I spent this morning at a cross-country race at my daughter's school, watching kids aged seven to eleven run their hearts out on Hampstead Heath.
I've had a change of heart recently about sports. As a die-hard drama geek growing up, I neither played a lot of sports nor cared very much for them. My view was that pretty much all of the main benefits you got from sports were easily replicated in other activities. As a result, and as I've fessed up here before, I'm really not a sports mom in any way, shape or form.
But lately I've been rethinking the value of sports for my kids. Part of this is that my son is an avid soccer (football) player and fan. But a lot of it has been watching what being good at sports has meant for my daughter.
Women's Sports Foundation research shows that boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 9 -- and their parents -- are equally interested in sports participation. However, by the age of 14, girls drop out of sport at a rate that is six times greater than boys.
That's a real shame, because there are all sorts of reasons that girls, in particular, should be playing more sports. Here are five:
1. It boosts their self-esteem. It's no secret that, on the whole, girls tend to have lower self-esteem than boys. Girls' self-esteem tends to peak at around nine years old and then drops precipitously, while boys' self-esteem tends to plateau in adolescence. Girls are also particularly likely to be critical of themselves, with one-quarter of older girls reporting that they did not like or hated themselves. In contrast, only 14 percent of boys said they felt this way. Sports builds confidence because, as a friend of mine put it recently, it teaches you how to improve your "personal best." Girls who are active also tend to be more optimistic, which has a direct bearing on motivation, and therefore achievement. In a recent study, 80 percent of female Fortune 500 executives identified themselves as former "tomboys."
2. It teaches valuable life skills. Sports also teaches valuable life skills. When you work with coaches, trainers, and teammates to win games and achieve goals, you're learning how to be successful. Above all, you're learning how to function within a unit, and to work collectively with others towards the achievement of a goal. That skill is crucial for success in the work place; it's also crucial to success in family life. My own view is that girls tend to rely excessively on one or two friends when they're young, while boys tend to have more diffuse friendships. Sports is one way of countering this "best friend" bias in girls, while at the same time teaching them how to be both cooperative and loyal to the friends that they do have.
3. It keeps them healthy. In addition to being fit and maintaining a healthy weight, girls who play sports are also less likely to smoke. Later on in life, girls who exercise frequently are less likely to suffer from breast cancer or osteoporosis. As little as four hours of exercise a week may reduce a teenage girl's risk of breast cancer by up to 60%. And in a world that's obsessed with female body image, sports is a healthy way to keep yourself in shape, rather than starving yourself or endlessly dieting.
4. It improves academic outcomes. Being good at sports also has positive spill-over effects for school. Girls who play sports have, on average, higher grade point averages, better SAT scores, lower high-school drop out rates and a better chance of staying in college. Indeed, one study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that government policies aimed at directing more resources towards female sports may have been responsible for roughly one fifth of the 50 percent increase in female college attendance and college graduation between 1980 and 2000.
5. It's fun. Again, no glass ceiling here. But as I watched the cross-country races this morning, I couldn't help but be taken with the pride, satisfaction and ear-to-ear grins on the faces of the girls as they crossed the finish line, even if they didn't win. And that, in and of itself, was worth the price of admission.