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Girls and Sports -- A Winning Combination




Husband-and-wife team Gil Reavill and Jean Zimmerman, authors of Raising Our Athletic Daughters: How Sports Can Build Self-Esteem and Save Girls' Lives, explain why girls and sports are a winning combination and what you can do to level the playing fields for the girls in your life.



In Raising Our Athletic Daughters: How Sports Can Build Self-Esteem and Save Girls' Lives, husband-and-wife author team Gil Reavill and Jean Zimmerman demonstrate how sports empower girls and create positive self-identity. "If Ophelia had been on the swim team," they wrote, referring to Mary Pipher's book "she might not have needed reviving." Education World chatted with Reavill and Zimmerman about why sports are so important for girls and how educators and parents can help girls develop the skills and confidence to play and compete.

Education World: Why did you choose to write about girls and sports?

Jean Zimmerman: Part of the reason we chose to write about girls and sports was personal. We have an elementary school-age daughter who is extremely active -- loves to play soccer and basketball, swim, do gymnastics and just generally run around. When we began to read the work of thinkers like Mary Pipher, as parents we were naturally concerned about the future emotional and psychological and physical health of our own kid. At the same time, just before we began working on our book, there was a groundswell of interest in professional women's sports -- the Olympics, the WNBA, etc. We wondered What link could be established between the two areas -- girls' self-esteem and their physical activity? We looked around at the research, and though it was encouraging, we saw a lack of documentation on a one-to-one, face-to-face level -- in other words, very few people were going out to talk to girls themselves about their own experiences and feelings. So that's what we decided to do.

EW: Do you see sports as equal to the other potentially soul-saving activities Mary Pipher refers to, such as a deep interest in the arts or a political cause, or do sports stand apart in some way?

Gil Reavill: We encounter variations of this question all the time. "My daughter is really into chess -- she's passionate about it. Do I drag her away from the chessboard to go play soccer?" Anything that kids are passionate about can be good for their self-esteem. Self-esteem is not something that can be "given" to a girl, fairy-godmother-like, at the wave of a wand. Self-esteem comes from working at something and getting better at it. So chess, Irish step-dancing, drawing -- they all can fit the bill. That said, athletic participation does have a crucial element especially good for girls. Studies have shown that girls in sports tend to score higher on tests that measure positive body image. Athletic participation can let girls experience what their bodies can do, in contrast to the social emphasis on how girls' bodies look. So many of the problems associated with female adolescence, such as eating disorders, self-mutilation, drug and alcohol abuse, key into how girls feel about their bodies. Participation in sports seems to help them develop positive body image.

EW: I was struck by your explanation of how the development of physical abilities -- the simple process of learning a contralateral, or opposite-side, overhand throw, for example -- can be arrested through insidious messages very young girls pick up about gender-appropriate behaviors. Are there toys, activities, or attitudes that might seem innocuous to parents and early educators that in fact deliver destructive messages to young girls?

Zimmerman: It's not that any "girl" toys -- such as makeup sets or Barbie dolls or ultra-feminine dress-up clothes for fantasy play -- in themselves are bad, but when we give little girls the option of playing with those things exclusively, we shortchange them. Girls too want active, rough-and-tumble play, but they won't kick or throw a ball if they don't have a ball to play with. There is another element too: Girls, just like boys, need to develop the skills of throwing, catching, kicking in order to enjoy playing later on in team competition. If a kid gets out on the field and her friends know how to do the basic things and she doesn't, she's likely to feel bad, and her enthusiasm will probably be somewhat dampened. Then she is more likely to quit.

EW: Why are noncompetitive sports important for girls' development in the early years?

Zimmerman: We are living at a time when there is less and less unorganized, informal, unsupervised play by little kids -- neighborhood pick-up games, just fooling around ... and that's too bad.

Reavill: I believe there is too much emphasis on competition too early on. Every survey of kids that asks why they play sports lists "having fun" as number one -- and "winning" never makes the top ten. But there is a hidden message here. "Having fun" does not necessarily mean kids are not learning valuable lessons. In fact, "fun" for a young child -- and an older one, for that matter -- often means trying something and getting better at it. And this is what a good sports experience for a younger child is all about.

EW: There seem to be two different approaches to girls' sports beyond the elementary school years. Girls can continue to participate and play simply for the fun of it, or they can enter the realm of more serious competition. What are the advantages and possible shortcomings or pitfalls of each approach?

Zimmerman: Some girls just want to compete. We spoke with teen athletes aspiring to an elite level in their field who were driven by a love of excelling -- and of winning. They wanted to be the best at their sport; they would not settle for less. And their competitiveness was central to the pleasure they took in physical activity. That is not an image that our generation -- fortysomething -- necessarily grew up with. Some people our age are not comfortable with the idea that girls can be just as competitive as boys. But in many cases it's true, and we're just going to have to readjust our expectations.

