Monday, August 06, 2012
In the midst of the Olympics we all have the opportunity to watch incredible athletes compete, overcome adversity, deal with defeats and celebrate victories. Less than 35 years ago only 24.6 percent of the Olympic athletes were women. This Olympics, the number is nearly double at 46.4 percent. And with the addition of boxing for women, females can compete in all the events men can. For the first time ever, women outnumber men in the U.S. contingent. While the U.S. Men’s Soccer team failed to qualify for the Olympics, the U.S. Women’s team has rolled into the finals with dramatic victories.
Yet in the U.S. we lose female players from sports at an alarming rate. By age 14, girls abandon sports at twice the rate of boys. Overall, girls end up quitting sports at six times the rate of boys. The Center for Disease Control collected statistics comparing the participation of girls and boys in sports finding that only 25 percent of girls participate in a sport or regular exercise by their senior year in high school compared to 50 percent of boys. Despite the institution of Title IX in 1972 which requires equality in the implementation of athletic programs and scholarships for women in college, many schools struggle every year to find qualified female athletes to fill their athletic programs. While top female athletes will always aspire to be Olympic and national team competitors, sports programs aren’t just for the elite. Staying with sports provides both female and male athletes with significant social and moral support which can help create strong, confident adults. Studies have shown reduced teen pregnancies among female athletes, more positive body image, better grades and, of course, a healthier lifestyle.
What can explain this desertion? Foremost is that age-old problem of gender-typing. Boys are often expected to participate in sports and encouraged to aim for high school and college participation. Girls experience pressure to play a different role as they mature. Sports can be considered unfeminine and girls who continue to play, especially at an intense level, can be ostracized by the popular groups. Male athletes on the other hand are often idolized in their schools. Even the styles of teen girls can interfere with playing sports. Wearing heels hurt posture, alter foot and ankle movement and can lead to ankle and knee injuries. Yet what girl can resist the siren call of fashion? Families can end up supporting sons who want to play sports and unconscientiously giving their daughters support to be "beautiful" and stylish. Buying team jerseys for boys and jewelry for daughters sends a clear message of which role the girls should be playing.
Girls tend to be less conditioned to deal with the tough and often rude coaching that comes with advancing in sports. Boys are taught to put up with abusive coaching, while girls get the message that they can be more emotional. One of the top reasons girls cited in a 1988 study for quitting sports was bad coaching. I’ve talked about how I think youth coaches are often too gruff and sometimes even insulting, however we aren’t going to be able to get rid of that type of coach. We need to help our children, both sons and daughters, develop coping skills. Providing our daughters with the support to work through bad situations rather than sympathizing and coddling could make the difference in sticking with sports or cashing in.
Finally, girls continue to need role models. Sports heroes for boys are epidemic. Ads tout male sport icons on a continual basis so that their names become part of the daily lexicon: Bryant, Brady, Rogers, Manning, Fielder. While some women athletes have reached a level of recognition equal to the men, they tend to burst onto the scene during major sporting events and then fade, while male athletes are year round and off-season. When Gabby Douglas won the gold medal for all-round female gymnast, Bob Costas made a point about her being the first African-American to achieve that status. His final comment was that perhaps her accomplishment would make other young African-American females believe that they could enter the sport and succeed. My immediate thought: I hope that Gabby will be an inspiration to all girls to push themselves to realize their goals, whether in sports or in life. Our daughters need those role models to see that participating in sports can augment their lives and allow them to be both healthy and beautiful.
Recently Gatorade began a program called "Keep Her in the Game" for Title IX. If you have been watching the Olympics, you’ve probably seen the video. Unfortunately the video seems to be all that the program encompasses. I do applaud Gatorade for making commercials which feature female athletes exclusively. The one with Abby Wambach is particularly strong showing Abby as overcoming fatigue and danger as she scouts her opponent like a lioness hunting prey. However, it is exactly this killer attitude which also turns off young women who see it as an unfeminine trait. Girls aren’t as much about winning at all costs as they are about socializing and compromising to keep the peace. Much of that attitude comes from the gender roles that are endemic to our society. While boys are encouraged to be competitive, tough out injuries, be aggressive and to win, girls are encouraged to cooperate, be polite, sacrifice and to have a good appearance. Unless they can visualize that being athletic isn’t incompatible with being feminine they will continue to leave sports.
In an interview before the Olympics, Abby Wambach was asked about the generation of players coming up in women’s soccer who are challenging Abby for her dominating position on the women’s team. "In the timeline of a career, you can only hope that when you’re done playing you made a positive impact. For the most part it’s a ‘pay it forward’ kind of feeling. I want to be sure that the opportunities that are there after I’m gone are much more than when I first arrived." It remains frustrating in women’s sports that the opportunities in fact are improving, but girls are still leaving sports in droves. While Abby, Gabby, Lolo, Missy and other incredible female athletes continue to expand the boundaries of women’s sports, we need to improve the participation. Title IX opened doors, but all it could offer was the destination for young female athletes. What we need now are programs that define and encourage the journey. We can’t do a wholesale change of gender roles as created by marketing and generations of traditions, but we can individually help our daughters see the advantages and joys of participating in sports. We can call them beautiful when they put on their uniforms, we can support their interests with the same intensity that we do with our sons, we can encourage them to work through their doubts, insecurities and discomfort to tough out just one more season, and we can make sports cool by our support on the sidelines. Our attitude can go a long ways to help our daughters stick with it and enjoy the experience. Few of them will reach the heights of the elite female athletes, but few of our sons will do likewise. Yet we want to see them continue in the sport of their choice because it provides not only a source of pride for the player and the family but a chance to develop life-long healthy habits and important life lessons. Girls should have the same experience because, after all, they rule!