Get Your Daughter Hooked on Sports
The gender play gap is real — but if you’ve got a young girl in your life who needs encouragement, these moves can help.
It’s 2021. The United States has a woman vice president. The world’s most global bank has a woman CEO. The Oscar nominees for best director included two women (and one won). The future is female — except when it comes to sports.
The XX Challenges
While the Serenas and Shalanes are capital-C crushing it, the reality is that women athletes are capital-U underrepresented: Girls start sports later than boys, according to a report on girls ages 7 to 13 by the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF). Teen girls are 15 percent less likely to play sports than boys are. Those who do get involved drop out at almost double the rate by age 14 as boys do. And of the girls who stick with it, one in three will call it quits by their late teens, while only one in 10 boys will, per a recent report from the Canadian Women & Sport organization.
What’s the deal? Well, there’s a lot standing between a girl — we’re talking toddler to college age — and athletic glory, from what’s going on inside her body to what our society is telling her about her potential.
Take biology, for example. Whereas boys sometimes feel more confident as their muscles grow, their voices deepen, and their chests sprout hair, girls can become more self-conscious and less sure of themselves as boobs, periods and hormones come into play, says Mary Fry, PhD, the director of the Kansas University Sport & Exercise Psychology Lab. That could discourage them from wanting to participate. And social media, a breeding ground for comparison and self-doubt, can make girls (and boys too) seek the sidelines instead of center court, she adds.
Family dynamics and gender stereotypes also play a role. Parents (or parental figures) generally have the most influence over a girl’s initial relationship with sports, and too often getting her involved isn’t valued the same way it is for boys in many households, says Karen Issokson-Silver, the vice president of research and education for WSF. “In some families, it’s much more common for a dad to throw the ball around with his son at a young age than with his daughter,” she points out. Without support from her home team, a girl’s interest in sports might not take off as early or even at all.
On top of that, we have our culture. Womp. Women’s sports receive, on average, only 5 percent of television coverage, while men’s sports get 95 percent, according to a study from USC and Purdue. And women athletes make 15 to 100 percent lower salaries in many sports. This sends a message, especially to impressionable children, that women athletes are somehow less important or valuable, says Issokson-Silver. And given the higher dropout rate (and the lack of women coaches), girls don’t have as many strong same-gender athletes to look up to as boys do, she says, perpetuating the cycle.
“In some families, it’s much more common for a dad to throw the ball around with his son at a young age than with his daughter.”
Vice President of Research and Education for the Women’s Sports Foundation
The Expert Solution
Kids who say yes to sports score a wide range of benefits. Compared with their nonathlete counterparts, girls who play have more confidence at all ages and better GPAs, according to the most recent Girls and Sports Impact Report. Other research has linked youth sports to improved physical and mental health as well as a more positive body image, increased opportunities to develop social connections, and stronger leadership skills. And, unsurprisingly, “young girls who play are more likely to be active throughout life, setting them up for a healthier future overall,” says Issokson-Silver. So yeah, sports matter.
It’s on all of us to do better for the girls in our lives — and we can. Truth? It’s not even that hard! To get started, just reference (and share) this playbook for getting girls into sports…and keeping them wanting more.
Create a supportive environment.
How you participate in — and advocate for — sports and exercise can make a huge difference in a girl’s attitude toward them, says Megan Bartlett, the founder of the Center for Healing and Justice Through Sport, who worked with Nike to create the Coaching Girls Guide. The more active you are and the more upbeat language you use around activity (“I’m excited I get to run today!”), the more likely she is to create positive associations of her own, says Bartlett. “Playing with her is equally important,” adds Fry, so whether she’s 3 or 13, let her pick an activity (she’ll have more fun that way), and get out there together.
And please, make sure your girl is set up with adequate sports equipment, including sports bras, footwear and clothing that help her move. Show up to as many practices and games as you can to cheer her on, take her to a high school or collegiate women’s game, and talk about sports like you’d talk about her classes or friends. All of these steps can encourage her to think of sports as a natural and exciting part of life, says Issokson-Silver, and give her a little shot of confidence to stick with it.
