Over the last few years I’ve written a lot about efforts to improve equality between girls and boys when it comes to sports, and it seems to me that while things aren’t perfectly even, the battles over Title IX have largely been won in suburbs like mine.
Girls here have plenty of opportunities to play sports, from peewee softball to high school lacrosse. Ponytailed packs race along the running trail that’s close to my house, and I often hear the shouts of girls’ soccer teams playing in a nearby park.
It’s a great place to be a female athlete, no doubt about it, and if numerous research studies are correct, the girls who play sports will receive lifelong benefits. They’ll be healthier and more confident than nonathletes; they’ll do better in school and have happier home lives.
I want nothing less for my own daughter. So why can’t I get her to play?
Since she was tiny, she has shown absolutely no interest in sports. Oh, she’s plenty active, running around the backyard, splashing in the pool, dangling by her knees from the monkey bars in her elementary school playground. But bring a coach, teammates and spectators into the equation, and she wants nothing to do with it.
I wouldn’t be so worried about this if I hadn’t already seen how much her older brother has profited from participating in organized sports. He has learned to get along with other kids, to deal with praise and criticism, and to work hard. He’s also had a ton of fun and made dozens of friends.
Searching for suggestions, I spoke to a few experts in this field. The basic advice I received was that my wife and I should keep trying but not go overboard.
Irene Cucina, who trains future physical education teachers and coaches at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, said girls tend to be more sensitive than boys about their perceived skill at a sport and less likely to shrug off a bad play or a bad game. That can keep them off the field, or even taint their enjoyment of school PE classes.
“We find with junior high girls especially, most PE programs are sports-based,” Cucina said. “You add (aerobics) and dance, they absolutely love it. But you have them dribble a ball in front of their peers, they feel embarrassed because they don’t feel competent.”
She said parents can help their daughters deal with that anxiety by refraining from yelling at them during games, or by looking for sports that are more individual-oriented, such as swimming or track.
Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, said parents should emphasize physical activity itself, as the value of competitive sports has been oversold.
“I think we make assumptions that kids always get positive benefits out of sports participation, but that’s not true for all kids,” she said. “The benefits aren’t automatic for everybody. It depends a lot on the coach and the parent and the atmosphere that’s created.”
She said moms and dads should give their daughters a choice of sports and activities and make them choose one. If they pick a form of physical exertion that’s not a sport, that’s fine.
Kathryn Olson, CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said it can be helpful to look toward the sports played by a girl’s friends or to search for female athletes who can serve as an example.
“By age 14, we know girls drop out of sports at twice the rate boys do,” she said. “Sometimes that’s because of (a lack of) opportunity, but it’s also because they’re not seeing role models who are playing sports. They’re seeing the role model of the tall, skinny (model) on the magazine cover.”
Everyone I spoke with stressed that her advice was not gender-specific, even on the point of role models: Boys as well as girls benefit from female sports heroes. And it’s also true, they said, that no matter what parents do, some kids just aren’t into sports.
But I’m not ready to give up, especially because I’ve seen a few signs of hope. My daughter recently asked me to pitch her Wiffle balls in the backyard and spend some time on the tennis court. If I don’t go too crazy, maybe she’ll be ready to become part of an actual team sometime soon.
I hope so. She has been to plenty of her brother’s games, and it would do them both good to switch roles. If it ever happens, I promise to keep my mouth shut on the sidelines and just let her play.
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