Lia recently turned ten. She’s a textbook “tween” and notices everything. In the spring she signed up for fall soccer, but after a fun summer with her friends, she isn’t looking forward to it any more. She told her mom that she wants to quit the team. Soccer, Lia explained, is too serious. She isn’t the best, or even one of the best players—so what’s the point?
Lia’s decision by itself isn’t noteworthy, but her choices and her reasons are part of a larger movement of tween and teen girls to opt out of sports. By age 14, girls drop out of sports at two times the rate of boys. For too many girls this isn’t just a choice based off of social pressures, or conflicting options, but one made for them by lack of program availability, transportation, registration fees, or uniforms costs.
What if our girl just isn’t the sporty type?
As parents and caregivers, we face endless daily choices: which of our kids’ decisions are theirs’ to make, and which might be less negotiable? When we consider the long-term impact of sports participation on girls’ development, it feels worth flexing our parental muscle to set strong, clear expectations.
Some of us, especially those of us who didn’t grow up playing sports, might look at our culture’s obsession with sports and ask why sports has to be the answer for all girls. What if our girl just isn’t the sporty type?
There is clearly no one activity out there to inoculate our girls against the loss of voice and confidence that too often accompanies adolescence, but engaging in sports gives girls a unique opportunity to build important habits. This can be critical in a culture that rewards girls for being liked, small, sweet, collaborative, and cute – all before they even start kindergarten.
Five of the top skills girls can acquire through sports:
1. Healthy Body Image – Girls and women who play sports have a more positive body image and experience higher states of psychological well-being than girls and women who do not play sports.
2. Growth Mindset – Growth mindset teaches us that performance is improved by effort, rather than talent. People with Growth Mindset are drawn to challenges and persist despite setbacks. Yes, please.
3. Ability to Hear Criticism – Hearing criticism is crucial for growth, but if kids aren’t practiced at hearing it, they often perceive criticism to be about them as a person, not about what they did.
4. Practice Not Being Polite – In many cultures, girls are raised to be polite and care for others, but who rewards them for putting their needs or goals first, being loud, or taking up someone else’s space? Sports rewards them.
5. Having Fun With her Sisters – The insecurity of middle school can bring out the worst in girls and boys alike, but, with the right coach, team sports can be an amazing bubble where girls support one another, know each other’s strengths and discover the power of authentic sisterhood.
So how can we gently, but effectively, keep reluctant girls in the game?
Here are three tips:
1. Let her find her right fit, or right level.
Doing sports doesn’t always mean playing soccer or basketball. In order for her to stick with a sport long-term, she needs to enjoy it. Help your girl find the sport that works for her temperament, body type, and skill set. By supporting your girls’ decision to change sports, or even coaches within a sport, you are teaching your girl to respect her internal voice—a skill that will serve her in countless decisions throughout her lifetime.
Explore different kinds of sport dynamics—physically aggressive group sports, vs. zone sports, vs. individual sports. While some options demand that kids start early, others, like volleyball, are more welcoming to the natural exploration of the middle school years. For young people, sports can feel like all or nothing, champion or quitter, but often there is an option in high school to change levels, and enjoy the club instead of investing in the demands of varsity.
2. Support her breasts.
Last spring in the New York Times, Jan Hoffman highlighted a study from the Journal of Adolescent Health that found 75% of girls 11 – 17 had a breast-related concern related to exercise. The most seemingly obvious, but totally overlooked, reason to drop sports during puberty, “as cup size increases, physical activity decreases for a lot of girls.” While many of us think about getting the girl in our life her first bra, just as important is her first sports bra. More than half of the girls surveyed had never worn one!
3. Walk the talk.
It is pretty hard to hold the line in regards to sports, if we don’t ourselves commit to physical activity in our own lives. In order to pull out the, “In this family, we participate in sports to take care of ourselves,” card, we have to follow our own advice. This isn’t easy when we are juggling cooking, working, cleaning, aging parent care, etc.
We have two recommendations if you are looking to support your girls in this way.
First, participate in physical activity for yourself. If she is in middle school, she is old enough to make herself breakfast or dinner during your walk or trip to the Y. You get to role model both asking for support and taking care of yourself — two skills you want in her future.
Second, commit to playing together. If competitive sports aren’t her jam, she can kick a soccer ball around the park with you, toss a football for fun, go to the Y for open swim, or take the leap to embarrass yourselves together at Zumba.
She doesn’t have to play varsity to reap the benefits of sports, and, likewise, you don’t have to have to be a pro at everything you do with her. If sports “isn’t your thing”, it will be even more impactful for her to see you commit to practicing in an area where you don’t excel. When you invest the time and energy to hold up the expectation that she keep playing, you send her the message that she deserves to discover her strength, her potential, and the joy of play.
Read more from Girls Leadership:
on Parenting by Simone Marean on Sports
Read one mom’s story of cultivating her daughter’s love of swimming.