“I think sports gave me the first place where this awkward girl could feel comfortable in my own skin. I think that’s true for a lot of women—sports gives you a part of your life where you can work at something and you look in the mirror and you like that person.” Teri McKeever
As I think back to when I was a relatively new and young athlete, I like to think that I was part of something incredibly special in my sport. I believed this because I never faced the same social obligations that girls nowadays do when it comes to being athletic. We did not do sports to impress (well, maybe a little) or to use simply as a means of having something to post about on instagram, but we did sports because of the way it made us feel. It made us feel strong. This was not so long ago. In fact, the social changes that I observe now in female athletes is so shocking because of how quickly things have changed. Girls have been heavily involved with sports for a long time so rather than discuss why some girls choose not to do sports, I’d like to discuss some of the challenges associated with encouraging girls to excel and go above and beyond reaching their athletic goals.
I became a coach because I knew two things; one was that I liked to teach people new things. I enjoyed the challenge of explaining what to me would be a simple task. Second, I felt I made more of a contribution to the sport as a coach than an athlete. Being inspired by many female role models it was important that I do the same with my athletes. Our biggest “ah-ha” moments usually happen because somebody opens your eyes up to something that you did not see before. That is what coaching is about, helping athletes find “ah-ha” moments all the time. Focusing on female athletes alone I discovered so much potential and so much powerful energy but it was being held back by this unknown, yet strong barrier. This is what I have been working on, breaking down this barrier and making sports something that girls can go to, give their all and know they are powerful.
What are the supposed challenges?
Social Challenges: Girls in particular are socially oriented. We learn this early on in coaching, in order to build a team you have to build the relationships. Many girls will opt-in or out of a sport solely based on what social interactions they are provided with. Likewise, the effort they put into the sport will be largely based on the effort that their peers exert into it as well.
Quality Challenges: It is no secret that there is an underlying crusade to build up girls self-esteem and make them feel “pretty” or “accepted”. Girls know this. They know that usually if they are in some program geared towards only girls the topic of body-image and self-confidence will be heavily discussed, even more than the actual activity. Not all girls want this. The idea with sport is not to make girls feel like they own this inequality or issue, but to provide them with a program that will challenge them regardless of this and provide them with independent role models.
Opportunity Challenges: Similar to above, opportunities for girls to empower each other are few and far between. This could be due to a lack of qualified female coaches and/or a lack of athletically minded girls themselves.
Girls who are strong together are strong themselves. All three challenges tie together and feed off of each other. So how can we encourage girls to reach their full powerful potential in sports without creating an environment that assumes low self-confidence and weakness?
Strong girls lead strong girls: From the first moment you put on the jersey or pick up the ball or line up at the start line, girls are role models. We are all role models. Whether we are five years old or fifty years old, the responsibility to be a strong role model lies within all of us. An environment rolling with strong and independent women will create even stronger girls. Strength means acknowledging failure and triumph equally. This environment will encourage hard work and perspiration just as much as it will encourage positivity and humility.
Opportunities that are not there must be made: Creating the foundation for a girls program is difficult and is met with several challenges, some which we have little control over. These can include financial, demographic and geographical issues. However despite this there is support in this area if you know where to look. Dedication to the research associated with beginning a program is what coaches are all about, but can be made even more meaningful if young people take it upon themselves too.
Encouraging families: Parents imprint a lot on kids. I have met athletes who choose to only meet the bar because if they go past the bar they know their parents will become overly involved and kids know that this is not right and it will no longer be about them. On a more unfortunate note, some girls are made to believe that sweating or having muscles is not feminine. Often it is through subtle comments by parents that we realize this. Kids pick up on this stuff. Setting fitness goals as an adult is important. Encouraging your girls to keep at a sport is important.
Expect accountability and responsibility: From an early age explain that being on a team or in a sport is a responsibility. Sure, it is about fun too but what ends up happening if emphasis is only made on this idea? Kids will quit when it stops being fun for a moment and they meet a challenge. You are registered on a team, see it through to the end of the season. It does not matter your skill level. When a parent lets a child opt-out halfway because of insecurities, they are indirectly supporting their child’s doubts and this teaches the child that the answer is to stop.
Being part of a team and belonging to a sport can take girls a lot of places. They will travel and learn independence and build life-long relationships while doing it. They will learn how to manage conflict and work with people. Most importantly, they will be role models. Encourage your girls to keep at it even through social challenges. Having a heart for sport is a beautiful thing and embracing it will only grow a stronger young woman with confidence and ability.