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Raising An Athletic Daughter: Moms Play Key Role

Helping Your Daughter Develop a Love For the Game

  • Teach her that being an athlete and feminine is not mutually exclusive. Because girls grow up in world where they are still conditioned by the culture and the media into thinking that boys are more naturally talented athletes, that sports are only for boys, and that sports are unfeminine, we all need to work hard to celebrate girls as female athletes and avoid reinforcing culturally-based stereotypes. Show your daughter that you are comfortable with the sports she plays, especially if she plays hard, aggressive contact sports like hockey, basketball, soccer, football, or wrestling and that you appreciate the values girls bring to sports.

Take a long hard look at how you view sports for girls, beginning with what sports meant to you growing up, and make sure that any sexist attitudes aren't reflected in your comments and reactions to your daughter's involvement in athletics. Don't show discomfort if she beats a boy in an athletic contest, becomes obsessed with a sport or wants to begin lifting weights. As my MomsTeam colleague, Doreen Greenberg, says, let her "know from your reactions and words, that sweating and being agile, powerful, muscular and athletic are ‘feminine'"; that playing sports does not compromise her femininity. Try to dispel the myth that many adolescents still believe that "masculine" and "feminine" behaviors are mutually exclusive. Teach your daughter that a girl can be interested in stereotypically feminine activities, like keeping scrap-books and collecting dolls or figurines, and yet also be interested in athletics. As Jessica Gavora observes, the "generation of women, who have come of age after the tumult of the Sixties, is more comfortable with differences between the sexes, and less intent on abolishing them. For these women, it's possible to be a capable athlete without becoming like a boy. It's okay to be a girl."

  • Define competition in a way that resonates with girls.  Girls tend to view competition negatively because it is defined by the youth sports culture in terms of winning and losing (external competition), and losing results in someone's feelings being hurt. One way to keep your daughter interested in playing sports through adolescence is to help her define competition more in terms of doing one's best (internal competition) instead of beating her opponent. As Tony DiCicco and Colleen Hacker, head coach and sports psychology consultant, respectively, to the 1996 Olympic gold medal and 1999 World Cup champion U.S. Women's Soccer Team say in Catching Them Being Good, "Parents ... have to convince girls and young women that just because they're competing on the field doesn't mean that this competition is going to hurt their friendships and relationships off the field."

Understand that aggression does not come naturally to most girls. As Dr. Leonard Sax observes in his book, Why Gender Matters, "aggression between girls doesn't build friendships [like it often does with boys], it destroys them." So don't criticize your daughter if she doesn't seem to be as aggressive or competitive as you or her dad thinks she should be. But do talk to her about the important difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness.

  • Emphasize achievement not attractiveness. Help your daughter avoid defining herself on the basis of her attractiveness and appeal to boys. Emphasize her achievements instead, how good she is at sports, and that her social status can be enhanced by her athletic ability. Teach her that what her body can do is what is important, not how she looks. After all, boys grow up thinking this way.
  • Teach her to exhibit good sportsmanship. Female athletes appear under increasing pressure to exhibit the same kind of lack of sportsmanship studies show more and more boys display. Teach your daughter of the importance of continuing to model good sportsmanship.
  • Let her play on a boys' high school team if that's what she wants. Like my friend, Angela Ruggiero, many elite female athletes who reach the Olympic or professional level trained and competed with and against boys, who pushed them to reach their full potential, forced them to prove their worthiness, helped them gain a sense of competence in their skills, and to develop self-assuredness in their risk-taking ability.

While you may be personally opposed to your daughter playing on a boys' team, the fact is that teenagers these days seem increasingly accepting, and even supportive of teammates and opponents of opposite sex. In deciding whether it makes sense for your daughter, honestly discuss your feelings with her and consider practical realities such as her skill level, changing in separate locker rooms, the possibility of being taunted by fans, or opposing parents, and the increased risk of injury (especially in contact sports where they are playing against bigger, stronger and more aggressive opponents). You should tell your child not to expect special favors, that initial resistance is possible, that boys may experience potential "shame" if they are beaten by girl and see it as a tough blow to their self-esteem. Make sure to talk to your daughter's doctor first to rule out any potential medical reasons she shouldn't play on a boys' team.

Remember that an all-girls team is likely to offer your daughter a very different experience, one that is likely to be less intimidating. Overcoming the gender barrier may not be the athletic role she wants to take on. Being on an all-girls team may make it easier to take the initiative as a leader and build her sports skill level.

  • 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). Like the mother of Mariah Burton Nelson, author of Embracing Victory: Life Lessons in Competition and Compassion, 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 woman 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. On the other hand let her know that she can learning about winning and competition in ways other than by playing competitive sports: It can come from extracurricular activities like music, drama, dance, or other hobbies.
  • Keep her active in her teen years. Instead of allowing her to give up sports altogether when she reaches adolescence, encourage your daughter to stay physically active by helping her find a sport to play on a recreational level. Teach her that there is nothing wrong with participating in sports which emphasize beauty and grace but also require speed, agility and strength, or sports with no clear winners and losers and with no physical contact between competitors (such as competitive dance, synchronized swimming, and cheerleading, where some girls have taken to wearing T-shirts proclaiming "I am a girl; I am an athlete; CHEERLEADING IS MY SPORT!").
  • Fight discrimination. Unfortunately, as far as we have come since enactment of Title IX in 1972, girls still don't have equal participation opportunities when it comes to sports.  Parks and recreation departments continue to serve more boys than girls, an inequity that prompted the State of California in 2005 to enact a first-of-its-kind law expanding Title IX rules to require cities, towns and recreation districts to ensure gender equity in youth sports programs they operate and in th use of their facilities by independent groups.  As noted in the Women's Sports Foundation report, Her Life Depends On It, "Advocates for girls programs ... often have to compete with politically entrenched male administrators of boys' programs for a share of available courts, swimming pools and fields." 

Girls still get offered:

  • fewer sports to play;
  • smaller locker rooms;inferior equipment;
  • less glamorous fields;
  • less convenient practice times;
  • less publicity;
  • less qualified game officials;
  • less attractive game times (i.e. games on school nights leading to smaller crowds, while boys' games are scheduled on weekends);
  • less school support (i.e. pep rallies for boys' teams but not girls);
  • less community support (i.e. buses for fans to attend away games for boys, but not for girls); and
  • fewer opportunities to play for teams led by women coaches or in programs run by women. 

When you see girls getting the short end of the stick in terms of facilities, equipment, coaching, or game times, fight for fairness, either behind the scenes or, if necessary, in public forums.

  • Support programs that put winning in its place. Enroll your daughter in and only support sports programs that emphasize skill development, positive reinforcement, equal playing time, a chance to play all the positions, and that don't place undue emphasis on winning/competition (listen on the sidelines: do you hear the sound of laughter as in a pick-up game or yelling and screaming as in pro sports contests?), that treat boys and girls equally, give them equal chances in all aspects of the athletic experience; don't tolerate sexist comments from coaches or coaches that coddle girls or give them special treatment.
  • Address and support diversity in all its forms: Teach your daughter that to be on a team is to be accepting of players with different backgrounds and personalities, clothes, hairstyle, even sexual orientation. If she learns these lessons early in life then she will have an easier time in her adult life

Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) by Brooke de Lench.

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