Since Title IX guaranteed equal funding for girls' sports programs 40 years ago, we've seen the results in school, in the workplace and in women's self-confidence. Studies have shown that girls who play sports in high school are more likely to do better in science classes, complete college, avoid substance abuse and join the workforce. And the more time they spend participating in team sports, the higher their self-esteem.
Naturally, there has also been an effect on the playing fields. Now, for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, there are more women than men on the United States team in London. And we can look to these women as role models for the positive traits we want to emulate. The strengths they gain from years of hard work and dedication to their sport are more than just physical. They also illustrate many of the character virtues identified in Positive Psychology.
Here are some examples of strengths personified by the athletes – many living in Southern California. Consider how to integrate these into your own daily life.
Teamwork. Kami Craig, who played on the national championship USC women's water polo team, and Courtney Mathewson, who was on arch-rival UCLA's national championship team, have put their competition behind them and worked together as friends to win gold for the USA in London. Your team may consist of family, friends or co-workers but it is the dedication to the common good of that group that sets the tone for everyone's improved input.
Loyalty. Missy Franklin has been approached to make endorsements but has turned them down so she could remain an amateur and swim for her high school and future college teams. Missy is devoted to friends in school, family and her hometown coach. After 4 golds in backstroke and team relay and one bronze, she looks forward to getting back home and hanging out with her friends. Your own sense of responsibility to your community and the value you place on generativity will help you remain true to your ideals.
Gratitude. With wins in London, Serena Williams is the second woman to complete the "Golden Slam," taking the Olympic singles gold as well as winning at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, Australian Open and French Open. Serena isn't taking all the credit herself, expressing her gratitude for the education she received, thanks to the support of her family. Serena has been generous, supporting educational projects in America, funding a school in Africa and mentoring aspiring athletes. You'll find that when you too express gratitude your mood improves, you feel better about yourself and more connected to the world around you.
Perspective. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings have been playing beach volleyball together for 12 years. Winning gold in 2004, they repeated in 2008, the only women's team to have accomplished that feat. After Misty was injured and Kerri took time to have two children, some wondered if the team could still be on top of their game. Yet with the perspective they've gained and the balance in their lives, they won a third gold this week. When you're faced with difficult situations and important questions in your own life, consider what you have learned from your past experiences and trust yourself to make the right decisions today.
Friendship. The Fierce Five USA gymnasts are a close-knit group, supporting each other through the Games – even when they are competing against one another. When they all worked together as a team, they drew strength from their friendship and won gold in team gymnastics. The commitment you and your own friends make to each other nurtures each of you and creates emotional bonds that provide the foundation for a fulfilling life.
Persistence. Dana Vollmer didn't make the Olympic women's swimming team four years ago. But she persevered and worked harder than ever to make it this year. All her practice paid off when she broke the world record, winning gold medals in butterfly and women's medley relay. When you're discouraged and tempted to give up working toward your own goal, believe in yourself and you'll find the strength to continue.
Resilience. Kayla Harrison won the gold medal in judo, a first for any American, after almost giving up the sport several years earlier due to sexual abuse by her coach. But starting again with a new coach, she regained her love of the sport and her self-confidence. When you are dealing with a trauma or are frustrated by a setback, put all your energies into recovering from that challenge, think about what you can still control and work toward achieving your new Plan B goal.
Vitality. Gabby Douglas, dubbed the flying squirrel due to the actual height she achieves as well as the high level of energy she exudes in her routines, won the gold medal in women's all-around gymnastics as well as in team all-around. Her enthusiasm is contagious and she engages everyone around her with her electrifying smile. Her zest for life is palpable. What energizes you? When you pursue it with zeal, you'll feel more alive than ever.
Enjoy the spectacle of sport in London this week, but also reflect on the strength of purpose and commitment that the athletes—female and male—have developed over the years. A nice Olympic ideal for all of us to follow.