Redbull/Will Gadd
Credit: Redbull Photofiles

Her face had enough tears streaming down it to power a small hydro plant, and my youthful kayak instruction technique was definitely the cause.

All I’d said was, “Well — it was only a small ledge that you swam over. And you didn’t stay underwater for all that long after the first recirculation. You should get back in your boat and try to do it right this time.” This verbal strategy had worked great for motivating other guys, but like so many male strategies, it evidently was ineffective with women.

Women and men are physically different, but after teaching mountain sports to both genders for more than 30 years I have learned that the biggest factors for success aren’t physical, but mental. It’s simply a lot easier for some people to see the physical differences, and to attribute performance to perceived physical reasons. For those who say, “Women in general aren’t as strong, so of course they’re not going to do as well at physical endeavors,” that reasoning makes sense. 

Unfortunately, this is not actually supported by the evidence. In almost every single sport, modern women completely obliterate the top male results from even a few decades ago — from rock climbing standards to marathon times. If women today are reaching higher standards than men were a generation ago, then clearly the differences have less to do with physical strength and more to do with other, less-obvious factors. Those of us who travel outdoors in coed groups may benefit from exploring some of these factors. 

When I coach or teach mixed-gender groups, there is just as much physical variety between men as there is between men and women. I can’t generalize that a man will be “strong” because he’s a man, or that a woman will be “weaker;” nor does sex seem to matter in terms of learning progression. But how men express themselves both physically and verbally is very different than women. 

If I’m teaching a rock climbing course and I ask, “Who wants to try?” three guys will push forward and argue about who gets to go first. To get women climbing in a mixed-sex group usually requires that I either set a specific climbing order and hold everyone to it, or give the women lots of careful encouragement. Only then will the women climb as much as the men, and on average I don’t see any difference in their basic skills once they are moving. 

What I do see are big differences in how those skills are used. A man will curse, pull on the rope, flail and wear all the rubber off his rock shoes to reach the “Top!” — while his buddies tell him he “sucks” and that he should come down so they can try. Most women will truly cheer for one another, and care far more about making good moves and “doing it right” than reaching the top. They also don’t want to “hog” the rope for too long, while men will cheerfully spend the entire afternoon hanging on the rope even if no one else gets to climb. And if a man spends two hours on a rope and a woman spends 20 minutes, the man is going to progress much faster — not due to strength, but due to lack of empathy for the others waiting to climb.

If there is one sport where strength should make almost no difference, it’s paragliding. In competitions, men and women compete together on the same course. But in most
competitions there are 20 men for every woman — even though the ratio is closer to equal at the novice level. Women are often shaken out of paragliding — and other risky sports — due to scary but, to my male brain, relatively minor mishaps. Men often respond to fear and anxiety with the classic male attitude of, “Damn, that sucked! I'd better do it again and get it right!” Women often respond with, “I almost died. Died! I have other more important things in life than this sport!” This is the reaction my former female kayaking student had, and I find it’s common across all outdoor sports. Women seem to respond to stress and danger with common-sense solutions — such as avoiding the situation in the future — while men get mad and try to literally kick-ass on the danger. Often men push women to experience outdoor sports as they do, and this ends up with women dropping out of the sport, as some of my early kayaking students likely did — a notion I regret. 

So, here are a few things I’ve learned that I wish I would have known all those years ago:

  1. Verbally challenging women to improve physically often does not work, especially in a situation perceived as dangerous. However, setting up a safe environment that is predictable and builds competence and confidence, appropriately and systematically, works very well. (Men also respond better in this environment — even if it’s not the way we usually practice sports together.)
  2.  In mixed groups, women need to be integrated into the activity through structure and encouragement or they often won’t get the benefit of the experience. Men need to be restrained, or separated. Women-specific groups aren’t important because women generally have smaller muscles, they’re important in order to teach women to use those muscles to their potential. In a group setting, women may argue that another woman should get to go first; a man will argue that he should get to go first. 
  3. The very idea of “success” is often different for men and women. Rather than stating, “The goal of this hike is to reach the summit,” we should ask, “What do you want to get out of today?” Often a “nice hike” is more important for women than a death-march to the top, although you wouldn’t know it on trails like Vancouver’s Grouse Grind. When I see a man hiking uphill 100 metres ahead of a woman, I know dinner that night will be strained; it’s likely the woman thought she was going hiking with the man, and the man is hiking to get to the summit.
  4. Recognize that an individual’s actual size and strength are more important than gender. A 95-pound teenage boy should not be carrying a full-share of the group’s gear; give the extra to the 150-pound woman who hikes stairs recreationally and can deadlift 350 pounds. 

One of the great things about outdoor sports is that we all become teachers and mentors after a relatively short period of time. Another great thing is that we inevitably experience the outdoors in mixed groups — and pondering some of our subtle differences can create a more successful experience for both sexes. And for the instructor. (I haven’t made anyone cry lately.)

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2014 issue.

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