Probably no greater culture shift has taken place than in the area of girls’ sports. Years ago a girl could only represent her school in uniform as a cheerleader. Today, nearly 2.8 million girls participate in athletics according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Implementation of Title IX regulations has made this change possible; without it, the increase in girls’ participation in sports would never have happened. We know this because many opponents are still kicking and screaming as resources in schools are distributed more equitably between girls’ and boys’ sports. With diminishing resources, some of the boys’ sports are being cut and others are required to share fields and revise schedules as young women’s access to participation opportunities and scholarship dollars increases. Yet there are still too many schools where girls’ teams get the most minimal treatment.

Any female athlete will tell you what a positive difference her sport has made in her life. Research has shown that girls who participate in team sports have higher self-esteem and feel better about their bodies. These girls learn how to compete, work as part of a team, and deal with winning and losing, and they are less afraid to take risks. They learn to be efficient and do better academically in school. Girls who are busy with sports have less time for other things that aren’t as good for them. Girls who participate in sports are no longer considered to be “tomboys”; outstanding female athletes are beginning to enjoy the preferred status of their male counterparts.

sports for girls

Girls learn life skills, such as citizen advocacy, because of their participation in and love for a sport. Gretchen, a 16-year-old volleyball player, told us how she fought for better athletic facilities for girls when inequities were identified: “When I realized how inferior the girls’ facilities were, I got to work. I pulled together my teammates as well as girls from other sports; received support from our parents, coaches, and teachers; and lobbied the school board to fund changes. Although the changes are happening slower than we would like, they are occurring; we’re moving in the right direction.”

Girls don’t consider only Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson to be role models; they are just as likely to admire soccer players Brandi Chastain or Mia Hamm, figure skater Sara Hughes, track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, basketball player Sheryl Swoopes, or softball player Dot Richardson. As a result of the opportunities and training required by Title IX, we have professional women’s basketball leagues and tennis associations. According to Jere Longman in “Women Move Closer to Olympic Equality,” during the 2000 Olympics, for the first time, women competed in the same number of team sports as men. Girls and women have proved they have the endurance and talent to excel in sports.

Parents and girls shared wonderful stories about their love of athletics. A 14-year-old girl told us, “Anything that’s physically challenging or scary, I know I can accomplish because I never thought I could be a good in-line skater. Once I tried it, I became great!”

One mother told the story of her daughter who didn’t do well in school, and the mother worried about her daughter’s self-esteem. She said, “I brought Christine to the local swimming pool when she was seven years old. I had to find something that she felt good about. Well, she became the best breast stroker in her age group. She received so much affirmation for her athletic skills. It spilled over into school. Christine became as persistent in school as she was in the swimming pool.”

A father of a 15-year-old soccer player reported: “When I first started going to Alicia’s games, I had no idea how physical they would be. Nothing stopped these girls from attacking the goal. Her games are every bit as exciting as my son’s games. Alicia wants that college scholarship. I have no doubt that she has a real shot.”

Another mother said, “Unlike when I was a girl, today I encourage both my son and my daughter to be involved in sports.”

Girls’ participation in athletics is beginning to pay off in terms of college scholarships. According to Paula Span in “It’s a Girl’s World,” approximately $180 million is spent annually for female athletes. It’s less than what is spent on boys’ sports, but with one in three girls involved in athletics, the pressure is on for more equitable funding. When evaluating the difference a regulation and advocates can make in the lives of children, consider this: since 1972, female high school and college participation in sports has increased by 847 percent. According to the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, “Today 150,916 women compete in intercollegiate sports, accounting for 43 percent of college varsity athletes—an increase of more than 403 percent from 1971.” Organizations such as the Women’s Sports Foundation, the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, and the National Women’s Law Center not only track the progress of women’s sports but they also lobby, along with other advocates, for more equitable use of resources.

girls team

Having strength and fitness as an alternative to wafer-thin bodies is becoming more appealing. We aren’t there yet, but there are girls who choose to strive for an athlete’s build rather than a model’s body. By understanding the benefits of athletics, parents can encourage and support their daughters in their desire to participate in sports and to strive to be fit rather than thin.

More girls are coming out for sports, but we need to make sure they’re met with the same enthusiasm and institutional support that has accompanied boys all along.

—ISABEL STEWART, Executive Director, Girls Inc.

Participating in sports doesn’t work for everyone, and we don’t want to adopt the boys’ culture of dismissing nonathletic boys. But today’s sports opportunities for girls have allowed them to go beyond playing half-court basketball or being able to demonstrate athleticism only through cheer-leading. Sports also help to keep girls in school and off drugs and make them less likely to become pregnant. Holly Brubach reports in “The Athletic Esthetic,” as girls and women “come into their own, [they] have at last begun to feel at home in their bodies, which previously they were only renting. In athletes, we recognize women who own their bodies, inhabiting every inch of them, and the sight of their vitality is exhilarating.” Although the playing field is still not level, the possibility of our daughters’ realizing their athletic dreams is becoming more and more attainable.