Girls are more likely to stop playing sports as teenagers than boys, but research shows those who stick with it can reap major benefits in their physical and mental health, and make them more likely to succeed in school and professional life.
There are the obvious benefits to playing sports. Participation can help build healthy habits to last a lifetime, as well as lead to better mental health. Children who play sports also learn how to be part of a team, communicate with others and make new friends.
Children also pick up critical skills, especially at a younger age, when participating in team sports. Sports participation helps children build confidence and set goals. They learn to turn failure into success, overcome shyness, learn to take feedback and better cope with anxiety.
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, high school girls who play sports are less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy, more likely to do better in school, and more likely to graduate than girls who do not play sports.
The critical thinking and leadership skills that children develop in sports also translates to business, and employers are often more interested in hiring athletes because they understand discipline, teamwork and are highly achievement-oriented.
A joint study between Ernst and Young and ESPNW surveyed 400 women in executive positions and found that 94 percent of the female executives were former athletes. Fifty-two percent of female c-suite executives played collegiate sports, while 39 percent of women at the management level played collegiately.
Despite the known benefits, girls are still being left behind. Girls of color and those from urban areas face even more barriers to play and participate at lower numbers than white girls. For underserved populations, like children with disabilities or children from immigrant families, sport is a lot less accessible for many that it may seem on the surface.
While there are more barriers for underserved communities, female participation in athletics is leagues above where it was before Title IX. But while access is at an all time high, girls get involved in sports at a lower rate than boys and start at a later age, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. Even more alarming is that girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys by age 14, with a sharp increase between grades six and eight, according to a WSF study.
In another WSF study, girls who stopped playing sports by age 13 said it was because playing was no longer fun. But by 17, girls said they dropped out because they did not feel like they belonged. Even for girls who are committed to playing, there are 1.3 million fewer opportunities for girls to play high school sports than boys.
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, there are six main barriers that keep girls from playing sports:
- Lack of access – This could mean lack of quality facilities to play, limited physical education courses or sponsored school sports, or not having any opportunity to play sports.
- Transportation/safety issues – Some children, especially in urban areas, do not have access to transportation to go to and from practice or games and have to stay home if they can’t find a safe carpool ride.
- Social stigma – While girls from all backgrounds and life experiences play different sports, there is still a social stigma and negative stereotypes around being a female athlete. This can become especially stressful or painful for young girls experiencing puberty or still exploring their identity, which can lead to drop outs.
- Decrease in quality of experience – As girls get older, quality of sports available to them can decline. This can include anything from the type or number of sports offered for girls, as well as poor facilities or funds when compared to their male counterparts.
- Cost – When school budgets are slashed, athletic programs, especially for girls, are hit hard as well. If a school doesn’t offer or properly fund sports, children and families will have to turn to private sports organizations that are costly. According to the WSF, 21 percent of White girls participated in private sports organizations, compared to 7 percent of black girls.
- Lack of role models – It’s crucial that female athletes have positive role models and female coaches to provide support when times get tough.
By dropping out of sports early, or not participating in sports at all, girls are missing out on lifelong skills, academic and health benefits that will position them for success. It puts girls at a disadvantage in the classroom, and even later in her career.
It’s no coincidence that a majority of girls are dropping out of sports around the time puberty begins, either. While young women are already facing body changes, self-doubt or concerns about body image or appearance can weigh negatively on their self esteem and diminish their confidence. For Black girls, who already have fewer opportunities to participate in sports, rules about hair can serve as a barrier for entry or cause girls to forego sports later in life.
It’s okay if kids decide that they don’t like playing sports or are interested in a different activity – but that’s also why it’s so important to get them involved at a young age to still develop crucial social skills and build healthy habits. Even if girls lose interest in playing, watching women’s sports or reading about strong female athletes can be a positive influence.
Watching strong women overcoming adversity, achieving goals, and leading a team can inspire girls to pursue their dreams no matter what they may be. Athletes are also more than the sport they play: they’re entrepreneurs, scientists, journalists, doctors, CEOs, mothers, and more. While female athletes shine on the field, the court or the rink, there is so much that girls can learn when following them outside of sports.
So what does society need to do for girls to be successful in sports?
Provide support systems and positive role models – In order to encourage more girls to participate and stay in sports, they need to see women represented in sports.
Young girls and women need a positive support system on the sidelines and at home. More women coaches could help young girls deal with stress and provide everyday encouragement when times get tough.
Treatment of women and girl athletes as less than their male counterparts needs to stop, but it’s an unfortunate reality of the sports world today. Negative comments can harm girls’ self esteem and drive to play sports, especially when those comments make them feel like they are less than male athletes.
“People don’t usually do it in front of me, but there will be some dads or some coaches who say ‘how good could they be, they have girls on their team.’ or the dad will be angry that their son has to wrestle a girl,” Callie, a high school wrestler, said.
Positive support can also help girls be more resilient when they encounter prejudice. When a girl is hearing signals from others that she doesn’t belong in sports because of her gender, it’s helpful if she’s already been taught that her athletic achievements are just as valuable.
Amplify the conversation about women’s sports – There are so many positive and inspirational women in sports who don’t get enough media and marketing attention. According to a Nielsen survey, 84 percent of sports fans around the world are interested in women’s sports, and 46 percent of respondents said they would watch more if women’s sports were accessible on free TV. While the numbers back up the interest, women’s sports still only receives 4percent of media coverage.
“The TVs are more populated with men’s sports. I always see NBA games and men’s college basketball games for boys, but I never see girls,” Mackenzie, a high school soccer player from Connecticut, said.
Part of amplifying the conversation includes normalizing women in sports – not just as athletes, but as coaches, administrators, journalists, game commentators, scouts, owners, league executives and more. Boys should also be encouraged to watch women’s sports and admire female athletes.
Natalie Portman, a founder and investor in the NWSL’s newest expansion team Angel City FC, recently discussed how her son’s admiration for USWNT star Megan Rapinoe spurred important conversations about racial and social justice and inspired her to invest in women’s soccer.
“[We want to] expand those sports heroes — and those sports modeling behaviors — to have women in those positions, too,” she told People. “To celebrate women at the same level as the way we celebrate male athletes is culture-shifting.”
Sponsor women’s sports – “I am the future. I will work ten times harder, a thousand times harder than I have to to prove myself and gain confidence from other females to do the same thing,” Quincie, a high school track and field and basketball athlete said.
Girls who compete in sports are dedicated and will push themselves to the limit in order to succeed. They need advocates who will do the same for them.
During espnW’s 2020 Women+Sports Summit: Women in Leadership panel, Kate Johnson, an Olympic rower and director of global marketing partnerships, content, and sports media at Google, explained that while mentoring women in sports is important, what they really need is sponsorship – having people at high levels advocating for them when they’re not in the room.
You may not be an executive at a major brand that can offer sponsorships to female athletes, but there are places where you can have influence. Think about how you can be a sponsor for girls in sports:
Can you convince a local newspaper reporter to increase coverage of girls sports locally? Can you address your local board of education about ways to get more girls involved in sports at school, or to get more recognition for girls who already play? Can you convince a local sporting goods store to collect donations for a fund to buy equipment for girls whose families can’t afford it?
The future is more than a game and girls deserve to have the chance to benefit from sports just like boys do. Their success depends on it.