Putting the drop-out crisis for female athletes into context
| 5 min read
The benefits are undeniable; research has long demonstrated that girls who play sports are more confident, get better grades, have fewer unwanted pregnancies and fewer problems with drug and alcohol abuse. Some 94% of female CEOs played sports. There are plenty of reasons to get your daughters involved in sports and keep them in sports.
But there’s another notable stat that goes along with all of this: Girls drop out of sports at two to six times the rate of boys. Why is that? And what can parents of girls do to bridge the gender gap?
Like all kids — girls and boys — most quit because “it’s no longer fun.” But “fun” can be code for a lot of different things, including too much parental pressure, burnout, competing interests and an unclear path forward, after rec leagues or high school. That’s why it’s important to get to the underlying reason they want to quit, and proceed accordingly.
I definitely identified as an athlete and still do to this day. Sports have defined my work, relationships and self-image. I am a believer.
But I also have three girls of my own, so it’s been somewhat of a science experiment. I can assure you of one thing, their identity will be shaped by many things that are out of your control.
The first one is simply who they are born to be. My oldest is an artist. She was also a talented athlete, so we encouraged, nurtured and — too often — downright demanded that she participate. But in the end, she chose her more genuine self. Her senior year, she quit sports. It just took too much time away from her passion: art.
Her sisters have gravitated more toward identifying as athletes. Whereas our oldest didn’t seem to care much about the uniforms or backpacks or matching hair ties, her sisters lived for it. For them, it’s been part of their identity, and that’s what keeps them playing.
On the flip side, though, having an athlete identity is not always enough.
Identifying as an athlete, especially for girls, has a lot of positives. But if that’s all they have? There is a significant risk that when a girl athlete stops playing — whether from an injury, being cut, quitting or not playing in college — she will struggle without an identity outside of sport.
We’ve seen this. During the temporary break forced by COVID, many kids can’t figure out who they are in this world without sports or a team. And as we all know, the percentage of kids who go on to play in college is minuscule, so for most, playing organized sports will end by the time they are 18, whether they like it or not. If girls are pushed out by circumstances beyond their control, or if they age out, they’re not dropping out by choice.
The answer isn’t finding a better league, or a better team, a better high school or a better coach. It’s basic. Parents should focus on the joy of sports and movement. We should teach them about healthy decisions, exercise and taking care of their bodies and minds — because this love will last a lifetime.
How? We do it by making it fun, keeping them challenged and allowing them the freedom to make mistakes, try different things and have our support and love through it all.
When we overstep, pressure or overvalue the importance of winning, they lose. We not only push them towards an earlier exit, but they don’t learn the real value of sports — which isn’t winning, getting a college scholarship or being the star player. It’s being healthy, making friends, learning how to lose, learning how to work with others, taking direction, understanding how your actions — the good and the bad — affect others.
And sometimes, that might mean supporting them through the decision to quit sports — to pursue something else they love.
Sports present an opportunity for growth. Hopefully, girls will use it as a stepping stone and not an anchor.
Asia Mape is the founder of ILovetoWatchYouPlay.com, a site for parents who want to raise happy, healthy and successful athletes.