Monday, October 20, 2008

Dads, girls, and sports

Lisa Belkin has a perspective I share:

A study released this week, called “Go Out and Play: Sport and American Families” finds, not surprisingly, that kids who are physically active are healthier and happier. Their family lives are more satisfying and less stressful too, according to the survey of 2000 students (third grade through 12th) and 850 of their parents by the Women’s Sport Foundation.

Also not surprising, in a less welcome way, is the finding that things are still not equal for girls and boys when it comes to resources for athletics, particularly in urban areas.

And somewhat surprising, and very welcome, is the suggestion in the report that there is a real role for dads in setting the ratios right.

When girls were asked to name their mentors when it came to sports and exercise, they mentioned coaches and physical education teachers. In other words, people outside their families. When boys were asked, the top two answers were coaches and fathers. Forty-six percent of boys, compared with 28 percent of girls, credited their father for teaching them “the most” about sports and exercise.

My response to news like this is complicated. As a former middle-school girl, back in a day when we wore “bloomer” uniforms for gym and weren’t really expected to ever break a sweat, I root for the girls and the new expectation that they can be strong, too.

But as the mother of two sons who are still in the middle of the sports-centric world that is adolescence, I am troubled by the emphasis on athletics, particularly for boys.

One of the surprises of parenting is how hard it is to keep a child physically active if they are not athletically talented. Both my kids have sports they enjoy, but they aren’t stars in the sports that have currency here in suburbia – soccer, baseball, football, basketball.

Back when I was a kid, you didn’t have to be the best in order to play. There were pick-up games and informal neighborhood play, most of which is now gone. Any time a child older than 7 or 8 takes the field in many neighborhoods, it is with an adult and wearing a uniform. The message comes early — in third grade, maybe fourth — that if you aren’t good you shouldn’t really be on the team, and if you aren’t on the team there’s no place to play. Those fathers who are trying to coach their sons are most likely doing so for a team, not just for the joy of running fast and breathing hard.

There is an interesting finding in the foundation’s 180-page report, which says that girls enter sports (read: organized sports) at a later age than boys (7.4 years old compared with 6.8 years old in general) and that girls also drop out sooner than boys. “Girls’ late start may set them up for failure in sports during the middle-school years,” the report says.

Failure? By sixth grade? Because you didn’t start at age 6 instead of age 7? That can only be true in a culture in which the only definition of success is making the team. And if, as the foundation finds, our children really are emotionally and physically healthier when they are physically active, then that’s not a definition that is helping them.

I understand the lifelong lessons that can be learned on teams. But there are others, which last as long if not longer, that can be learned without them.

I didn’t discover that I had muscles, nor the exhilaration of using them, until I was an adult and found a trainer at a gym who dragged me out of my psychological bloomers. My husband, always athletic, did not get on a racing bike until he was 40, and now he rides every chance he gets. My sons, in turn, discovered tennis in their teens, and while they probably won’t be playing Wimbledon, it is a central part of their lives.

If fathers want to prepare their daughters for a lifetime of health, then coaching their teams is not the only way. Sometimes it might even be the wrong way. Take your girls for a bike ride. Or on a hike or a run. Or just throw a Frisbee for the fun of it. It counts as a victory, even if nobody wins.


Unknown said...

Thanks Jeremy. How nice to check in on your blog today and find myself there! Thanks for reading.
Lisa Belkin (

Anonymous said...

This does not suprise me either. With 6 children, I have 4 that are active in sports. They seem to be healhier and happier than the other 2 most of the time. Thanks for the post.