Adolescence is a critical time when many girls' activity levels fall significantly or disappear altogether. So it is important that parents, coaches and other adults encourage girls to stay active as they transition from childhood to adulthood. Active girls tend to have higher self-esteem and self-confidence and healthier body images than girls who are not active. What's more, girls who are physically active tend to perform better on standardized tests, get higher grades and have higher aspirations after high school. All things considered, sports and physical fitness help set the framework for a happy, healthy and successful generation of women.
Start Them Young
Fitness habits form early, so encouraging girls to engage in regular physical activity can help them for the rest of their lives. Lea Rolfes, executive director of Girls on the Run of Atlanta, says, "Participation in physical activity at an early age is essential because it is an important determinant of long-term physical activity maintenance. Studies show if a girl does not participate in sports or physical activity by the time she is 10 years old, there is only a 10 percent chance she's likely to exercise when she is 25."
Lacey King (a.k.a. Choke Cherry) of the Atlanta Rollergirls, agrees. "The best thing we can do as members of society is to help young girls get involved and encourage them to feel empowered by sports," she says, which the Atlanta Rollergirls do through their 7 to 17-year-old group, the Atlanta Derby Brats. Jackie Cannizzo, tournament director for the Esther Cannizzo Junior Golf Foundation, supports this as well. She says, "If you can catch girls at a young age and get them engaged in sports, they will be better for it in general."
Break Out of the "Girl Box"
Keeping young girls interested in sports and fitness may be easier said than done, though. At Girls on the Run, Rolfes sees many girls get trapped in what she calls the "girl box." "It's a place where they're torn between who they know they are and what our culture says they should be," she explains. "It's a place of questioning their body image and experiencing low self-esteem and negative self-talk. Parents and educators see the girl box being imposed at an increasingly early age, and our mission is to reverse that trend. Our curriculum starts with girls in the third grade, because girls at this age are most receptive to this message. One of the most powerful tools to get out of the girl box is knowing that there are other girls who feel the same way."
She also remains committed to changing the gendered stereotypes that influence the extent to which girls participate in physical activity. "Popularity has different standards for boys and girls; adolescent boys' popularity depends on their physical ability, while adolescent girls' popularity depends on a complex mix of attributes such as physical appearance, material possessions and boyfriends," she says. "Female athletes are much more likely to be portrayed in ways that highlight their physical appearance instead of their athletic competence. The objectification of girls and young women, including female athletes, continues to influence girls' self-esteem, body image and valuation of physical activity."
These portrayals also perpetuate the mistaken belief that girls can't keep up with boys. "People think women can't play at the same level or intensity, which is absolutely not true," says Marq Williams, owner and head coach of the Atlanta Heartbreakers, a women's football team. "We have to encourage females because the more they participate in sports, the more people will give them the respect and understanding they deserve. We need to stop saying, 'This is a man's sport.'" Donnovant Dahunsi has been coaching for nearly 15 years, and he currently serves as the middle school track and field program coodinator for Atlanta Public Schools. He agrees that female athletes have just as much of a love for sports as their male counterparts. But often, Dahunsi says, "Many girls come to me not really knowing where or how they fit into the team," but under careful coaching, he says, it's not uncommon for those girls to excel and become team leaders.
Advice from A Fit Girl
Caroline Peters, manager at local retailer High Country Outfitters, recounts her fitness journey and gives recommendations to other young women.
What activities did you participate in during middle school and high school?
I was a competitive athlete who played soccer and indoor volleyball.
What support helped you stay active during those years?
My dad has always pushed me to try sports and keep me active, whether it was through sports or simply doing things outside. He would literally surprise me by driving me to tryouts for soccer teams. Outside of sports, my dad has been taking me backpacking and camping with my brother since I was a little girl.
What activities do you enjoy outside of traditional competitive sports?
Yoga in particular keeps me centered and grounded. I also trail run, bike, climb and am always excited to try something new. That's how I first got into SUP yoga [pictured below]; I had just finished yoga school, and the deck pad on my board reminded me of a yoga mat.
What advice do you have for a young girl looking for an activity she really loves?
Try it all! Step out of your comfort zone! New challenges make you stronger.
