by Joanne Williams
Catching up with Joan Steidinger—teacher, lecturer and consultant, and a psychologist in private practice in Marin and San Francisco—requires marathon stamina. Dr. Joan, as she is known, was at Mt. Hood in July preparing to run another 50K race, part of a regimen she maintains that fueled her 2014 book, Sisterhood in Sports: How Female Athletes Collaborate and Compete. She came in first in her age group (60-69), although she suffered a cracked rib and bruises. “I fell at mile five but continued, although finished about an hour short of what I had expected,” she says.
An ultra-runner, marathoner and ultra-distance cyclist, Steidinger, 60, of Mill Valley, has a Ph.D. in professional psychology and is certified by the Association of Applied Sports Psychology as a consultant in sports psychology. But that doesn’t mean that she’s immune to injury. In fact, Steidinger began distance-running to help her take up the pedals again after a serious bicycle accident. “I began to rethink my life, my goals,” she says. “I started to interview high-level competitive women athletes to see how they managed to overcome physical injuries and mental letdowns.
Steidinger says that she had already been counseling women athletes and families and realized that parents had a lot of influence on their daughters. “At that time,” she says, “many parents believed certain sports were more ‘appropriate’ for women than others.” Steidinger recalls that when she was in high school, where she played competitive badminton and tennis, her own parents resisted her participation in distance-running. In researching Sisterhood in Sports, which she spent around 10 years working on, Steidinger also found that young women athletes depend on parental support.
After interviewing more than 150 professional and amateur athletes—marathoners, mountain bikers, skiers, golfers, tennis players—Steidinger discovered that women athletes use talking as a primary form of communication and support. “Unlike men, competitive women tend to befriend one another during stress, to intuit, express empathy, worry and to seek fun in sports. These are our strengths grounded in both our minds and bodies,” she says, “and there are dozens of studies showing how our brains and hormones operate quite differently from men’s.
“The tight bond that exists among women’s sports teams became evident to me during the U.S. win in the 1996 U.S. Olympic team,” Steidinger says, of the soccer team that made history. “It was evident among Kristine Lilly, Judy Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett and Mia Hamm—a bond that exists today among many women, including the 2015 World Cup winners.”
In July’s World Cup final between the U.S. and Japan, U.S. star midfielder Carli Lloyd’s teammates swarmed around her in recognizable female fashion after her famous hat trick—three goals in one game, which led to the U.S. snagging the Cup.
“Social connections appear to be critical to female athletes’ success,” Steidinger says, “and language is the glue that connects females to one another.” It all has to do with the female brain, which places significance on friendships, empathy, intuition, positive peer-group collaboration, camaraderie and just plain having fun. “Studies show that females have different needs than male athletes—different neurotransmitters in the male and female brain account for different behaviors between them. Oxytocin, for instance, is found in much higher levels in the female brain than the male brain and directly influences female behavior.
“Female athletes require ongoing and regular spoken communication in order to feel connected,” Steidinger found, “and studies show females are more social and verbal in their communication than men are. Women are hardwired to engage through language and that is critical to their success.”
This ‘style debate’ came to the fore for Steidinger a few years ago while she was a guest speaker at a master’s level sports management class at Georgia State. Guys don’t talk about their feelings the way women do, one of the male students said.
And while yelling at a male team player might help him improve, it does nothing to help a female do better in her sport, according to many women who spoke to Steidinger on coaching styles. Sisterhood in Sports cites many studies and programs to validate her claims. She credits pioneering female athletes such as Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals, who laid the foundation for strong female competitors, and the passage of Title IX in 1972, which supports equality in women’s sports.
Steidinger has biked the Double Century, run the Quad Dipsea, hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro and will soon run the Athens Classic Marathon in Greece. She’s scheduled to speak at the Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis-St. Paul in October; her topic: What Makes Female Athletes’ Style Unique.
In the meantime, the motivational speaker and counselor to female sports teams, coaches and individual athletes near and far, will continue to inspire. “In my workshops I focus on building confidence in youth and women,” Steidinger says. “Success grows from confidence.”
Learn more about Dr. Joan at powerzonephd.com.