Find a coach who cares.
“If girls don’t feel welcome, supported and valued by their coach, they may quit even when they love the sport,” says Issokson-Silver. Set them up for success by finding a coach who treats each girl as an individual and not just a player, fosters a relationship that allows them to talk openly, and outwardly appreciates them for showing up and trying, she says. Also, find one who believes winning isn’t everything. In a WSF study on the type of coach with whom girls have the most success, researchers found that those who challenge their team while focusing on fun and skill development versus winning alone take the trophy.
If you’re interested in a certain program at school or in your community, Fry recommends talking to parents in your neighborhood or in local online groups whose kids are or were on the team. “It’s also a great idea to watch a practice yourself to see how the girls are greeted, how the coach interacts with them throughout the practice, and what the wrap-up is like,” says Viv Holt, the head of Youth Sport Trust International, who also shaped the Nike Coaching Girls Guide. Better yet: Talk to the coach — how they interact with you is a strong indication of how they’ll interact with your girl, she adds.
Develop a healthy relationship with competition.
Pushing your girl to perform better than her teammates or opponents can push her far away from sports if she feels more pressure than support, says Fry. Instead, teach her to be competitive with herself.
“Remind her that she has no control over how well other people play, but that she has full control over how hard she tries every day,” says Fry. Encourage her to set a personal goal, like working on her serve or stroke, so that she can see herself progress. Congratulate her on even small improvements so she understands the payoff of real work and feels proud.
Use language like “I love how hard you try” or “It’s so cool to see you improving,” which puts the emphasis on progress instead of outcome, says Diana Cutaia, the founder of Coaching Peace Consulting. This can invite more joy and less stress when playing.
Focus on value and validation.
Whether kids feel like a valuable part of the team can make or break their commitment to sports, and this is especially true of girls. “It doesn’t matter if they’re not highly skilled at the sport itself,” says Issokson-Silver, “as long as they feel recognized for bringing something to the game.”
The right coach will already be doing this, but bolster that recognition by affirming it. Remind her how the other girls look to her for support or problem-solving, or how her enthusiastic spirit always turns the mood around when the team is behind, suggests Issokson-Silver. And, adds Cutaia, applaud her not just on the days she excels but also on the days she struggles in order to show you care about her, not her performance.
Build her mindset for the long haul.
Some research shows that women are more likely to be perfectionists than men are, and those tendencies likely start in childhood, says Fry. It’s superimportant to teach girls that making mistakes — whether it’s getting a foul in a game or dropping the ball — is not only a normal part of life, it’s also a crucial part of learning and improving.
The first step: Help her trust that she has the guts to ride through mess-ups. Make the word brave a regular part of your vocabulary, and every time you see her or her teammate try something new or take a risk (say, shooting a faraway shot), applaud it, says Bartlett.
When mistakes do happen, talk about them — but talk about the bigger picture too, says Holt. “It’s human nature, even for kids, to harp on something they did wrong even when they did 20 things right,” she says. “Encourage her to reflect on the mistake and use it as an opportunity for growth, then shift the focus to all the positive things she did.” It helps, too, she says, to compassionately call out your own little oopsies when you make them, as that reiterates how not a big deal they are.
Finally, don’t let a girl give up unless she really isn’t connecting with her coach on a personal level. Not getting enough playing time, feeling less skilled than her teammates, not loving the sport, and pretty much any other issue can be resolved by reframing what it means to win, says Bartlett. “Highlight a skill she’s improved or the new friends she’s made, and help her set a goal related to that for the last few weeks with the team,” she says.
So much grit and self-efficacy comes from seeing a season through to the end, says Bartlett, even when girls choose different activities afterward. That perseverance could be the difference that changes the statistics game — and the future of sports — forever.
Words: Charlotte Jacobs
Illustration: Kezia Gabriella
Take It Further
For more advice on keeping kids, especially girls, involved in sports, check out the Coaching Girls Guide that Nike co-created as part of its Made to Play commitment, and listen to a special episode of Trained featuring youth-sports psychologist and athlete Jim Taylor, PhD.