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February 07, 2019

Six Tips for Keeping Girls in Sports

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No surprise, I realllllly wanted my girls to love sports. Not just because we’re a family of athletes, but also because sports had been my ticket out of the Female Fire Swamp, where the Rodents of Unusual Size were everything from unhealthy relationships to a general I-don’t-know-what-I-want-to-do-with-my-life malaise.

Starting when they were in 1st or 2nd grade, we enrolled our girls (now 19 and 16) to participate in a variety of sports, mostly soccer and running. I’m grateful that, for now at least - it appears to have worked, as one is playing college soccer and running track, and the other is doing the same in high school. When I recently saw my older getting twitchy at home, “I need to workout; I haven’t worked out yet today,” I did an internal fist pump... “Yes! She’s in.”

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Here are six things that worked for us in terms of keeping them in the game:

  1. Encourage a lifestyle rather than winning. It’s great to want to win, or be the best, or go to the state championship — but isn’t the bigger ticket item a lifelong love of being active? Tying success (or approval or love) to wins, rather than a commitment to effort and training, just increases the likelihood that they’ll get discouraged and quit. On the flip side, when daily training is the highlight, then the start line can be a celebration.
  1. Talk less, listen more. With every sports endeavor will come losses or heartache. The job as a parent is not make it go away, or to provide armchair analysis. As one of my girls’ soccer coaches said, “There are three roles at the game, coach, ref, or fan - pick one.” Be a fan. Be a supporter. And when there are losses, let them feel the feels, and learn how to rebound. Recovery from sports heartache helps kids learn how to deal with life’s other losses.
  1. If she’s a runner, let it ride. So your daughter shows promise? Great. Give her the open spaces to run and play. But don’t be tempted to designate her a prodigy based on pre-pubescent performances. Over the top celebrations of what her girl body can do will only cause her to hate her woman body when it shows up. Or worse yet, will lead her to suppress the change with disordered eating/weight control. A life of self-loathing this way lies.
  1. Don’t talk shit about your own body. Like everyone else, I have my insecurities — based on how I’m feeling, age, body dysmorphia, whatever. But when I’m around my girls, I try to keep the negative talk on lock down. Find those few people you can talk to about it, but try to redirect, for yourself and them. Better yet, encourage conversation around the strength and function of everyone’s bodies. “Your value is not your appearance” ...every girl should hear this as often as possible!
  1. It’s okay to feel the pain of effort. When I was coaching 11 and 12 year old girls in cross country, I can’t tell you how many times I had to talk them off the ledge because they were experiencing a side ache. Or blisters. Or a sore muscle. Within reason, it’s okay to downplay these standard aches and pains—and build the notion that everyone can do hard things. When the complaints come fast and furious, just nod and smile, “uh-huh, you’re right, sometimes it hurts. That’s how you know you’re trying...”
  1. Vet the coaches and be vigilant. I have friends and family members whose lives have been devastated by childhood sexual abuse. It’s painful and hard to discuss, yet the frequency of it happening in the coach-athlete relationship is high. There’s a lot of good information online re: warning signs, but the biggest difference you can make is having VERY clear conversations about what’s okay/not okay and being on the lookout for risk factors. I’ve been called paranoid and IDGAF.

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