45% of Girls Drop Out of Sports by Age 14—Dove and Nike Are Teaming Up To Change That

Photo: Getty Images/Adam Hester
The first few years of teenhood are straight-up torture. Between changing bodies, raging hormones, and figuring out WTF to do with a tampon, most young women (my former self included) spend a lot of their energy simply trying to navigate puberty and the drama that comes around with it. So though it may not be surprising that, according to new research done by Nike and Dove, 45 percent of teenage girls drop out of sports because of body confidence concerns—twice the rate of boys the same age—it is concerning.

This statistic is problematic because 56 percent of the girls who quit say that they were "mocked, criticized, and bullied because of their body size." And that choice has implications that can last a lifetime. According to the Women's Sports Foundation, young women who participate in sports have higher confidence, lower risk of depression, and higher grades than those who do not. What's more, the skills they learn on the field—teamwork, healthy competition, losing with grace—can help set them up for professional success.

Case in point? According to a 2020 study, 94 percent of female executives played sports (over half of them did so at the collegiate level), and 74 percent of all executives believe playing sports helps women progress faster in the workplace.

That's all to say, we need to keep girls in the game—and Dove and Nike have teamed up to do exactly that.

The two brands have come together with the help of world-renowned experts from the Centre for Appearance Research (CAR) and the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport to launch the “Body Confident Sport” coaching program, a free online platform that gives coaches the tools they need to instill confidence in their young female athletes.

“Globally, girls face complex cultural and social barriers, and they also enter sports later and drop out of sports earlier. Our partnership with Dove and unique focus on coaching through body confidence aims to change that," Vanessa Garcia-Brito, Nike's chief social and community impact officer, said in a statement. "Together, we’re taking action to break barriers by providing coaches with the tools to empower girls with a lifetime of confidence. By shifting the conversation from what their bodies look like to what their bodies can do—so more girls can stay in sports and experience the benefits—we believe we’re creating the next generation of female leaders and changemakers who will move the world forward.”

"By shifting the conversation from what their bodies look like to what their bodies can do...we believe we're creating the next generation of female leaders and changemakers." —Vanessa Garcia-Brito

The program took two years to develop, and, in clinical trials with more than 1,200 girls aged 11 to 17, was scientifically proven to improve girls' self-esteem and body confidence. The result is a series of digital courses in seven languages that "coaches" (which, as the website notes, includes actual coaches as well as physical education teachers, strength and conditioning trainers, athletic directors, referees, parents, and caring adults) can use to learn how to create a more positive environment for "athletes" (aka "anyone who moves their body in a way that makes them feel comfortable and confident—whatever their age, gender, body type, or ability").

According to Nike and Dove's research, 83 percent of girls in the US say that their coach was the reason they felt more confidence, and 61 percent say they would be interested in hearing from coaches about body confidence education. So it's clear this focus on coaching has the power to make a real difference.

The idea is that by teaching young women about what their bodies can do instead of what they look like, they'll feel empowered on the field and beyond. “In sports, girls often face a tremendous amount of pressure—not just around performance and abilities, but also because of unrealistic expectations around their appearances," tennis star Venus Williams, one of the athletes tapped to be a part of the program, said in a statement. "I am excited to be working with Dove on this initiative to help nurture girls’ self-belief and confidence, foster a positive environment, and shift the conversation from appearance to capability. Our shared goal is to make sports a more inclusive, welcoming space for girls everywhere.”

I recently had the chance to see the Body Confident Sport programming in action at the Santa Monica Boys & Girls Club, where a group of editors and I played basketball with pre-teen girls under the guidance of coach Marti Reed. We were instructed to steer clear of any language that even touched on the athletes' appearances, and told to replace phrases like "looking good out there!" with more strength-focused language like "that was such a strong pass" and "great shot." We played games with varying levels of competition, all of which were designed to bring small groups of us together and make us feel like a real, unstoppable team.

Though we only got a small taste of what the initiative has to offer, it left a big impact. After the 45-minute session, a few of the girls volunteered to share how they were feeling: One said she felt "empowered, even though she didn't make any baskets;" and two others said they were appreciative of the experience and felt confident in themselves regardless of how they performed. When the editors got together to talk about the experience, there was one shared sentiment that reigned supreme: We wish this had been around when we were younger.

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