Today’s guest columnist is Dr. Corey Gardner, a Family Practice resident at the University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.
“You can’t beat me!” yelled Jacob, the ringleader of the third-grade boys who controlled the playground at recess. He was yelling at me, the scrawny little thing in the ankle-length blue dress with flowers on it.
“Oh yes she can, and she will, even in that dress,” countered my friend Reggie. I stood silently, waiting for the race to start. Reggie and I had played lots of tag and touch football, he knew my speed, and that no dress would hamper it. With the distance marked and the rules set, we lined up. ”Go!” I took off, blue skirt streaming behind me like a sail. Jacob had no chance. He couldn’t catch me that day, and from then on the boys let me play as an equal.
This story raises the issue of young girls in athletics. Multiple studies demonstrate that fewer girls participate in sports. That number drops off even more once girls hit puberty. There are myriad reasons cited, including disinterest, teasing, body changes, lack of female athlete role models, and believing boys will like them less. The sports drop-out rate for girls around adolescence is six times greater than for boys. Only a quarter of high school girls are in sports, compared to over half of high school boys.
When we lose these girls to culture and peer pressure, they in turn lose valuable opportunities: to gain self-confidence, leadership experience, and of course better health. The science is clear that sports and fitness activities stave off obesity and heart disease, substance abuse and depression, and even lower rates of teen pregnancy. Participating girls tend to go on to have better lives, including chances at college scholarships, and better professional development.
Gender equality in physical activity starts in grade school. Girls need to know that they have a right to enjoy sports, to feel strong and have fun playing. This includes the right to that recess playground and the chance to run like the wind, even if she’s wearing a blue dress with flowers on it.
The Olympics in Rio last summer showcased many elite female athletes. Simone Biles won five gold medals in gymnastics, including the best and most fun floor exercise in a long time. Then on NBC’s Today show, she even eclipsed her celebrity crush, actor Zac Efron. He was invited on to surprise the gymnast and her team, but he was clearly awed himself. “They won gold medals, they were crushing it the entire Olympics,” explained Efron, “and I was like hiding in a closet waiting to come in.”
Like we discussed above, more girls need to be in athletics, having fun, staying fit, and living their own great moments. It’s even better when girls play multiple sports, instead of being single-sport “specialty” athletes. However, kid sports have evolved to nurture hopes of creating stars. Sport-specific camps and select leagues provide opportunities for kids to slog away at one sport year-round. Parents believe they’re doing their kids a service with the extra practice time and experience, grooming them for futures in the major leagues. In fact, the data shows the exact opposite.
Children who are channeled into single sports often burn out by high school. Not only do they get bored playing one sport, but injuries increase significantly. We see these kids in the Emergency Department, when after going through the same motions year after year, they get worn-out, swollen and painful joints. That’s no path to success. In fact, coaches like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and Brian Kelly prefer and actively scout multi-sport athletes. Most NFL quarterbacks played more than one sport in high school and college.
Changing sports broadens a kid’s peer group- more friends, more fun. Multi-sport kids get more overall fitness, training different muscles necessary for each sport. And switching joint use spreads out the strain. Finally, kids get less bored not having to throw a zillion pitches day after day, if they get to tumble in the gym instead.
Next time, instead of enrolling your child in another select league, maybe encourage her to try a different sport that season. Who knows, maybe a miniature Alex Morgan will come out on the soccer field, having been hidden behind mediocre T-ball skills.