Sports: It’s a Girls’ Game Now
by Julie Clancy Grady ’82
Finally, it seems, women’s sports are catching up. Turn on ESPN and you’ll likely see Serena Williams ace a serve or grab your local newspaper to read highlights of a girls soccer game. Look even harder and you’ll find stories on women’s hockey teams in Boston or women’s wrestling at the University of Minnesota. It’s only taken 30 years since Title IX was enacted in 1972, and though there is still progress to be made, the payoffs are finally starting to appear.
And those rewards are more than a TV sound bite or color photo and feature story. From the professional paid athletes down to the first-graders in physical education class, women’s sports offer a multitude of benefits that impact young girls throughout their entire life. Get a girl interested in sports, the experts say, and chances are you’ll get a girl who exudes confidence, is physically healthy and is a success story waiting to happen.
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, a New York-based advocacy group for women’s athletics, girls who are active in athletics have higher self-esteem, more confidence, better body image, higher achievement test scores, less depression, improved mental health, more academic success and greater lifetime earning potential. In addition, girls who play sports are also more likely to turn away from risky behavior, such as smoking, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and sexual intercourse.
Jeanne A. Blakeslee ’70, dean of students at St. Paul’s School for Girls in Brooklandville, Md., can attest to these benefits first hand. With some 430 students in grades 5-12 and sports being an active part of student life, Blakeslee sees the advantages on a daily basis.
“Sports drives our lives,” she said. “Sports are critical to girls because they are active and directive, and they have a lot of adults inserted into their lives that are not their parents and teachers, which is always good.”
Blakeslee reports that from sports, girls learn teamwork. “They learn to be a star, gracefully or not. They learn how to support others and to make quick decisions. They are taken seriously because society acknowledges the importance of sports.”
Physical Education: The Starting Point
For most girls, exposure to sports begins with physical education (PE) in grade school. Although many girls have the opportunity to play in organized sports leagues, many girls do not. For them, a good PE program is critical, says Mary Anne Stanton ’90, executive director of the Center City Consortium, a program that supports at-risk, inner city Catholic elementary schools. Started in 1997, the program is a model of administration for 11 schools that are located in Washington D.C.’s poorer neighborhoods. According to Stanton, 99 percent of the schools’ students are minority and 60 percent come from single parent families. “PE, art and music are the three areas which are cut when poverty is an issue,” she said.
“For children who live at or below the poverty level, PE is a critical part of their education because they do not play after school,” she continued. “They do not have the organized sports, but they can gain the exposure to sports in school.”
One important part of Stanton’s work is to insure that every school in the consortium has a physical education program. While it is important for both boys and girls, Stanton noted that, “For girls, if they don’t have PE or engage in sports in elementary school, they are not likely to get involved in sports in high school.”
Stanton herself benefited from sports when she attended the now-closed Immaculata Preparatory School on Tenley Circle in northwest D.C.
“PE brings forth a sense of pride,” she said. “Sports are important to girls’ basic formation. They are physical, mental and soulful beings; sports are important to their whole well-being.” In addition, Stanton said, “Girls health issues are very important and are addressed through PE.”
From a health standpoint, the risk of obesity and reproductive issues have been found to have a positive outcome due to sports. Regular physical activity can reduce the chances of obesity, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, while healthy lifestyles and choices also correlate with athletic endeavors.
According to a 1997 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, teenage female athletes are less than half as likely to get pregnant as female non-athletes (5 percent and 11 percent respectively) and are more likely to report that they had never had sexual intercourse than non-athletes (54 percent and 41 percent). Teenage female athletes are also more likely to experience their first sexual intercourse later in adolescence than female non-athletes.
Moreover, sports also help girls develop a positive body image. Athletic participation allows girls to experience what their bodies can do, in contrast to the social emphasis on how girls’ bodies look.
Sports and Leadership
For Mary C. Aranha ’88, director of character education for the State of Maryland, and author of the book, A Good Place To Be – The Guide for Leaders Who Want Their Vision to Become a Reality, competitive sports can develop leadership skills and help children set goals.
“To be successful, you need individual and team goals. Sports prepare children for getting out into society,” she said.
Aranha emphasizes the importance of sports throughout girls’ lives. “Emotionally, mentally and physically, sports help girls,” she said. “Young girls can learn to be leaders through sports. Sports teach integrity and self-management by setting objective standards that girls can work to achieve.
“We all have leadership in us, and to develop that, we need to take turns being the leader and the learner,” she added. This is especially important for girls, she says, since sports can give them a sense of who they are.
Blakeslee concurs. Sports, she contends, are instrumental in helping girls discover who they are and what they like. By providing an outside measure for achievement, it gives them objective standards to judge themselves and others by, she said. Leadership roles, such as being on the student council, can also help girls find a voice. “When girls put forth a proposal to do something, we do it. We let them be heard and take them seriously.”
Aranha believes everyone needs “to have a part.” It is what she calls inclusion, being a part of a caring community at home or school that helps to develop leadership in children.
Mary Ellen White ’43 is a part of such a community. She helps run a girls softball program in Westport, Conn. and got involved in the league in 1992, when her nephew, Jeffrey White, former chief financial officer of Major League Baseball, realized she was retired and didn’t have much to do. Now, almost everything she does is softball related.
In a city like Westport, White said, “There are no neighborhoods anymore. Softball gives the girls a chance to get together and meet other people.” Her two grandnieces, Erin and Colleen, both played in the league, and White has seen first hand how softball can enhance a child’s self esteem. Girls, who were timid and afraid when they first start playing, begin to step forward on their own as a season develops, she reports. “For overweight girls who may be ashamed of their appearance, they learn their weight doesn’t particularly matter,” she said. “There is tremendous self-improvement.”
Currently her grandniece, Colleen, is a top player at Staples High School in Westport and is being recruited by several colleges. In addition to softball, she is co-captain of her high school volleyball team.
Keeping the Ball Rolling
As much as Title IX increased athletic opportunities for women and girls, when girls get to high school, participation in sports changes. Some girls drop sports in high school, either because of a lack of proficiency or because of the intensity of competition.
“They drop math, computer, and lots of things, not just sports,” Blakeslee said. “At puberty girls get mixed messages about what is important. For boys, their bodies are a part of who they are and how they are perceived. For girls, when their bodies develop, it changes how people respond to them.”
Aranha also notes that some girls are looked down upon because they are not superstars and because sports are too competitive in high school. This, she says, can affect girls’ self-esteem. “Everyone is not born with the skills, but they can become skillful.”
If we can keep girls in sports, Blakeslee believes it will give them confidence and strength that they can rely on throughout their lives. One way to do that, suggest Gil Reavill and Jean Zimmerman, authors of Raising Our Athletic Daughters: How Sports Can Build Self-Esteem and Save Girls’ Lives, is to create more opportunities for girls who want to play just for the fun of it — club sports, intramural sports and junior varsity level sports.
Whether sports are played on the elite, demanding level of NCAA Division I programs, in elementary school or for a local sports league, girls and young women are learning goal-setting, strategic thinking and the pursuit of excellence in performance and other achievement-oriented behaviors. Gaining these skills gives the strength and confidence to pursue whatever careers they choose, says Blakeslee.
“You need to have the structures behind you, like rules of the game,” she said.
“You need to practice within the rules of the game. That’s one of the things sports can do.”
Julie Clancy Grady ’82 is the Alumnae News Editor of Trinity. She has four daughters, ages 14, 12, 9 and 6, all of whom actively participate in a wide range of sports.