The benefits of sports are well-known: In addition to having fun and getting fit, kids learn commitment, respect for others, stress management skills, and how to set and meet goals.

Athletics have long provided valuable socio-cultural learning experiences for men and boys, but calls for equal treatment of women and girls in sports are a relatively recent development, and women’s athletic programs remain underfunded and undervalued.

And trust me when I tell you that girls feel it.

I lined up for a bike race the other day alongside about 50 other elite women athletes from across the country. As we waited to get underway, the announcer asked, “Who’s here to win a race today?” We looked around, laughing nervously. A few of us raised our hands.  The announcer scanned the field, looking at some of the fastest women in the country, all of whom had trained hard to do just that – win races. “I asked the men the same question this morning, and every one of them raised their hands,” he said.

sportsResearch shows that while women athletes are just as capable as men, they often lack confidence[1]. How do we close that gap?

Athletics can help instill self-confidence. When you compete, no matter how nervous you might feel, you have to feign confidence in order to be successful. Appearing confident and controlled leads to more opportunities for play in sports – and we want that same  opportunity for our sons and daughters, so that girls, too, can derive the psychological, physiological, and sociological benefits of participation:

  • High school girls who play sports get better grades, are more likely to graduate, and are less likely to have an unwanted pregnancy.
  • Females who play sports have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem and lower levels of depression.
  • Females who play sports have a more positive body image and experience higher states of psychological well-being.
  • It is no accident that 80% of the female executives at Fortune 500 companies grew up playing sports[2].

And girls are no less interested in sports than boys. Women’s Sports Foundation research shows that boys and girls age 6 to 9 are equally interested in sports, but by age 14, girls drop out of sport at a rate six times that of boys[3].

Some of that has to do with how we treat women in athletics.

bikeFor example, recently I was racing a 5-mile circuit near my home in Boulder, CO. Our race began, and the men’s race started five minutes later. This is common in cycling, and while the two groups try to remain separated, one group will often need to pass the other. As we were approaching the crest of a very steep hill, the men caught up to us. It was a difficult spot in which to pass, so the guys were forced to slow down or move around the women. We immediately started hearing heckles from spectators. Men watching on the sidelines called for us to “let the guys through.” They yelled that the “men shouldn’t have to worry about passing girls on bikes.”

In addition to the issues above, girls face an added hurdle thanks to the current “Pay-to-Play” culture of athletics, as parents with the most traditional beliefs about gender are more inclined to view sports fees as too high for daughters compared with sons[4]. It’s not surprising, given the ways in which we have already framed female participation in sports.

We must do a better job of supporting women and girls in sport and reinforcing their roles as athletes. How important is it that our daughters learn the same rules as our sons? It’s critical. We need to get them involved, and keep them playing.


[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/04/the-confidence-gap/359815/

[2] http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/home/advocate/foundation-positions/mental-and-physical-health/benefits_why_sports_participation_for_girls_and_women

[3] Ibid.

[4]http://ns.umich.edu/new/releases/22664-pay-to-play-sports-parents-with-traditional-beliefs-about-gender-may-shortchange-daughters