The benefits of sports for girls are well-known. Sports teach girls commitment, respect for others, how to relax, concentrate under stress, set and achieve goals, accept responsibility and failure and be gracious winners.
Extensive research shows that physical activity and sport can enhance the mental, psychological and spiritual health of American girls and young women:
Better physical health
The health benefits of playing sports for girls are numerous:
- Better self-reported health. Regardless of grade level, a higher percentage of female athletes in the Women’s Sports Foundation 2008 Go Out and Play study dsecribed their health as “excellent” than non-athletes. While girls were less apt as they got older to describe their health that way, three times as many female high school athletes as non-athletes (20% and 6% respectively) labelled their health as excellent.
- Fewer chronic illnesses. Girls who play sports have stronger immune systems and run a reduced risk of chronic illnesses later in life such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, endometrial, colon and breast cancers
- Higher body esteem. As noted in the Women’s Sports Foundation’s 2008 study, Go Out and Play, “[G]irls are especially pushed by mass media to develop unrealistic ideal body images, and this can lead to unhealthy eating behaviors and personal dissatisfaction … [with a] Harvard Medical School survey of fifth- through 12th-grade girls [finding] … nearly six out of 10 were dissatisfied with their bodies.” The study found a positive relationship between athletics and body esteem among girls, with higher scores on body esteem more likely at all grade levels among girls who played three or more sports per year.
- Reduced risk of obesity. The acceleration of 12- to 17-year-old girls’ participation in school sports between 1971(before the passage of Title IX) and 1980 was accompanied by a 24% increase in physical activity and a significant decrease in the obesity rate of girls. Today, about three in 10 6- to 11-year olds and 12- to 19-year olds are overweight. Health experts estimate that obesity and sedentary lifestyles are responsible for over 400,000 deaths per year in America, and that inactivity and obesity in the current generation of girls is likely to result in significant health problems later in life. Obese children are also more likely to be bullied than their non-overweight peers. Girls who play sports are less obese than non-athletes. According to the Go Out and Play study, eighty percent of high school girls who played on three or more athletic teams had a healthy BMI (body mass index), compared with 75% of moderately involved athletes and 60% of non-athletes.
- Healthier menstruation: Girls who play sports have lighter and more regular periods and experience less cramping and discomfort.
- Stronger bones and reduced risk of osteoporosis.
- Reduced cigarette and illicit drug use, less sexual activity. Two national studies found that female school or community athletes are significantly less likely to use marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and hallucinogens. A 1998 study sponsored by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that female athletes were less than half as likely to become pregnant as non-athletes, more likely to abstain from sex through high school and use contraceptives. The protective effect of sports in this regard is particularly true for Caucasian girls.
Better grades in school
Playing sports help girls do better in school. Girls who play sports:
- Are better at organizing, setting priorities, and budgeting time. Playing sports adds to – not detracts from – a girl’s time, energy, and commitment to schoolwork and increases the desire to attend college.
- Perform better in math and science. A 1998 study found a strong and positive correlation between a girl’s participation in high school sports and higher grades in science.
- Have a lower dropout rate.A 2004 study found that sports participation reduces the dropout rate for female students in grades eight through twelve. High school athletic participation significantly lowers the dropout rate for white females in suburban and rural schools and Latina athletes in rural schools.
Better social life/more community involvement
Girls who play sports are more socially well-adjusted than girls who don’t:
- Entry into an achievement-based social network: Sports provide girls a core of buddies, integrating them, as Sandra Hanson and Rebecca Kraus, researchers at Catholic University argue, into male -type “networks that are larger, less intimate and more based on achievement” which are different from the small, intense friendship groups based on building and maintaining relationship to which young girls are naturally drawn. This type of network may give female athletes an edge, Hanson and Kraus argue, in other areas of achievement as well.
- Greater popularity among peers. Like male athletes, today’s female athletes are more popular. Sports can gain girls entry into the often complex social hierarchies of high school. The Go Out and Play study found popularity gains associated with involvement in sports were particularly evident among elementary and middle school children.
- More community involvement as adults. A recent study of Canadians found young people who play organized sports are more likely to be involved in community acitivies as adults.