Reavill: It's important to realize that in raising an athletic daughter, even one who wants to play just for the fun of it, you must offset a whole barrage of anachronistic social messages that say that girls shouldn't play sports -- messages that are still potent even today. So the girls who approach sports casually might tend to drop out, and might need encouragement to stay involved. For the more serious athletes, the "professionalization" of high school sports is something we as a society need to decry, not just in girls programs. It ruins the fun for little kids -- and even bigger sisters -- if it is too competitive. Everyone has horror stories of inappropriate adult behavior at Little League games or on the sidelines at a soccer game. Adults need to find a happy medium between encouragement and overinvolvement.

EW: Speaking of the "professionalization" of high school sports, in most schools, girls have to be fairly skilled to get on the varsity teams. What other avenues are open to girls who want to continue to play for fun?

Reavill: We need to have more opportunities for girls who want to play just for the fun of it -- club sports, intramural sports, junior varsity. Title IX cracked the door open, and now sports for girls who play at elite levels are beginning to be well served. Let's give that sector of female athletics -- the varsity level -- a solid C. But for other girls, who don't play at the varsity level but still want to get out there, our nation's schools rate at best a D minus.

EW: Many girls you spoke with had quite a functional "I'm in control" sense about their own bodies. Yet you devote some serious space in the book to life-threatening eating disorders -- a real and persistent problem among participants in certain sports such as swimming, gymnastics, and distance running. How can coaches and parents encourage girls in those sports and help them avoid the damaging triggers to weight and body-image preoccupations?

Reavill: The so-called body sports are the ones where athletes are most at-risk for eating disorders -- they include swimming, tennis, and gymnastics -- any sport where girls' bodies seem in some way to be exposed or on display. But as more scholarship money filters into girls' sports and the stakes are raised, certain pernicious attitudes and practices have started to become widespread. We have heard of high school volleyball programs, for example, that use body-fat measurements as part of their training regimen. We feel this is wrong-headed and potentially injurious to the athletes involved.

EW: From early childhood on, there are persistent problems in providing girls with "maximum access and opportunity" to sports. How should educators and parents teach boys to be part of the solution? Are coed sports the answer?

Zimmerman: Boys are learning on their own -- in fact, boys are much more supportive of their athletic peers who are girls than parents in our generation may assume. As boys grow up today and see girls their age taking part in athletics as a natural everyday occurrence, they respect and admire the girls. So, yes, we should encourage boys and girls to play together from a young age, and even coed teams up through adolescence -- when there's a divergence of physical capabilities -- can be very positive, given fair coaching. Another factor that is really changing boys' attitudes is seeing high-achieving female athletes in the media. Boys are growing up now with posters of Sheryl Swoopes on their walls -- we think this will naturally translate into a more egalitarian view of women and men in other aspects of life.

EW: Can you give some hands-on advice to educators who want to see girls embrace and continue to play sports? What should schools do for adolescents right now?

Zimmerman: Give girls more options. Make sure facilities, playing times, uniforms, and field space is adequate. Look at what is going on in your school: Does the boys' team get new uniforms each year while the girls make do with hand-me-downs? Does the boys' team take the bus to events while the girls carpool? Do the boys use the gym on Friday nights -- when family and friends make up a good crowd -- while girls' games are scheduled for Wednesdays?

EW: Increased self-esteem, confidence, strong bodies, strong minds -- we all want those things for our daughters. You make an eloquent and compelling case for making sports an integral part of girls' lives. What are the three most important things a parent can do to raise an athletic daughter?

Reavill: The first thing is to teach your daughter to throw overhand. Next, get active yourself. Kids learn the most from watching their parents. Make physical activity a family affair, and turn off the TV! Finally, if your daughter displays less interest in one particular sport -- say, tennis -- don't jump to the conclusion she's just not athletic. Give her choices; have soccer balls, skateboards, field hockey gear -- to list just a few examples -- available. Consider sports equipment not as a special gift but as essential tools, like pencils and notebooks. Help her see that there is a whole world of athletic options out there!




The following organizations study and promote the involvement of girls and women in all types of sports and physical activities:

  • Melpomene Institute Through research, publications, and education, this organization helps girls and women of all ages link physical activity and health.


  • Women's Sports Foundation This national, nonprofit, member-based organization is dedicated to increasing opportunities for girls and women in sports and fitness through education, advocacy, recognition, and grants.

Leslie Bulion
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World



Originally published 05/2000
Links updated 05/25/2007