The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Streaks in Sports and Life: Not for Men Only

Truly mattering means doing one’s best, over and over.

At the time of this writing (December 12, 2010), the University of Connecticut Women's Basketball Team is closing in on one of sport's most revered streaks, the 88 consecutive victories by the UCLA Men's Basketball Team coached by John Wooden.

The pending accomplishment by the UConn team is playing to mixed reviews in the sports pages and on talk radio. "Yes, sure," say many of the skeptics. "That's nice, but you can't compare the UConn women's team to the UCLA men's team."

Well why not? This is a question to which I will return*.

For the time being, let me share with you part of a list that just appeared on the website of Sports Illustrated of the 34 "greatest" streaks in sports history.

Even a casual sports fan knows about many of the streaks listed, including great individual performances by:
• Joe DiMaggio (baseball)
• Rocky Marciano (boxing)
• Orel Hershiser (baseball)
• Edwin Moses (hurdling)
• Brett Favre (football)
• Byron Nelson (golf)
• Lance Armstrong (cycling)
• Cal Ripken (baseball)
• Johnny Unitas (football)
• Sugar Ray Robinson (boxing)
• Jerry Rice (football)

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And great team performances by:
• Philaldelphia Flyers (hockey)
• Los Angeles Lakers (basketball)
• University of Oklahoma Sooners (football)
• Boston Celtics (basketball)
• Miami Dolphins (football)
• Montreal Canadiens (hockey)
• UCLA Bruins (basketball)
• New York Yankees (baseball)
• University of Iowa Wrestling Team

A marvelous list, to be sure, but do you notice what's missing? Women, the 51% minority.

At least as I scrolled through the list and counted on my fingers, Sports Illustrated included only one streak by female athletes, the recent Penn State Women's Volleyball Team, which reeled off an unbelievable winning streak of 109 straight games. Goodness. And there are no beaches for summer practice in Happy Valley.

So what's going on? Maybe women have not participated in sports nearly as frequently or as long as have men, so the well-known streaks are of course dominated by male athletes and male teams. But maybe not. I suspect that the sports-following public does not take women athletes seriously enough even to notice their streaks, much less to celebrate them.

I am as guilty of overlooking the accomplishments of women athletes as are many so-called sports fans, but I spent some time this morning atoning by poking around for information about streaks by female individuals and teams, and I call your attention to the following, which deserve checking out, not to mention our acclaim and admiration:
• Sonja Henie (figure skating)
• Martina Navratilova (tennis)
• Félicia Ballanger (sprint cycling)
• Guo Jingjing (diving)
• Iolanda Balas (high jump)
• USA Olympic Women's 4×100m Freestyle Relay
• South Korea Olympic and World Championship Women's Archery Team
• University of North Carolina Women's Soccer Team
• And of course the aforementioned Penn State Women's Volleyball Team

At my own school, the University of Michigan, a very good case can be made that the best varsity team in recent years has been ... not the football team, not the men's basketball team, not the baseball team, and not even the hockey team. The best team has been our (women's) softball team. A t-shirt that I like to wear around campus says "Michigan Softball" on the front. On the back it says "You wish you threw like a girl." The shirt often elicits humorous comments, but only from males. And maybe that's the point.

But it is not my final point. Continuing the sports theme, here is a head fake. This blog entry is not about women's sports or about men's sports. It is about "streaks" in any and all venues of life. Some streaks are harder to notice when obvious winners and losers are not tabulated, but they still exist. Like showing up at work everyday. Like having a kind word for everyone. Like always remembering your birthday. Or my personal favorite: My mother writing me a letter every week without fail from the time I went away to college in 1968 until 2007, when her cataract problems made this impossible.

Positive psychology tells us that other people matter. But truly mattering entails more than random acts of kindness. Truly mattering takes place over time, over years and even over decades. Truly mattering is gritty and difficult. Truly mattering takes no time off. Truly mattering means showing up and doing one's best, over and over and over.

Make a list of the streaks in life that most impress you and who has achieved them. You can include the University of Connecticut Women's Basketball Team if you wish, but if you do not live in Storrs, consider a local list that goes beyond sports. I guarantee that there will be as many women on it as there are men. Indeed, the bookmakers in Las Vegas are saying there will be more women on your list.

 

*You may want to read another Psychology Today blog entry, by Brian Tompkins, about the UConn team and sexism in sports:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/view-the-dugout/201004/the-persecution-excellence

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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