If you were BFFs with your soccer ball growing up, currently parked field-side at your daughter’s practice, or just generally curious how we can further empower the next generation to be badass leaders (aren’t we all?)—then you may have noticed that there’s something going on with girls and sports.
Specifically, a lot of good things. And according to Girls Leadership co-founder and CEO Simone Marean, you’re not wrong.
“We see the evidence of the long-term impact of sports through the high percentages of women in leadership who played sports in high school and college,” Marean says. “These women talk about the confidence they gained through sports, the grit they cultivated in early morning practices and drills, and the resilience that comes from inevitable losses.”
So if participation in sports is the ultimate boss-babe hack, shouldn’t girls be lining up to get on the field/court/turf? Not so, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, which found that girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys by the age of 14.
Together, Athleta and Girls Leadership are doing something about it. The two powerhouses are joining forces to promote girls voices both on the field and off in an effort to get girls involved in movement and fitness. By doing so, the thinking goes, we can create a whole generation of fearless women.
For Girls Leadership educator Lisa Wittner, that mission starts at home. As a Zumba instructor and all-around active person, she models by example to her 14-year-old daughter, Kaila.
And her kids notice the mental effects. “I’m in a walking group with some women, and my daughter always says, ‘Mom you’re always in such a good mood because you get to talk to your girlfriends, and get some exercise,'” says Lisa.
To pass the ball onward, we teamed up with Athleta to get Wittner and Marean’s best advice on encouraging girls to stay in the game now—and reap the benefits as adults.
Scroll down for the 3 main lessons girls can learn from sports—and what we collectively can do to inspire confidence in Gen Z (and beyond).
1. Sports teach perserverance
When Kaila was in sixth grade, she decided to quit soccer. After starting at a new school where she didn’t know many of the other girls, she was nervous about joining a new squad.
Instead of forcing Kaila to follow through with her commitment with a “because I said so” lecture, Lisa gave her a choice: Try two or three practices, and if she still hated it she could quit then—or go hand her uniform back to her coach, and tell him she was quitting. Either way, she had to do it herself.
“I wanted her to step up in some way,” Lisa says. “I felt like she was giving up on herself and would be missing out on a really great opportunity. I don’t want her fear to ever stop her from trying something.”
“I don’t want her fear to ever stop her from trying something.”
Kaila chose option one, and after begrudgingly admitting she had fun at her first practice, she decided to keep playing. The payoff for her perseverance? She went on to become one of the team’s top scorers that year, and her teammates became some of her best friends.
Now as she prepares to start high school soccer, Kaila is thankful for that experience because of the major boost in confidence it gave her. “Now just knowing that I can do that kind of thing again and I can put myself out there has helped me realize I shouldn’t be afraid,” she says.
2. Sports promote the whole girl (not just appearances)
With constant selfies, magazine spreads, and commercials telling girls that appearances are what matter, Lisa was also glad Kaila had an outlet that taught her to embrace imperfection.
“With social media there is so much cultivating of an image and perfecting who they are before they post something,” Lisa says of girls Kaila’s age. “To do something where you’re not going to be perfect—and that’s okay—is so important.”
Running around the soccer field covered in sweat and grass stains is pretty much the opposite of a carefully filtered Instagram photo, and the behavior that accompanies it is another reason Lisa is pro-girls sports.
“To do something where you’re not going to be perfect—and that’s okay—is so important.”
“They’re out there sweaty, dirty, and messy, and they’re being assertive and aggressive and competitive,” Lisa says. “I think [those qualities are] not often cultivated for girls.”
According to Marean, the best way to get girls to buy into this philosophy is by showing them you do, too. “The most fun way that we can encourage our girls to play sports is to join and support them,” she says. We can throw a ball around, go for a swim, ride a bike. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are more inclined to do those activities with our boys. What we do carries far more weight than what we say.”
3. Sports teach strength
When Kaila comes home from soccer practice, Lisa says she can tell how much taller and stronger her daughter holds herself, even compared to after a regular day at school.
“One of the most valuable things about sports for girls is helping them feel strong in their bodies,” she says. “Being physical through sports can really help them feel strong and empowered physically, and learn to treat their bodies with care and respect, rather than shame and fear.”
Speaking of fear, it’s not exactly surprise that the majority of girls decide to take a pass on sports by age 14—and Lisa feels that more education around puberty and development could go a long way. She recommends that adults and pro athletes speak out more against this stigma.
Lastly, if the mainstream options aren’t appealing, Marean suggests introducing girls to sports like martial arts, dance, yoga, roller derby, or rock climbing to encourage them to find an activity they connect with.
Photos: Tim Gibson for Well+Good
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