Keeping Girl Athletes in the Game
With the passing of Title IX over forty years ago, the participation of girls in sports has gone up ten times over that period. Yet, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), most girls aren’t playing sports past the age of fourteen, reporting that twice as many girls as boys quit sports.
As I watch my daughters’ schoolmates become distracted by fashion and make-up, it’s common to see them trade their cleats for heels, their caps for perfectly coifed hair. When my daughter Mina competed in the CrossFit Teen Gauntlet, it was glaring to me how the participation of girls dwindled as the age category went up. And as a mother to athletes and a coach to teen girls, I often wonder how to keep girls in the game longer.
The WSF suggests that a primary reason girls leave sports at the cusp of adolescence is the societal bombardment that a girl’s looks is what gives her value. The internet, television programming, songs, advertisements, videos, billboards, movies, and magazines that target tween and teen girls push an over-sexualized aesthetic that is disturbing. The average female is exposed to over three hundred ads a day. It is hard to fight the never-ending onslaught of messages that nothing is as important or gains a girl power more than her looks – or more, a fabricated, cookie-cutter idea of perfection that is nearly impossible to obtain. As a girl settles into puberty, the images of teen and adult female athletes fade. According to Images of Us Sports, women’s sports are only 8% of all print and TV sports media coverage. The messages surrounding girls and the pressure to fit into a beauty-driven aesthetic can be overwhelming and often her athletic side doesn’t make the cut. This is not to say a girl can’t be athletic and explore a glamorous side, but the rate at which girls drop out of sports suggests that they often do not choose both.
Another reason girls quit sports early is to escape ridicule. Middle school was so hard, wasn’t it? It still is. And now the wildfire that is technology has created a much more powerful form of humiliation via texts and the Internet. Girl athletes are still labeled as “dude-like” or tagged as lesbian whether accurate or not. Don’t sweat too much, play too intensely, or, God forbid, beat a boy for fear of standing out and someone taking notice enough to crush you back into the fold with shame. The brave few stick it out. The rest of us get swallowed up in our need to simply fit it. And this retreat is at the expense of our girls’ confidence and health.
It’s no secret that keeping and staying physically active has immediate and long-terms positive effects on our health, not just physically but emotionally and mentally. Girls who participated in high school sports are more likely to complete college than those who don’t. The de-emphasis of women and girls to participate in regular activity is taking a toll not just on their health, but the health of our country. According to Her Life Depends On It II, a comprehensive study by the WSF, girls and women who do not participate in sports are more likely to face heart disease, depression, substance abuse, cancer, obesity-related issues, eating disorders, suicide, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, osteoporosis, and smoking - all of which accounts for much of the more than one trillion dollars spent on healthcare for treating these issues.
Heart disease is the number one killer in this country for men and women, but every year more women than men die of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease. Among women, 38 percent die within one year of their first recognized heart attack, compared with 25 percent of men. Similarly, 46 percent of female and 22 percent of male heart attack survivors have a disability from heart failure within six years.
Despite this ever-expanding body of research, in general girls are still not encouraged or given the opportunities extended to boys to participate in sports and fitness activities. Limited access to opportunities especially for girls from a lower economic background remains an ongoing concern and is complicated by schools cutting back on recess and physical education nationally. Persistent inequalities in school sport programs and community-recreation programs for girls widens the gap.
The expense on the country due to our failing health only increases in all areas, yet many reports from the Surgeon General to countless doctors site physical exercise as well as good nutrition as part of a preventative plan against these factors. But if only half the population gets sincere support to participate, we are doing our country and citizens a disservice. The unconscious acceptance and bombardment to instead promote a better looking girl as opposed to a healthy girl plays directly into these issues at the direct expense of our girls.
So, how do we keep girls active? Here are a few suggestions to keep them in the game:
- Support her. Let your daughters, nieces, sisters, friends’ kids know how cool you think it is that they are active or play a sport whether they are the star of the team or the bench warmer. Go watch their games. Bring your friends. Often, we are unaware of the digging comments that might be said to her at school. Hearing your consistent and positive support can often offset that.
- Let her play on her terms. Your daughter may not have the killer instinct to crush her opponents like you do. It’s okay. Let her find her own way in sports or a physical activity. Not being great at a sport doesn’t mean she’s not reaping a ton of other benefits and setting up a lifelong love of being active. Conversely, if your daughter is a gym rat and crazy competitive – maybe unlike you – this is okay, too. If you let her, she’ll probably impress you to no end. Knowing that someone is on her side as opposed to trying to get her to either “Get the ball, God!” or be more “lady-like” will most likely create a more well-adjusted and balanced person than not. Be her cheerleader, however she expresses athleticism.
- Give her role models. Take her to a pro women’s soccer game or tennis match. Or a women’s collegiate basketball game. Let her witness women in sports being celebrated regularly. Taking Mina to watch the SoCal CrossFit Regional competition helped her redefine what women were capable of strength-wise. She has wanted that for herself ever since. As her mom or dad, you are your daughter’s first role model. Let her watch you workout or play something or express your own love for dance or running or however you like to move.
- Let her know that being athletic is beautiful, too. Talk to her about advertising and the pressure to look a certain way. Often, they don’t really want to look like everyone else. They mainly want to stop feeling pressured and if you discuss this with her, she’ll realize that it’s ok for her to want her own look, her own style - that being active is just as beautiful as anything else.
- Let her try different things. When a girl wants to quit a sport, it might not be that she wants to quit being active all together. She might be bored with volleyball. She might not like a non-team environment. Consider activities you wouldn’t do yourself and let her try new things.
- Listen to her concerns about being teased. Understand and identify with her fears and talk to her about them. Girls want to fit in and be accepted. Let her know that sports and being on a team can be all about belonging, too. Most of us remember how nervous we were in junior high and high school classes. Many of us also have funny stories to tell about embarrassing things that did happen and how we got over them. Ask her what her worst fear is. Maybe she's nervous about wearing the gym uniform or having to climb ropes in front of her classmates. Once she identifies the worst-case scenario, you can discuss how you would deal with this, which can alleviate some of her fears.
Keeping girls active can benefit them in so many ways. How are the girls in your life staying active? How do you personally keep them in the game?
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.