As a mother you can have an enormous influence on your daughter's lifelong pursuit of physical fitness or sports. A 2008 study by the Women's Sports Foundation found, in fact, that mothers topped girls' list of those who "encourage me a lot."
Here are some tips on how to help your daughter develop a love of sports and get the most of her sports experience:
- Plant the athletic seed early. The trait of athleticism shouldn't be assigned just to boys. Girls who become elite athletes often report being inspired and motivated to play sports early in life. Starting your daughter out in sports when the time is right (notice I didn't say organized sports; you don't need to start your daughter in team sports until she is six or seven) is important because studies show that if you don't get your daughter involved in sports before age ten, there is only one chance in ten she will be participating in sports when she is twenty-five.
- Mold sports awareness and build fundamental skills in pre-school. Girls who play sports without basic skills are more likely than boys to feel like failures and give up. Use the pre-school years to mold your daughter's awareness of sports and begin developing fundamental skills (kicking, overhand throwing, catching, and running). Use a Koosh ball, which is easy and safe to throw and catch, or a Frisbee, to develop these skills. It is a myth that girls can't throw overhand just like boys.
- Encourage your husband to roughhouse with her more: Rough-and-tumble play and other forms of physical play, as well as physical aggression, are three to six times less common among girls than boys, a sex difference that continues through childhood and adolescence. Studies show that fathers tend to engage in more active play with their sons than with their daughters. The 2009 Go Out and Play study by the Women's Sports Foundation also found fathers encourage their sons to be physically active at a higher rate than that reported by girls. It also found that while 46% of boys cited their dads as teaching them the most about exercise and how to play sports, only 28% of girls did so. The bottom line: encourage your daughter's father to play more actively with her.
- Talk with your daughter about your sports participation. Research suggests that if you play or played organized sports, your daughter is more likely to play. If your daughter doesn't know you were an athlete because you aren't currently playing sports, don't display your trophies or show her your scrapbooks, she is more likely to think that boys are inherently more athletic than girls. It's never too late for your daughter to know about your sports history; it can change your daughter's perception of where she acquired her athleticism. Not knowing that you played sports may lead your daughter to associate her own athletic ability with your husband and not with yours.
Make sure you are a role model for your daughter. Don't unconsciously minimize or restrict your daughter's involvement if you weren't an athlete growing up. If you were an athlete growing up, make sure that you talk to your daughter about your involvement and the historical discrimination women faced to their sports participation both in terms of access and gender stereotyping (fulfilling obligations of "women's work" and being relegated to playing feminized versions of male sports). Don't downplay - or let your husband downplay - your athletic accomplishments.
Learning about your participation can also help your daughter overcome conflicts about her own participation that might arise because people have labeled her a "tomboy", implying that she is inappropriately "masculine."
- Make fitness and physical exercise a part of your family's everyday life. Your daughter is more likely to play sports if you are physically active. Instead of just watching your daughter play soccer, join an adult team. Like the soccer-playing mothers in Escondido, California who call themselves "A Bunch of Moms" you can show your daughter, as one mom told her local paper, that playing sports is more than fun for kids, it is "something they can do for her whole life to stay healthy."
- Be an involved parent: Nearly half of female athletes in one study listed parental involvement as the factor that gave them the most encouragement in athletic activities. We need to change the culture in which fathers are the parents responsible for athletic training of children. It used to be that fathers had more experience in sports than mothers, but in the post-Title IX world in which we have been living for thirty-plus years, this is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
Don't leave it to your daughter's father be the one more involved in supporting her participation in sports. The fact that you may be more involved in other aspects of a child's life than your husband also shouldn't prevent you from having time for your daughter's sports (or for our own, for that matter). If you only occasionally play sports with your daughter, she is more likely to view you as less interested in sports than you actually are.
There are lots of ways for you to be directly involved: as a coach, referee, fan, chauffeur, or team administrator (or what used to be called "team mom"). Try to get to as many of her games and practices as you reasonably can.
- Take girls sports as seriously as boys. While nearly nine out of ten parents now agree that sports are equally important for girls as boys this still means that there are some who think sports aren't as important for girls. A girl dropping out of sports when she becomes a teenager may simply be having a delayed reaction to messages she got when she was younger that sports weren't for girls. In other words, it becomes easier to stop playing sports because society expects her to stop. Imagine your daughter growing up to be an athlete; otherwise not becoming one may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Watch and attend girls' and women's sports contests with your daughter. Unfortunately, a gender bias in media coverage continues to persist that reinforces gender stereotypes and deprives girls and women of appropriate athletic role models. Give your daughter female athletic role models to emulate by watching women's sports on television and attending girls and women's sports contests. Look for even-handed sports coverage (USA Today, Sports Illustrated for Kids). Make a point of following with your daughter the careers of girls who have become hometown or regional sports heroes.
- Offer extra encouragement. Studies show that adults tend to encourage boys, but not girls, in sports to be independent and competitive. As a result, girls tend to view themselves as less athletically skilled than they actually are (remember, a lack of confidence is one of the main reasons girls drop out of sports when they reach adolescence). It is therefore critically important that both you and your husband give your athletic daughter extra encouragement by telling her you value her as a female athlete, by letting her know that she has the same capacity as a boy for coping with intense sports competition, and that she is just as tough as any boy.