The Competitive Advantage

girls soccer

Why it’s good for girls to play sports.

Your news editor was once a tomboy. I had two older brothers, and there wasn’t another girl on my street until I was 12. What was left but to follow the boys around, play with their toys and games, and be on their sports teams? Little did I know that deciding to play soccer – just because my brother did – would be a decision that would have many positive effects on my life.

The Raising Strong Girls, Raising Strong Leaders panel at the Women in the World 2011: Stories and Solutions summit made the case that learning about teamwork, participating in athletics, and having strong role models can help girls. Moderated by Juju Chang, Anita DeFrantz, (President, board member, LA84 Foundation, and Chairperson of the Women and Sport Commission, the International Olympic Committee) and Rachel Simmons (teacher, author and co-founder, Girls Leadership Institute) discussed the undermining portrayal of girls in the media today and how heavy exposure affects a girl’s worldview. Worth noting:

  • Girls who frequently consume mainstream media place physical attractiveness at the center of women’s value
  • 80% of female Fortune 500 executives identified themselves as former tomboys
  • Teen girls are becoming the prime target of sexualized content
  • Athletics and other extracurricular programs negate the impact of media influence on girls

Media Blitz
In the past decade, marketers have recognized that tween girls (age 7- to 14-year-olds) are an extremely attractive demographic for selling everything from dolls to purses to makeup, and have mounted a campaign that literally bombards girls with materialism in every form of media. Simmons said that the number of 8- to 12-year-old girls buying eyeliner has doubled in the past two years, and that age group is currently the biggest growth market in cosmetics. Simmons calls lip-gloss “the gateway drug.” You start with cherry-flavored lip gloss and the next thing you know, your 10-year-old is wearing red lipstick to class. Simmons believes that due to the heavy marketing and media barrage, “Girls are learning that it’s much more about how you appear, than who you are.”

Sports Can Break the Spell
DeFrantz, a former Olympic rower, is a strong advocate for girls becoming involved in sports. When girls (and boys) are involved in sports, they learn about decision-making, mastering a skill, and working together to accomplish a goal. Girls learn to work with others who aren’t their best friends. Chang, a collegiate swimmer, talked about the importance of investing sweat-equity to learn a skill. Sports help girls learn about effort, about failing, and about trying again, so that when they achieve success, they realize they earned it, and are willing to work toward the next success, and the one after that. Girls are also less likely to drop out of school, get pregnant, and get bad grades if they are involved in a sport.

Girls who don’t participate in extracurricular activities are more prone to internalize the omnipresent marketing. Simmons observed that girls are more likely to spend the day thinking about their appearance, how much they weigh and what they’ve eaten that day, instead of about what they should be learning, what else is going on in the world, or caring about others outside their circle of friends. Can girls still enjoy being girls? Of course, but I think participating in extra-curricular activities provides a balance.

Oh The Places You’ll Go
Participating in extra-curricular activities, whether they are sports, or some other group activity, is a great way to learn about other people that you might not have known and go places you wouldn’t have gone otherwise.

I played soccer from third grade through high school. During that time, I had the opportunity to travel to Hawaii to play in a tournament when I was 12. My teammates and I sold cookies and useless trinkets to our friends, families, and neighbors for a year to earn the money. When I was 15, we went to Scandinavia. For another year and a half, we sold more fattening snacks, had car washes and garage sales, and our friends, families and neighbors bought even more dime-store junk from us.

The friends I made playing soccer were some of the best I’ve had in my life, and I still am close to several of them 20 years later. At the time, I knew it was a great experience, but now I know it was an amazing one. Our team was made up of girls of all shapes, sizes, and interests. Would we all have been friends if we weren’t on a team together? Probably not. Soccer united us. We weren’t all best friends, but we were a team.

Of course, we’ve all since scattered to the four winds. Many of us went on to play in later years, some in college, some in recreational leagues, and each time, we built new friendships and loyalties, learned how to work with new teams, and achieved new successes. These are lessons and skills that we took with us for the rest of our lives.

image credit: wilmotuhs (travis wetzel) via creative commons license on Flickr

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.