How To Boost Your Self-Image With Sports

Women get physically active for all kinds of reasons — to lose weight, to have fun, to recapture a grade school memory. But those who stick with it, whether marathon runners or twice-a-week morning speed walkers, start to notice ripple effects in other parts of their lives. Playing sports teaches us more about what we are like, so we can get closer to what we want to be like.

Can physical activity boost confidence? The nagging voices that sometimes plague women do seem less noisy in those who’ve developed their physical side. These women see themselves as contenders: proud of their successes, not consumed by their failures.

Heidi Hendrix, a 29-year-old teacher in Colorado who took up endurance biking two years ago, says the experience has helped her banish her insecurities about being single and not having the perfect body. Biking is a solitary sport, and Heidi spent hours alone riding on trails in the foothills behind her house. There was no one to support her, no one for her to judge herself against. “In teaching I can’t have total control because I have to rely on my students,” she says. “In dating, I can’t have total control because there’s the other person. But if I kick my butt and make it up that hill, that’s something I can have total control over.” It was at her ten-year high school reunion that she realized biking had turned her into a self-reliant soul. “I seemed to have no trouble with all the questions that would have embarrassed me a year earlier,” she says. “I was single and that was OK. I didn’t own a house, and that was OK too. That confidence came from me and my bike.”

Without question, becoming an athlete teaches you quick lessons in competition. Alexandra Eidenschenk, 29, runs about four times a week and takes kick-boxing classes at a New York City gym on her off days. Because competition comes so naturally to her, she believes she is able to do it with the grace and humor that non-athletes sometimes lack. “As an athlete, I think of competition as a force for good,” she says. “When people I meet in my working life are super competitive and mean and can’t take the ‘game’ in stride, I realize they probably never competed in sports when they were young, or they wouldn’t take it so seriously.”

Sports are also teaching women crucial skills about teamwork and relating to others. For some women, the cut-and-dried criticism dished out by coaches and teammates becomes an ideal. “In rugby, you can slam somebody’s face in the dirt and then go out and have a beer with them — and I like that!” says Heidi Hendrix, the biker, who recently joined a rugby league. “In the workplace, rather than saying ‘I have a problem with you,’ people will talk behind your back. I try to be more straightforward with people. When there’s a committee meeting about a colleague, I want the person being criticized to be in the room.”

April Pearson, 27, plays in a nighttime men’s tennis league in Washington, D.C. Many of the men she plays are older, and they’ve unwittingly taught her a useful business technique: She can now see through the false bravado of her male colleagues, and has learned to act as if she’s confident even when she’s not. When she’s negotiating a price with a potential client and he starts looking at his watch, she sees right through it because she’s seen the tennis equivalent: “Some men will practice for just one minute before a match, implying that you don’t deserve to be on the court with them,” she says. “You can’t be fazed by these people. You don’t need to be friendly. You just have to focus on your goal.”

The lessons we learn from sports are not always positive. Some women find themselves horrified at their own powerful urge to win. “I went through a long period with an ex-boyfriend where I insisted on winning every argument,” says Nancy Williams, the field hockey and lacrosse player. “It’s fine to push yourself to win, but part of me wishes that I learned to enjoy the process, not just focus on how to be the victor.”

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