Better emotional/psychological health
Playing sports helps girls emotionally and psychologically:
- Higher self-esteem. Teenage girls generally experience a self-esteem crisis far more serious than boys. Girls playing sports have higher self-esteem and look to relationships with boys less to build self-esteem. They say that sports give them more confidence.
- Better self-image. Female athletes obsess less about their looks and whether they are attractive, although this is not always the case. High school girls find participation in sports a way to break gender stereotypes.
- More self-confidence. Teenage girls suffer from a lack of self-confidence far more than boys. Studies have consistently shown that girls who are physically active perceive their academic and athletic ability in a better light.
- Lower rates of depression and risk of suicide.Sports and physical activity are linked to decreased likelihood of symptoms related to stress and depression. Teenage girls who participate in sports are less likely to be suicidal than girls who do not participate in sports.
The path to the boardroom may well go through the girl’s locker room:
- Sports help girls develop leadership skills, self-reliance and self-discipline. According to researchers at Catholic University, women who are athletes are more achievement oriented, independent, self-confident and inner-controlled.” Nearly nine out of ten women executives in a recent survey by mutual fund giant Oppenheimer said sports helped them be more disciplined. Nearly seven out of ten said sports helped them to develop leadership skills that contributed to their professional success.
- Sports enhance girls’ ability to function as part of a team. Four out of five women executives in the Oppenheimer study said sports helped them to function better as part of a team.
- Sports may provide a key to the executive washroom. Four out of five executive women in the Oppenheimer study played sports between junior high and college and still participate in some sort of physical activity, sports or exercise, two thirds of those at least three times a week. As Donna Lopiano, CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, observes, “Sports is nothing more than organizing a group for high performance. And that’s what businesses do.”
- Sports give girls the ability to speak sports vernacular: Surprisingly, the Oppenheimer study suggests that sports are used far less to exclude women from conversations and opportunities at work than previously believed: only one in five women executives surveyed said they were ever excluded from a business opportunity because they didn’t participate in a particular sport. The study found that women were familiar if not comfortable with sports vernacular. “When it comes to sports talk, we got game,” said one female executive.
The bottom line is that while sports are not the magic potion they do help girls get through the trials of adolescence.
Benefits to society
In addition to the benefits girls get from playing sports, society itself clearly benefits from the spirit of co-operation women and girls bring to sports. A comprehensive survey of high school athletes by the non-profit Josephson Institute of Ethics found that girls are about twice as likely as boys to model good sportsmanship.
Girls in sports argue and communicate anger less than males: instead of being confrontational, when in-group disagreements arise, girls discuss things more rationally and constructively than males (this is something boys can be taught how to do). Team hugs and hand piles are overwhelmingly displays common to female athletes.
A great example of what women bring to sports that can teach and, hopefully, inspire everyone is the story of tae kwon do athlete Esther Kim. When her best friend of 13 years, Kay Poe, dislocated her knee before their match for a berth on the 2000 US Olympic team, Kim forfeited her match and trip to Sydney to Poe. She explained that she “couldn’t bear to see myself accomplish my only dream by an unfair match. … I knew it was the right decision. … I’ve competed throughout my entire life, and through all the matches and all of the training, for the first time in my life, that day and every day, I feel like a champion.”
Female athletes, such as the stars of current U.S. Women’s World Cup soccer team, Hope Solo, Heather O’Reilly, and Abby Wambach, provide the best kind of athletic role models: real women, with husbands and lives, some of them pushing or in their 30’s, that women – and men – can relate to; women at their best. They showed how an athlete can handle pressure – and winning and losing – with grace and class, and, just as importantly, how to be self-effacing and share the spotlight and not hog the glory for themselves, This is not to say that men don’t display these characteristics; just that fewer men do.
1. Rosewater, Ann. “Learning to Play and Playing to Learn: Organized Sports and Educational Outcomes citing Yin, Z. and Moore, J. B. (2004) “Re-examining the role of interscholastic sports participation in education” Psychological Reports, 94 (3 pt. 2), 1147-1454; and Sabo, D. Melnick, M. & Vanfossen, B. (1989) “The Women’s Sports Foundation Report: Minorities in Sport.
Revised October 31, 2011 Revised May 23, 2014