Traditional sports like soccer, basketball, softball and even football might be right for some girls, but many just aren't into it. Instead of ending the search there, girls should seek out alternatives. Prissy Tomboy Athletics, a local sportswear and accessory line dedicated to supporting active girls, encourages participants to try all sorts of activities. Founder Tracey Pearson says, "We're here to show these girls that there are so many alternative activites out there that can be just as fun and enduring [as sports]. From paddleboarding, dancing and yoga to kickboxing and cycling, there really is something for everyone."
And staying active doesn't have to be limited to after-school commitments, either – instead, physical activity should have a permanent place in the school day as well. Laura Colbert, an exercise physiologist with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, points out, "Physically active students often do better on standardized tests, have lower rates of absenteeism and have fewer discipline problems." Colbert recommends that schools encourage walking or biking to school and include breaks in their schedules.
In P.E. classes, even slight adjustments in the focus of the activity can make a difference in how girls respond to it. By emphasizing fun, choice and inclusiveness, schools have a better chance of keeping girls involved. "Think dance parties, double dutch or active games," Colbert says. "Games like dodgeball that eliminate players result in most of the group sitting while a select few are active." By comparison, "Dancing, group walks and yoga encourage everyone to be active the whole time."
In addition to support from schools, there are many free and low-cost sports and physical activity programs for girls. "P.E. teachers, school nurses and parks and recreation departments can all be good resources for finding programs in local communities," Colbert says, as well as familiar institutions like the YMCA. And if parents are looking for more information on how to get and keep their families active, the "Fun Moves" section of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Strong4Life website is a great resource to help parents through each step.
The Faces of Female Fitness
Despite a variety of resources available, our society still lacks active role models for girls. The most visible and successful professional athletes and sports teams are overwhelmingly male. "As a society, we do not prioritize athleticism as highly for girls as we do for boys," Colbert says. "Being a good role model for activity means talking positively about physical activity and doing activities with girls; parents and adults who work with girls can fill this void by being the role models that girls need."
It's also important to consider adolescent girls' developing self-esteem. "Ages 12 to 16 are most difficult for girls in general," Cannizzo says. "They need to find the right program or activity so there is a sense of success in that critical time. Also, male coaches can be uncomfortable for girls. In our profession, golf is a very male-dominated sport, which is why we need more female role models and coaches."
Fortunately, women like Haley Chura, Atlanta's own professional triathlete competitor, are removing these roadblocks. "Girls have to work a bit harder to find strong female role models, but they're out there," she says. "Right now young women like gold medalist swimmers Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin, and runner Mary Cain are rewriting the record books and showcasing women's athletics like never before. These teenage women are deserving of rock star admiration!"
A Metaphor for Life
Cannizzo encourages girls to look at sports as part of their journey in life. "There are so many valuable lessons to learn from being involved in sports that you can carry into your profession or being a parent," she says. "From a business standpoint, it helps girls be better teammates, co-workers, and feel better in general. You learn discipline, hard work and time management – there is no downside to being involved in sports."
The Atlanta Rollergirls have a similar philosophy. "As a member of the league, we are also asked to take on a job, so we don't only skate, but we run the business," King says. "I'm currently ARG's head of marketing and serve on the board of directors. The experiences and knowledge I've gained for serving the league in that capacity bleed into my everyday job as a registered dietitian. I've learned how to market myself, my skills, and to lead a team."
And Chura is living proof that sports are an essential part of professional success. "Athletics have taken me to foreign countries, tropical islands and even to the White House to meet the President of the United States. I got my first job because of sports, and I feel better about myself both physically and mentally after every workout. There is truly no limit to what sports can teach you, where they can take you and who you might meet."
So if you see a girl in your life struggling to stay active, do whatever you can to prevent the lid of the "girl box" from slamming shut on her interests and her potential. Instead, help her deal with the obstacles she faces so she can enjoy a life of fitness and health.
Jackie Cannizzo, JCI Foundation – www.esthercannizzogolffoundation.org
Haley Chura – www.haleychura.com
Laura Colbert, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta – www.choa.org, www.strong4life.com
Donnovant Dahunsi, Atlanta Public Schools – www.atlanta.k12.ga.us
Lacey King, Atlanta Rollergirls – www.atlantarollergirls.com, www.atlantaderbybrats.com Tracey Pearson, Prissy Tomboy Athletics – www.prissytomboy.com
Lea Rolfes, Girls on the Run – www.girlsontherunatlanta.org
Marq Williams, Atlanta Heartbreakers – www.atlantaheartbreakers.com