Feature

For an elite athlete, there's nothing that can top the thrill of capturing an Olympic gold medal. But Angela Hucles, daughter of psychologist Janis Sanchez-Hucles, PhD, says her overall experience as a midfielder for this year's winning U.S. national women's soccer team has given her more substantive rewards.

"So many opportunities have come to me through soccer," says the soft-spoken 26-year-old who played in two of the team's semifinal games before it clinched its final victory against Brazil on Aug. 26. "I've been able to do so many different things apart from soccer, like speaking engagements, writing for newspapers and even coaching. I'm just going to build on that and see what happens."

Such observations have spurred Sanchez-Hucles, a professor of psychology at Old Dominion University, to want the same for other girls of color. "I've seen all of the advantages that soccer has brought Angela," says Sanchez-Hucles, a longtime researcher of diversity and gender issues, "and I'd like others to have those opportunities as well."

While soccer is considered the sport for everyone in most parts of the world, "in the United States, it's only for the middle or upper-middle-class because it costs so much," she notes.

In an effort to open up the field to American minority women, Sanchez-Hucles has joined forces with sport psychology consultant Colleen Hacker, PhD, the women's soccer team's mental-skills coach. At a recent workshop with 60 top women's soccer coaches at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., the two presented on relevant aspects of psychology. Sanchez-Hucles spoke on how coaches can better understand and incorporate multicultural issues so teams can work through some of the unspoken prejudices that can lead to underrepresentation, poor communication and even poor performance on the field. Hacker discussed how coaches can motivate and communicate more effectively with their teams.

Goal: More girls of color

These efforts were set into motion a few years ago when the national team's head coach April Heinrichs--aware of Sanchez-Hucles's expertise--asked if she would train coaches on diversity issues at a 2001 U.S. Youth Soccer Foundation meeting in Atlanta. Through a variety of creative exercises, Sanchez-Hucles got the group to consider how they may use subtle, often unconscious ethnic stereotypes to choose one player for a team over another.

The success of the event led Heinrichs to ask Sanchez-Hucles to help lead other coaching seminars where she discusses issues of gender, diversity and barriers to greater inclusion.

In her presentations, Sanchez-Hucles also tackles subtle gender issues that she believes affect the direction of women's sports. For example, at present, more men than women coach men's sports. But when women try out for coaching spots, they're often caught in a gender-related catch-22: If they appear too "feminine," they're considered too weak for the job; if they seem too "masculine" or competitive, they may encounter unconscious homophobia. In addition, she says, women athletes who are now reaching the age where they could coach often lack female role models.

"Because of some of these gender dynamics, many women who want to be coaches don't even bother trying for these jobs," she notes.

Leveling the playing field

However, Sanchez-Hucles points out, research demonstrates the value of including more women in sports, both as coaches and as players. For one thing, research finds that playing competitive sports can help young women avoid risky sexual behavior and drug and alcohol abuse, and boost their self-confidence and academic involvement. For another, it shows that members of minority groups don't consider entering a field if they think they don't belong--much as was the case with women in medicine 20 years ago, Sanchez-Hucles says.

But her daughter's experience shows that sports can open up more doors than the one that leads from the locker room to the playing field, Sanchez-Hucles believes.

"We're looking at barriers to women's participation in sports," she says, "because we believe that sports is an entree to a better life, and we want to make sure that as many people have a shot at that as possible."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.