I'll be reading it again.

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