How (and Why) We Should Increase Girls’ Participation in Sports

This week, in honor of International Women’s Month, we examine ways communities can promote gender equity in youth sports and fitness. Today, boys ages 18 and under are far more physically active (26.0%) than girls in the same age range (16.9%).  This activity gap begins at a young age and continues through high school. According to a 2015 self-reported survey, 57.8% of high school-aged boys reported meeting the recommended 60 minutes per day of physical activity on at least 5 of the last 7 days. This number is far from ideal but it seems relatively high compared to just 39.1% of high school-aged girls who reported reaching the same level of daily physical activity.

Part of the physical activity gender gap can be traced to lower sports participation among girls. Data from the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey revealed that 53.0% of high school girls participated in one or more sports, compared to 62.2% of high school boys. This disparity is due in part, to the high rate at which teen girls dropout of sports. By age 14, girls are 1.5x more likely to quit playing sports than boys, by age 17, more than half of girls quit sports entirely.

You may be wondering, “Why does this matter?” If girls don’t want to play sports, should we be focusing so much time and effort on getting them back in the game? The short answer is, yes! Playing a sport provides girls with benefits that can last throughout their entire lives. These include: decreased risk of cancer, improved life skills (such as teamwork, leadership, and perseverance), increased self-confidence, improved academic performance, decreased risk for obesity-related diseases (such as heart disease and diabetes), improved emotional health and resiliency.

In spite of the wide range of benefits to be gained from physical activity, girls continue to drop out of sports at an alarming rate. There are many reasons why girls choose to quit playing sports. Some of these include:

  • External messages: While there have been many popular campaigns in recent years  promoting girls’ participation in sports, many girls still view sports as a primarily “male” activity. This perception can take root at a young age and eventually lead to a girl’s decision to quit playing sports as an adolescent or teenager. Girls may also quit sports out of a desire to avoid social stigmas, fit-in with their peers, or pursue alternative activities such as arts, music, or education.
  • Internal messages: One of the biggest influences on a girl’s decision to quit playing sports is her self-regard. In a survey by Gatorade and Refinery29, more than one-third of girls reported dropping out of sports because they felt they “weren’t good enough.” This lack of confidence can stem from body image issues, a perceived lack of social acceptance, or feeling that they lack adequate athletic abilities.
  • Fewer high-quality opportunities: Too often, girls’ sports lack an adequate number of trained coaches and appropriate funding. This, combined with decreased funding for facilities, uniforms, and equipment, can cause sports participation to become less enjoyable. Travel requirements and facilities or environments that are perceived as unsafe can also fuel the decline in female sports participation.

The question is, how do we address these factors? The American Psychology Association lists six steps individuals and communities can take to encourage girls to participate in sports.

  1. Model being active: Studies show, girls are more likely to incorporate physical activity into their lives when their parents are active. Make fitness part of your family’s routine by going on family bike rides, taking an exercise class together, or organizing a family soccer game.
  2. Model making time for exercise: Help girls make exercise a priority by showing them that finding time in their daily schedule to be active doesn’t have to be difficult. Provide tips for fitting physical activity into their day such as waking up early to get a walk in before school/work or splitting daily activity into three, twenty-minutes sessions instead of one hour-long segment.
  3. Provide encouragement and support: Help girls discover all of the ways they can be active. Whether it’s individual or team sports, dance classes, or organizing after-school walking groups, there are countless ways for girls to add physical activity to their daily schedules.
  4. Focus on short-term benefits: This may sound counterintuitive, but research shows that adolescents and teens are more influenced by current benefits than long-term outcomes. Talking to girls about the importance of being active can be a great tool to boost their sports participation. Just make sure to highlight benefits they will gain quickly, such as improved mood, increased energy, and self-confidence. Refrain from touting appearance-related benefits and focus on mental and social outcomes.
  5. Plan ahead: Encouraging girls to participate in sports at a young age will help them develop the skills and physical literacy they need to be confident in their abilities as they grow older. Starting sports in elementary school will help make physical activity a habit that can stay with girls into adulthood.
  6. Support girls and women in sports: Help girls recognize that athleticism and femininity are not mutually exclusive and that sweat, hard work, and strength are not solely masculine realms. Support women’s sports by attending female sporting events or signing up to coach a girl’s youth team.

Promoting girls’ sports participation is not just a trendy ideal. It’s a smart, powerful action we can take as individuals and as a community to improve girls’ physical, mental, and emotional health. As a community sports and recreation center, our goal is to make Civic Park a space that encourages sports participation and healthy living for girls and boys of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. The programs and events hosted at Civic Park will help local youth experience the joy of sports and recreation while developing the skills and habits necessary to make physical activity part of their daily lives.


For further reading on how to promote girls’ participation in sports:

TED Talk: How to Raise Brave Girls 

Raising a Brave Girl

Active for Life: Raising Active Girls

Women’s Sports Foundation: Factors Influencing girls’ Sports Participation

American Psychology Association: Adolescent Girls and Physical Activity

Refinery29: Young Girls are Dropping out of Sports…