It’s not easy being a girl in sports.
A few months back, I’d listen to everyone and everything. I had very little badminton knowledge, experience or skills and everyone could teach me something.
But I’m learning fast (it feels like forever but it’s technically a short time) and my level is higher than most people I play against. The funny thing is it hasn’t stopped others from
criticizing “teaching” me.
Part of it is my coaches fault. We’ve been playing together a lot these days (we used to rarely play as partners) and my coach uses every game as a teaching moment. I love it, it’s the main reason for my recent increase in skill, but not everyone “gets” our relationship.
My coach likes to yell at me when we play. If you walked into the court and saw us your first thought might be “why is that guy so mean to that girl?” but actually he’s not. My coach only yells at me when he’s happy and in a good mood. (If he’s actually mad he quietly seethes and my game play plummets because I’m so worried he’s quiet. As long as he’s yelling I’m good.)
But other people see this dynamic and think they can treat me the same way, which I don’t like. And by “other people” I mean guys because I rarely have the opportunity to play with girls (and even when I do they don’t tell others how to play). And this is where a lot of the sexism comes in.
You see, in doubles, the person in the front of the court tends to controls the court. They can’t see their partner behind them so when they move, their partner needs to move accordingly. I’m speaking in generalities of course but, like, when moving from offense (someone on the front and back) to defense (partners side to side) the person in the front chooses which side to fall back into and the person in the back goes to the other one.
Now, when most people play mixed doubles the woman just stays at the front, never moving. The front is her domain and the back is the guys. But this is intermediate level mixed doubles. Advanced level doubles is when the woman takes a more active and equal role and goes to the middle and sometimes even the back of the court depending on the game play.
Of course my coach is training me on advanced level, and he 1000% expects me to be an equal partner. In fact, if I’m too passive and stay in the front he gets mad at me. (“God I’m tired tonight,” he said at the end of the day last night. “And it’s because of you Xiao Bing! I had to run around too much when we played together.” He did–I was tired and knowing he could handle it, I let him take the back court most of the time.)
And real experts are like him. In fact I’ve played with a few semi-pro players and they’ve actually asked me before the game “Do you stay in the front or do you move back?” so they know what to expect and how to play. These are guys that respect women, respect mixed doubles, and see women as valuable partners.
If only everyone did…
I’ve said in the past that a man at a lower level can beat a higher level woman by sheer strength and speed. Men can just keep smashing against a woman and win, even if the woman plays with more skill. This leads many guys to think they are “better” than the women even if their skill and strategy isn’t.
So, specifically in my situation this has led guys who play so-so to think they are better than me, and know better than me. And when they see my coach criticizing me, they think it opens the door for THEM to criticize me and this is where I get angry.
Because the biggest criticism I get is “don’t go back.” Guys need to be at a higher level to play the more advanced mixed doubles style, and like most women are happy to stay at the front, most guys prefer the woman staying at the front.
When a guy tells me to “stay at the front” all I hear is “A woman’s place is in the kitchen,” and I see red. Like in life, a woman needs to be able to go where the game takes her. A woman’s place on the court is based on strategy and game play, not “the woman will stay at the front in all times because I said so.”
And as a woman fighting this I’ve gone through a number of different reactions. Originally I would just get enraged. One night not only my partner, but one of my opponents, both “gave me tips” that had me so angry I was sputtering Chinese. I couldn’t even finish a complete sentence.
They were both giving me (opposing) advice that had me stuck to the center at the net the whole time. If I moved a little one or the other would criticize me where the only thing I could do to not get criticized was literally NOT MOVE. There was 7-8 points in a row I didn’t even touch the birdie because nobody hit it to the front center where I was bullied into standing. Predictably we lost because it was like my partner was playing alone, since I was basically worthless.
Afterwards my coach walked by me and I huffed and puffed about how mad I was that people were giving me all different, stupid, advice and bullying me into non-participation. “What’s the point of me even playing if I can’t move from the front center?!” I sputtered.
“It’s really common,” my coach replied calmly. “These people aren’t professionals and they learned to play different ways and at different times so they all have their own ideas. But they don’t have the right ideas.”
“So what do I do?!” I said pissily. “If I ignore my partner he gets madder and more annoyed, but when he tells me the wrong thing to do I get mad and annoyed.” My coach just shrugged. Unless you are the undisputed best, like my coach, people will try to coach you.
As this is a regular, almost daily, problem I’ve had to change my approach. Getting mad isn’t fun and it isn’t helpful. So, now, depending on the situation I play two cards. One is “the foreigner card” the other is “My coach says…”
The foreigner card is the easiest card to play. I just smile and nod and continue to do what I’m doing. If they get repetitive I just pretend to not understand what they are saying and continue with my game play, forcing my partner to conform to my style. I just smile and nod, smile and nod and let them get annoyed at “the dumb foreigner” (But we win more this way and they never stay mad for long). This works best with people I don’t know very well or don’t see often.
But with people I play with more regularly I can’t really get away with that because we talk all the time. To pretend I don’t understand them would be too obvious a lie, and too annoying for a more regular partner. So now I just say, “Coach told me…” Like, “If I don’t go back on defense, then coach will get mad,” almost blaming him for it. And pretty much no one will tell me what coach said was wrong so they just let me.
These two excuses seem to be doing the trick. Every now and then a friends might say, “I know coach told you to do it that way but I’d prefer….” and I’ll listen to them because they made a request and didn’t try to just bully me into it. Or if I really high level partner tells me something different I’ll listen to him because of his skills.
Admittedly guys do criticize other guys, but not nearly as often as they do with women and not at all in the same tone. Guys tend to admonish their women partners while making suggestions to their male partners. Also add to this that some guys just plain refuse to play with a girl because “it’s too boring” (actual words someone said to my face–someone I end up playing with almost everyday) you can see why I have a chip on my shoulder about this.
I know I still have a lot to learn, and I know I should still accept the help of others, but now I have to begin trusting myself and sticking to one style (my coaches) so I can learn faster and gain more confidence in my own ideas. I’m already the “weird foreigner” so I might as well be the “weird pushy foreigner.” Same-same.