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Since Title IX was enacted in 1972, more girls have participated in sports than ever before, but that doesn't mean challenges no longer exist.
A quick look at current stats reveals that there's still a long way to go to address underlying issues that make it difficult for girls to participate in organized sports past middle school.
By the age of 14, girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys, according to the Women's Sports Foundation
Only 40 percent of high school girls are currently playing sports, leaving three in five without the opportunity
By age 17, more than half of girls — 51 percent — will have quit sports
Why does it matter?
Research has shown that participating in organized sports offers unique benefits for young women, including better odds of graduating high school, better grades, higher psychological well-being, higher family satisfaction, lower incidence of drug use, increased confidence and more.
If the fact that 94 percent of women in executive leadership positions also played organized sports growing up is any indication, then clearly the benefits can extend well beyond the teen years. So why are girls dropping out, and more importantly, what can we all do — parents and the community — to encourage continued participation?
Issue: Body image
One reason girls might be dropping out of sports during adolescence is feeling pressure about how they appear. There remains an unspoken belief that sweating isn't feminine or that a girl's appearance will be messed up by going to gym class. Some girls might worry that weight training will make them look "heavy." And, the reality is that the media continues to focus on how women look rather than how they perform, even in sports.
This was brought to light during last year's Olympics, when a personal product brand hosted digital billboards in three cities that streamed live commentary appearing in the media about female athletes. Rather than focus on their performance, many of the comments focused on the athletes' appearance — from hair to criticism of certain body parts — which wasn't the case for male athletes. With so much focus on how these top athletes appear, it's easy to understand why girls would be worried about how others perceive them.
How to help: Focus on function, not shape
To play on an old quote, "If you feel good, you look good."
Parents can help by becoming aware of their own behaviors and perceptions. Do you find yourself making negative comments about your own appearance or that of other women? It won't matter how often you say positive things to your daughter if your behaviors don't reflect that — kids pay more attention to our behaviors than our words.
Instead, shift the conversation away from how bodies look to what they can do. Encourage girls to recognize all of the things their bodies do and how they perform. Nurture the mind-body connection. You can try a few activities on your own, or if your teen is willing — do them together.
Writing exercise: Consider what you would say to your body if it was sitting next to you. What would it say back to you? Spend some time writing out the dialogue.
Get moving: Move in a way that feels good to you and makes you happy. Run just to run and feel your body move. Dance to your favorite music. Swim. Do somersaults. Whatever movement makes you happy, get up and go, go often, and feel the joy in the movement.
Clean out those closets: Get rid of any clothes that create a negative feeling for you.
Issue: Connection and cooperation
Girls are relational. Part of how they form their sense of self as a teenager is to gain approval from their peers. As a consequence, they have a greater desire for cooperation and connectedness over competition.
This can leave teen girls vulnerable to becoming disconnected from themselves as they seek approval and strive to meet expectations to fit in and be like everyone else. Help them redefine competition and embrace it. Many team sports actually build connection through competition and by developing school spirit. Even through individuals sports, there can be ways to foster connection with others.
How to help: Work toward a larger purpose
Girls often thrive if they are doing something larger than themselves. A great way to help girls get more comfortable with competition is to shift their focus from "me" to "we" when thinking about being competitive in sports. Whether it's making the winning shot, beating your opponent or having a great assist, it ultimately benefits the group — your teammates, your family, your school, your community.
Issue: Lack of confidence
Studies have shown that girls' confidence wanes as they move into puberty. They become overly focused on looks, less likely to speak up on class, less sure of themselves and experience a drop in self-esteem. This confidence crisis in adolescence can also contribute to them dropping out of sports or other challenging activities. Playing sports is actually a powerful way for girls to protect against the insecurity and strengthen their confidence.
Parents can encourage this by playing sports with their daughters starting at a young age and attending their sporting events. Athletics develops girls' leadership and teamwork skills and enhances their self-image on and off the field.
My mother was raised before Title IX, so she didn't have access to sports growing up. She always felt she had athletic potential that was never realized as the result of sports opportunities not being available to women of her generation. So when I was a child, my parents signed me up for a variety of sports to hone my athletic skills, encouraged me to try out for my high school teams and made me an athlete for life.
I remember my father playing catch and teaching me how to throw when I was a young girl. He wanted me to have a fast and accurate throw on the Little League baseball team I was on. I joked with him that he was teaching me to throw like a boy, and I'll never forget when he stopped me and said, "No, I am teaching you to throw like a girl. This is how girls can throw, just as good as a boy." It's a great example of parents being excited about girl power in athletics.
How to help: Foster a growth mind-set
We all have the ability to learn and grow, no matter our age. The challenge is to let ourselves be open to new experiences and learn from frustrating ones.
If your daughter believes her true potential is unknown, she'll be more willing to challenge herself, take risks and stretch herself. One way to foster this is to praise effort and focus on strategies or choices used.
Praising children's talent or intelligence, as tempting as it is, can have the reverse effect and make their confidence and motivation more fragile. Ask them, "What did you learn today? What mistakes did you make that taught you something? What did you try hard at today?"
If your daughter believes her traits are not fixed but can be developed, then she becomes much more motivated to work hard. Encourage younger kids to try different sports to see which one they like, then they have choices about which ones to focus on as they get older.
And encourage them to keep playing even when it gets tough. Maybe they made a mistake or aren't getting the playing time they would like. It can be easy to walk away in frustration, but remind them that they've made a commitment for a season and it's important to stick that out.