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Girls in sports: ’Like A Girl’ has never been more important

Gender equity in sports is still lacking, but a mom wants to make sure her son sees women as powerful athletic role models, and that he never learns 'Like A Girl' to mean anything other than powerful.

I was a Bobcat in my earliest sports experience. That was our team name. I wore a bright orange jersey and failed to stop the soccer ball on multiple occasions in my role on defense, but managed to collect an impressive amount of dandelions to deliver to my mom during halftime.

I would later become a Ranger, an Oriole, a Falcon, and a Ram, among other team mascots, as I shifted sports from soccer to softball, then softball to lacrosse, and eventually into collegiate ski racing. 

Now, when I see my husband and son at the end of a long distance road running race, I have no mascot, I am just Mom.  

I’ve never been a star athlete, but I have always considered sports integral to my development of leadership, teamwork, and organizational skills. This applies to my life in the workplace and at home wrangling a toddler.

I was fortunate to be raised with strong sports opportunities, including participating in co-ed teams. I would like to raise my son so that he doesn’t question why girls play, or how hard they play. 

I hope we are on the right track with me serving as one of his earliest athletic role models.

National Girls and Women in Sports Day (NGWSD) this week serves as a reminder that as far as we have come for gender equity in sports, there is still a ways to go, with perhaps no finish line in site.

Perhaps one proof is Always’ new “Like A Girl” ad unveiled during Sunday’s Super Bowl, which launches a direct hit at the derogatory phrase that stereotypes girls and their strength, or lack thereof. The short version of the ad asks individuals how to do things, like fighting or throwing “Like A Girl” then asks young girls - unfamiliar of the negative stereotype - how they would respond to that statement. The girls give it all they got, sprinting and hurling and showing strength. The phrase to them means to give something all the power they’ve got.

Now, I see some irony that in order to make the biggest impact for girls, the ad had to be unveiled during the biggest all-male televised sporting event of the year. I wouldn't expect the same impact to be made if the ad premiered during, say, a LPGA golf tournament on a quiet Saturday afternoon. But a feminine products brand getting the attention of 114 million television viewers and a power play for gender equity is a strategy any good sports coach could appreciate.

Much like the Always ad, NGWSD highlights that we need more girls to help turn the phrase “Like A Girl” into a something empowering.

According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, studies show that girls and women who participate in sports have better body image, more confidence, suffer less from depression, and experience higher states of well-being. Also, girls who participate in high school sports are more likely to avoid unintended pregnancies, earn higher grades, and made it to graduation more often then those who don’t play sport.

To celebrate the 29th anniversary of National Girls and Women in Sports Day, leaders in sports gathered in Washington Wednesday to talk about safety in sports, including concussions in athletes. According to the CDC, concussions for male and female athletes have increased 60 percent over the last years decade, prompting a closer look at keeping kids safe. 

When it comes to getting girls into sports, parents can start encouraging girls early and serve as the best models.

Brooke de Lench, founder of the MomsTEAM Institute, and author of the book “Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Team Sports” suggests parents encourage sports with their daughters at a young age. 

“Plant the athletic seed early. The trait of athleticism shouldn’t be assigned to just boys. Girls who become elite athletes often report being inspired and motivated to play sports early in life,” she writes in an email exchange.

When it comes to the timing of when to start, Ms. de Lench leaves that up to the parent to decide when the time is right. She is clear that when she says sports, that doesn’t necessarily mean organized sports. She suggests a good time to start with a team is not until at child is at least 6 or 7-years-old.

However, de Lench adds that girls not involved with team sports after the age of 10 have only a one in ten chance of being involved with athletics when they are 25.

When it comes to the benefits of sports, de Lench stresses that sports convey lessons important for women in a male-dominated world.

“Teach her the importance of athletics for success as an adult. Let her know that she may learn lessons in sports that she may not be able to learn anywhere else, lessons critical to later success in a male-dominated adult world (i.e. the military, politics, and business.),” she writes, adding, “Teach your daughter from an early age that competition in sports is a bridge to understanding competition in other aspects of life, like the business world. Remember that as a parent you are in a unique position to teach a balanced approach to sports: that an athlete can compete and care at the same time; care about her own ambition but care about the opposing team as well because they challenge her to do her best.”

She also encourages parents to illustrate for kids other ways to learn about winning and competition outside of sports, in extracurricular activities like music, drama, dance, or other hobbies.

And when it comes to playing sports, parents are great first models.

“Girls are more likely to play sports if parents are physically active," writes de Lench. "Instead of just watching your daughter play soccer, join an adult team." She says that parents can show their daughters how playing sports is something they can do their whole life to have fun and stay healthy. 

Some of my son’s first memories of sports will include me, and I hope that where he sees one strong female athlete, he’ll see that same strength in all female athletes. Even if he’s too busy picking dandelions during co-ed pee wee soccer to immediately notice. 

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