Feminism, Gender Equality, Health, Inspiration, Leadership
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Keeping Girls In Sport When Everything Changes

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Written by Kristina Pinto.

The ubiquitous #LikeaGirl phenomenon took on new meaning with the release of a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, which reported that English girls start to leave sports around puberty and the onset of breast development. It seems that the vast popularity of Run Like a Girl branding may be onto something in the collective consciousness of girlhood as the prospect of running like a woman–in a woman’s body–seems to deter many girls from sport.

The New York Times coverage of the study makes the case that this decrease in sport participation isn’t inevitable, and other research points to ways that parents, schools, and even girls themselves can continue to find empowerment through girls’ involvement in sport. These suggestions emerge from the literature:

  1. Normalize puberty. My research on girls’ experiences of early puberty, published in the Journal of Early Adolescence and Qualitative Health Research, found that girls with families and friends who talk so openly about puberty that it becomes pedantic do not become self-conscious or intimidated by the changes in their bodies. When girls are prepared for puberty through education and communication, they feel they can continue in activities they know and enjoy.
  2. School girls to be body smart. Girls in the recent UK study said that they want to learn what to expect from puberty in all-girl discussions with a teacher, more than apps, websites, or a 1:1 chat with a nurse. As many sport programs take place at school, incorporating a regular, open, teacher-moderated group into the curriculum teaches girls that their active bodies have a place at school and the school is committed to protecting their mind-body integrity.
  3. Create a positive peer culture. A 2015 study of African-American and White girls in the Journal of Early Adolescence reported that bullying and peer messaging mediates the relationship between a girl and her body. When a girl is harassed about puberty, her propensity toward depression increases. School-based wellness groups for girls can go a long way to creating a culture in which they go through puberty and continue to participate in sport without negative peer consequences.
  4. Build competence and foster joy. The rewards of sport don’t just come from winning a game or breaking the tape, though these triumphs no doubt open the endorphin flood gate, as Brandi Chastain showed us all. But research shows that perfectionistic concern about sport predicts burnout after 3 months in adolescents. When girls experience joy and competence in sport, they are more motivated, which may be particularly true when the body’s shape, size, coordination, and equilibrium are rapidly changing during puberty. A one-dimensional sport experience singularly defined by performance-based outcomes can risk alienating girls from the rewards of the experience of running, kicking, throwing, and moving through the world of their own power.
  5. Run (or drive) like a woman. When girls see their mothers and other influential women engaged in sport, they learn to be agents, not objects, and they witness embodied power in their role models. You don’t have to run marathons, and you don’t have to be a runner. But, teaching girls that self-efficacy comes from intellectual, physical, and emotional engagement with the world could be one of the most feminist acts of motherhood. A 2014 study found that maternal modeling of sport had a positive relationship with daughters’ self-efficacy, though the authors also reported that moms’ “logistic support” of girls’ participation in sport also had a positive association with girls’ self-esteem, self-efficacy, and intention to participate. So even if you don’t pin on a bib number or shlep yourself to yoga to be a good role model, take heart. All those miles that you log in the driver’s seat to get your girls to their activities matter enormously.

Puberty is life-changing by definition, but hiding from sport is not an inevitable outcome of menarche and breast growth. Teenage sports bras aren’t made for less-endowed women, after all. If we talk to girls, empower a positive peer and school culture, move our own feet, and keep driving them to practice, daughters–and their parents–will exit adolescence with greater strength and grit.

This post was originally posted at Mothers Running Rampant and was reposted with permission from the author, Kristina Pinto. Dr. Kristina Pinto is a Health and Wellness Counselor in the Boston area who specializes in girls’ and women’s psychological well-being. She can be reached at k.pinto@metrowestneuropsych.com

Photo: Christine Cueto/Flickr Creative Commons.

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