How important are organized sports to raising a strong, confident girl? Not really, and I’m asking because my daughter has fought off my best efforts to engage her in ballet, soccer, baseball, basketball and karate. She did stick with karate for a while, but toward the end she managed to find a place for herself sitting on the side as the teacher’s assistant.
She’s very active, but on her own terms, leaving me to coerce, drag, and bribe her onto fields and courts for the last two years. She’s not interested. On the soccer field she chased bugs and picked flowers. At baseball she dropped the bat mid practice and went to the playground, and in ballet she came out of class halfway through and declared, “I am just not a ballerina.” During my latest epic fail, as my son calls it, I enrolled her in a tennis camp. By day 3 we had the following conversation:
Her: I am not going to tennis today.
Me: Why not?
Her: I have to run when they tell me to run. Why should I run if I don’t want to? I like to run when I want to run.
Me: But you’re all signed up and paid for. You can learn how to play tennis!! Meet friends! Running is good for you all the time!
Her: I have friends. I’m not going.
Me: Ice cream afterwards?
I always participated in sports, falling into the category of ‘A for effort.’ But I never minded. I liked being part of a team. I prefer organized exercise, and, as an introvert, it was a great way to socialize while not having to stand still, stare at someone and make constant conversation. I have never insisted, and don’t expect, kids who qualify for travel teams and win scholarships. But an organized sport, any sport (ping pong welcome!), seems to be a key part of a girl’s development as the headlines say about studies screaming across every parenting website and throwing me into a panic.
And this isn’t recent news. Reports over the past decade have consistently shown that sports and health, academics and job placement, are directly related for both girls and boys. Although no one could say for a number of years whether it was that kids more likely to focus on academics would also do sports or if it was the sports driving the academic success.
That was until Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, released a study showing that it is in fact the sports that are helping girls do well.
“It’s not just that the people who are going to do well in life play sports, but that sports help people do better in life,” she told The New York Times who reported on the study. “While I only show this for girls, it’s reasonable to believe it’s true for boys as well.”
A separate study mentioned in the same article, conducted by Robert Kaestner, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, showed a direct link between greater opportunities for girls to participate in sports (Title IX) and lower obesity rates in adulthood.
As a parent, I have seen sports help kids focus their energy, become confident, develop respect for the process of practice makes better which is key in an ever-increasing instant gratification society, and just learn how to win and lose gracefully. Karate has done wonders for my son’s self-esteem.
Can a girl get these core values somewhere else? And where do I go for that answer? My sister, Dr. Tracy McLoone, of course, who is on my speed dial for any child or outfit related issue. Thankfully, to appease the lazy journalist in me, she has spent years studying how girls think, has a PhD, taught university-level courses in global women's leadership, and written and completed research on girls and media.
Her bottom line is to chill out. Organized sports aren’t the only way girls can help their self-esteem along. For some kids, that just isn’t the path that comes naturally, or for that matter, is best for them.
She explains, “It is easy to see how organized sports might help to promote self-esteem in girls, but they're certainly not the only way. Positive self esteem is an attitude we can build with practice; if self esteem is owning our value when we achieve and when we don’t excel - and learning how not to think of ourselves as permanent failures when we try something and completely mess up - there are many other activities through which to promote self esteem. Some examples: fine arts, science experiments, plant care, financial savvy, creative writing and cooking. Not all girls will take to organized sports (or for that matter, organized anything), and sports don’t always need to be organized: some kids will find joy and pride in swimming, running, basketball - whatever - without all the trappings of uniforms and medals.”
So the bottom line seems to be that girls and sports are a fantastic combination, but if you have a girl not at all interested, don’t despair. There are other ways for her to develop a strong sense of worth.
For now, I will try to relax about her future and let her do the activities she wants to do. I will probably throw in the benefits of team sports into conversation once in a while just in case she changes her mind, but I have a feeling this is more of a personality trait rather than a phase. Maybe the self-esteem is already there in that she knows exactly who she is, and what she does and doesn’t want to do. As long as she keeps that, I think we’ll be fine.
By Suzette Lohmeyer