Wednesday September 23 2020
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Girls, Sports and Self-Esteem

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It must be frustrating for a parent… your daughter, who at age six or seven was active, self-assured and confident, now at age ten seems to be more self-conscious and is constantly comparing how she looks to other girls.

Studies show that as girls move from grade school to middle school, their self-esteem drops significantly. Generally, boys are not affected as dramatically as girls in this loss of self-esteem as they mature. Why does this happen? What can parents do to help their daughters make the transition to the pre-teen and teen years while keeping their self-esteem in tact?

A 1998 study by the Women’s Sports Foundation shows that girls drop out of sports at a rate six times higher than boys as they move from grade school to middle school. Could participating in athletics help young girls maintain their self-esteem?

As it turns out – yes.

“Playing sports allows girls to have a presence and a voice,” says Agnus Berenato, head women’s basketball coach at the University of Pittsburgh. “It makes them competitors. Being surrounded by a team, a coach, a mentor all working for the same goal helps girls learn to take charge and feel successful.”

The lessons in teamwork and leadership, and the social network a team provides all positively impact self-esteem.

“When you surround yourself with people who have the same interests as you, and you’re all willing to come together several afternoons a week to practice, you just have to be more productive than girls sitting inside in front of the television or on the computer,” Berenato continues. “Playing sports helps girls develop better social skills and makes them more determined to succeed.”

Dr. Paul Friday, Chief of Clinical Psychology at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Shadyside, says, “Participating on a sports team can help to balance the cruelty of school for girls. It helps balance the natural tendency girls that age have to include and exclude other girls. The team becomes the girls’ social group, something to anchor themselves to.”  

Berenato adds, “For me, one of the most important parts of practice is when we stretch and warm up. It’s a time when the girls can gab and chat and find out what’s happening with each other. It helps them feel connected to each other.”

As girls get older, they appear to tie self-esteem to not only physical appearance but physical competence as well. Athletics can be a way to put the emphasis more on physical ability and not appearance.

A unique program created with that idea in mind and developed specifically to help girls gain the confidence and self-esteem they need during those critical years is Girls on the Run.

Meredith Colaizzi, the Girls on the Run Program Coordinator for Magee-Women’s Hospital, describes the program like this: “Girls on the Run is geared toward girls ages eight through thirteen and is designed to take them through the journey of self discovery.”

The program combines training for a 3.1 mile running event with self-esteem enhancing, uplifting workouts.

Colaizzi continues, “It’s a twelve week program where the girls learn to run and gain confidence in other areas: standing up for themselves, self-respect, healthy eating habits, and general lifelong healthy habits. We work on values, emotional and physical well-being, teamwork, conflict resolution, and decision making.”

Every class has a lesson and the curriculum focuses on making good, healthy choices.

Colaizzi explains, “During the warm-up part of the class, each team has scenario cards. For example, one might be ‘what would you do if you were at a slumber party and were offered a cigarette.’ The girls work through these various scenarios to decide what the best choice is.”

Lynda Haitz’s daughter Nina recently participated in the Girls on the Run program offered through her elementary school in Fairfax County, Virginia.

“As a parent, I loved the philosophy behind it,” says Haitz. “The girls pushed themselves to do well. I liked that it was not focused solely on competition but also on helping the girls get in touch with themselves. The girls had the opportunity to talk about things they really don’t in a classroom. Some of the shyer girls, girls who may not feel they have a voice in the classroom, felt more comfortable to share their emotions in this environment.

“For the girls, it was a real sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ as they worked toward their goal of participating in the run,” Haitz continues. “Nina was very proud of herself and felt a real sense of accomplishment. And she is excited to be part of it again this fall.”

Adds Dr. Friday, “The benefit of athletics is that girls learn to combine their brains and their bodies. Any extracurricular activity, really, the sense of being involved, helps to project forward a healthy balance of using both the psyche and body.”

Does this translate to real-life, tangible success? Consider some of the finding from the 1998 Women’s Sports Foundation study of more than 30,000 girls comparing athletes to non-athletes. Among their findings were that athletes were more likely to:

*Graduate from high school (three times more likely)
*Attend college and obtain bachelor’s degree
*Not become invo
lved with drugs (92% less likely)
*Not become pr
egnant (80% less likely)
*Score well on achievement tests
*Be involved in other extracurricular activities
*Feel “popular” among one’s peers
*Stay involv
ed in sports as an adult
*Aspire to community involvement


There are, of course, other, more difficult to measure successes as well. As Berenato says, “The most important lesson playing sports can teach a young girl is this: Whatever happens to you on the court, or on the field, or in the pool; the same thing will happen to you in real life. You think the coach is not fair; you’re going to think your parents are not fair. You think the ref made a bad call; you’ll think your teacher made a mistake. But, through sports, you can learn life-long coping skills. You persevere – you get knocked down – but you get back on your feet and strive to achieve.”

And, ultimately, that’s all anyone could want for their daughter.

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