Girls’ Sports Participation: Sharing Our Stories

by Naomi Watkins

The Summer 2016 Olympics begin this week, and despite the problems plaguing these games, I’m looking forward to the news and my social media feeds filling with stories of triumph, of hard work paying off, of goals achieved and exceeded. (If you haven’t already done so, go read about the refugees competing in the Games).

My love for the Summer Olympic Games stems from my own involvement with 11 years of competitive swimming–a relationship that started when my mom signed me up for the local club swim team despite my loud protestations. As a nine year old living in a coastal town of San Diego County, I had to overcome my fear of the water and the swim team was my mom’s way of ensuring that I did just that. I still remember donning swim cap and goggles, facing my fear of the water straight on, and eventually realizing that I was capable of doing hard things. Still today, when faced with difficult or seemingly impossible tasks, I recall the time that my coach told me that instead of swimming the 800 freestyle in a race, I would swim the distance butterfly (the most strenuous of the strokes). I thought he was crazy, but gosh, I determined to do it. And I did. I finished that race so physically and emotionally spent; I really could say that I had given my all. Swimming was a continual lesson to me of the power of my mind and body. My body was so much more than something to be admired or adorned; it was a tool. It also showed me how teammates and support made me perform better than I thought possible, about how I was just as capable as the boys, that both boys/girls/men/women could work together towards common goals.

Yet, while I found great support for my athletic participation at home and from my peers, I encountered adult naysayers at church. My parents did a pretty good job at sheltering me from much of the naysaying, but it did come through in subtle ways. And thankfully, I didn’t very much care what the naysayers had to say. Swimming opened up a world of other opportunities–far more than I saw visible at church. Swimming led to college scholarships to great summer employment to lifelong friendships to life lessons and skills.

And unfortunately, despite the many, many positives of athletics participation for women (i.e. better health, lower drug use, lower teen pregnancy rates, etc), girls either never participate or drop out of sports at very high rates. Some information from the Women Sports Foundation:

  • Seven out of 10 girls don’t feel that they belong in sports.
  • Girls enter sports at a later age than boys (7.4 years old, compared to 6.8 years old). Girls’ late start may set them up for failure in sports during the middle-school years (sixth through eighth grades). By age 14, girls drop out of sports twice as often as boys.
  • Nearly one out of every two high school boys plays sports, while only one in three high school girls participates.
  • Variations in the gender gap in athletic participation often appear to be driven by economic disparities, race and ethnicity, and family characteristics. These variations strongly suggest that the girls’ and boys’ participation in sports and exercise is primarily shaped by access and opportunity. One in four ninth- to 12th-grade girls has never participated in organized or team sports in urban schools, compared to about one in six urban boys.
  • Boys tend to overestimate their interest in sports, while girls lean toward underestimating their athletic interests. For example, 42% of third- to eighth-grade boys who are non-athletes said that “sports are a big part of who they are,” compared to 16% of non-athletic girls. Female athletes, moreover, are often involved with several clubs and organizations outside sport, whereas male athletes focus more singly on sports.”

Two years ago, Always (yes, the feminine hygiene brand) launched the #LikeAGirl campaign to keep girls’ confidence high during puberty and beyond. Athletic participation is one avenue that girls can  build self-confidence and maintain it.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be featuring stories of AMWers who participated in high school and college athletics–and women who are still participating in athletics as adults. If you’re interested in sharing your story, email us at

And go Team USA!

2 Comments on “Girls’ Sports Participation: Sharing Our Stories

  1. Another activity besides sports that has been proven to benefit girls is music. Long term study with committed practice and lessons of a musical instrument or serious vocal. Many life lessons are learned, goal setting and plain old fashioned hard work comes with involvement in sports and music. Go girls go!

    • I agree with the music comment. Music can touch a person when nothing else can. Go girls GO!!

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