When young female athletes have a strong relationship with a mentor, they are better able to handle discrimination, sexism and other problematic behaviors they may encounter in the sport, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Kansas (KU).

“Mentorship and the feeling of mattering is really important to female athletes in dealing with issues of discrimination or bullying that can impede women’s full participation in sports, such as playing on a mostly male team or confronting sexual harassment,” said Kathryn Vaggalis, the study’s co-author and a KU doctoral candidate in American Studies.

The study shows that when mentors instill self-esteem and a feeling of mattering in female student athletes, it can boost athletic ability, provide opportunities for leadership, and leave a positive effect on women’s continued involvement in sports.

For the study, Vaggalis and co-author Dr. Margaret Kelley, KU associate professor of American Studies, conducted 42 interviews with college undergraduates who were former high school athletes and who had identified having a teacher or coach as a natural mentor. Natural mentors were considered non-kin adults from the school environment, such as a teacher or coach, rather than one assigned through a formal mentoring program.

The findings show that mentors gave students a safe space to receive advice and guidance from a trusted non-family adult. Mentorship provided multiple benefits such as emotional support, reducing delinquency and instilling a positive work ethic.

Yet despite the positive findings that female athletes expressed about how mentors helped empower them socially and athletically, the researchers found mixed results in other areas, including that mentors could reinforce problematic gendered aspects of sport socialization.

Young male athletes, for example, reported less emotional support and open communication with their mentors than their female counterparts. And male-to-male mentors of young men tended to reinforce ideas of sports education through rhetoric of traditional masculinity, they found, though the participants expressed that this education improved self-esteem and work ethic, and also enhanced athletic ability and performance.

However, the findings show that mentors, in reinforcing traditional masculinity, can exacerbate the problematic perception of sports being inherently male or masculine.

“Not all sports mentors are positive mentors. They can be problematic, too,” Kelley said. “And the gender role socialization differences really spoke to us from the data in this regard.”

Still, the study finds that natural mentorship and the idea of mattering are crucial in providing a positive influence on young athletes that can help reduce problem behavior and improve life chances.

“Sometimes kids are almost being discouraged from these relationships because there are so many boundaries in place between possible mentors,” Kelley said. “Then they are losing out on these mentorships that can be deeply instructive.”

The gender differences in the study can provide a caution for coaches and teachers who are in a position to mentor younger athletes, the researchers said.

“We need to be careful about recognizing sometimes we’re continuing differences in inequalities in the way we treat boys and girls,” Kelley said. ” Looking at this allows us to be critical of the mentoring context and critically self-aware of how help young people learn about gender and the world.”

Ultimately, the findings suggest that mentorship is still positive for several reasons including curbing sexism that can impede women’s participation in sports and serving as a positive influence for male students. The relationship between mentorship and mattering can be important in conversations surrounding how to prevent violence in schools and among youth, the researchers added.

“As adults we can make commitments to young people,” Kelley said, “to reach out and to nurture them, make them feel like they are important, especially as natural mentors outside their families.”

The researchers recently presented their findings at the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

Source: University of Kansas