Can playing sports build self-esteem and actually save girls' lives? We asked Jean Zimmerman and Gil Reavill, authors of Raising Our Athletic Daughters, to give us the scoop on how and why playing sports benefits girls.
Q: What can participating in sports do for girls?
Gil & Jean: Girls who participate in sports are less likely to drop out of school, more likely to go on to college, and more likely to graduate from college.
They tend to avoid a whole host of risk-taking and self-destructive behaviors. Girl athletes have one of the lowest rates of tobacco use among any sector of the high-school population; they are less likely to abuse drugs; they are less likely to get pregnant, more likely to delay their first sexual experience, and have, on average, fewer sexual partners than girls who do not participate in sports.
In addition, girls derive benefits from athletics that are difficult to measure objectively, such as confidence and self-esteem; they score higher on tests designed to gauge positive body image. We spoke with girls all over the country in the course of doing research for this book. The athletes we met were, on the whole, "achievers" who cited sports as an important strengthening factor in their lives. One characteristic we noticed over and over was a sense of focus and of being centered -- these were, by and large, young women who knew where they were going with their lives.
Q: At what age should parents introduce their daughters to sports?
Gil & Jean: Rather than seeing a certain age as a proper threshold for starting girls in sports, we encourage parents to see sports, movement, and physical activity as an inherent part of their daughters' lives from day one. Go into a nursery of a local hospital, and you'll see baseball gloves in boys' bassinets and stuffed toys in girls'. Social conditioning -- seeing athletics as natural for boys -- starts that early.
By the time boys are three years old, their dads are taking them out to the backyard and teaching them how to throw. We tend not to take the same time and trouble to instruct girls. We encourage them in other pursuits, from playing fairy princess to dressing up their dolls.
By kindergarten, boys tend to be further along the athletic skill-level spectrum than their girl peers. With skill comes confidence, and if you don't have confidence, playing organized sports can be a lot less fun. We tend not to give girls the basic tools they need to have a successful sports experience, thus they may not enjoy sports and drop out, and the old attitude that "sports are not for girls" gets reinforced.
The most important thing that parents can do is give their daughters basic athletic skills and the "permission" to express themselves physically. Specifically, teach a girl how to throw overhand. The overhand throw is the basis for so many sports activities -- baseball, of course, but also the tennis serve, the volleyball serve and spike, the forward pass in football, even the javelin throw. It should be "equipment" for all little girls growing up.
Q: To what extent should parents be involved in the athletic lives of their daughters?
Gil & Jean: It means so much to girls when parents are involved that we feel parents should make as much an effort as possible on many different levels. First of all, get active as a family. Setting a good example and being involved in sports yourself is very important -- statistics show that girls who have parents involved in sports are more likely to get involved in sports themselves. If that's not possible, be a fan of women's sports wherever you might find them: watch the final four basketball championships on television, the women's events in the Olympics, or the high-school games in your community.
Another approach is to buy sports equipment for your daughter -- either as gifts, or as a matter of course -- the way you would buy her books or items for her wardrobe. Attending your daughter's games is an invaluable way to show you support her athletic involvement. Girls told us that they always noticed their mothers' and fathers' voices cheering them on in the crowd at their games.
Q: In which sports do girls still have a lot of trail-blazing to do?
Gil & Jean: One surprise we got in speaking with girls was that when we asked about their favorite sports, so many of them responded "football." And yet football is not generally thought of as a sport girls like to play, nor is it a sport where girls are given a lot of opportunity to play. The other so-called "combat" sports -- boxing, hockey, wrestling, rugby -- also exhibit this combination of a surprising degree of interest among girls matched with limited opportunities. Generally, the "X" sports, or extreme sports, including the board sports (skateboarding, snowboarding) have been more welcoming to girls and are seeing wide participation among female athletes. Contrary to popular assumptions, girls don't mind playing rough.
Q: What's going on at the cusp of adolescence that makes girls more likely than their male counterparts to drop out of sports?
Gil & Jean: A host of factors may come into play at this crucial time. Messages conveyed by the media that our daughters begin receiving at a very early age -- "sports are for boys," and "girls should be dainty" -- might finally take hold during this period of high insecurity and sensitivity to gender roles.
Girls are sorting out who they are, what it means to be a woman, and what activities are acceptable and proper in order to be seen as feminine. Concurrently, there is an explosion of possibility, in the sense that what they are allowed to do suddenly widens considerably in scope. Middle-school and high-school girls tend to get very busy, with homework, jobs, and dating. Sports -- especially if they are seen as somehow socially suspect -- can get lost in the shuffle. There might also be a narrowing of athletic opportunity at this time. If the programs and support are not there, if the groundwork has not been laid earlier in life, girls might put other things first.
Q: Some people say that watching girls play sports isn't nearly as fun or entertaining as watching boys play. What do you think?
Gil & Jean: In the 1970s, Billie Jean King and others inaugurated a women's tennis circuit that became one of the most successful spectator sports of all time. The organizers challenged arguments that men's tennis was objectively "better" than women's tennis -- that men could send a serve over the net that was X miles an hour faster than the average women's serve, for example, or that there was overall more power and speed in the men's game.
The women's circuit organizers focused on a simple subjective question: Did people enjoy watching women's tennis? That question came back in a rousing affirmative, and today women's tennis actually outdraws men's tennis on European television and has come very close to parity with men's tennis in this country.
A visit to a WNBA game underscores the idea that watching women play sports is something many people find enjoyable. Women's professional sports might avoid some of the excesses that men's sports fall heir to: violence, over-aggressiveness, over-emphasis on individual achievement at the expense of the team, etc. As girls' skills improve and as their confidence rises, the excitement level about girls' high-school games is bound to increase.
Check out the book: Raising Our Athletic Daughters in bookstores and libraries.