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Sports Dropout Rate for Girls Six Times Rate For Boys

While participation by girls in sports has increased at all levels (Olympic, professional, college and high school, and youth) and society is more accepting than ever of female athleticism, the fact that girls continue to drop out of sports at six times the rate of boys is an indication that we still have a long way to go as a society in reaching the goal of gender equality in sports. Not only are they less likely to participate in sports once they reach adolescence but, worse, they are more likely to become sedentary, inactive "couch potatoes." With such inactivity comes an increased risk of obesity and other health problems.

The statistics from the Centers for Disease Control are sobering:

  • only one-quarter of girls in their senior year of high school engage in regular exercise compared to one half of boys.

  • The percentage of children involved in vigorous physical exercise dropped by half, from 66% to 33%, between 1984 and 1990; and

  • Only one-fifth of the nation's girls have daily physical education, and only one state (Illinois) requires it by law.

Why do girls drop out of sports at the cusp of adolescence when they need sports the most? There are a number of reasons:

  • With adolescence comes a greater desire for cooperation and connectedness over competition: Soaring estrogen levels as girls enter puberty prompt a shift in attitude by many girls away from competition and towards relationships and connectedness, so that they get turned off to playing sports, which becomes increasingly competitive at the middle school and high school level. As Anne Driscoll, author of Girl to Girl: Sports and You!, observed in a 2000 article in The Boston Sunday Globe , "Girls ... by their very nature, are relational. ... [T]he primary aim of girls is to relate to others, to be in relationships with others. That is to say, their most important drive is to connect and to stay connected. Many athletic girls struggle with the fact that competition is not about connecting. It's about vanquishing the other. And vanquishing is not nice."

  • Girls are less tolerant of poor sports behavior than boys. The values that female athletes seem to naturally embrace - playing a sport not just to win but to have fun, considering the team's success as important as their own, playing hard, but playing fair, and being, above all, good sports - clash with the winner-take-all mentality and abusive behavior by athletes, coaches and fans which increasingly characterize today's youth sports, especially at the middle and high school levels. According to one recent study, girls are about half as likely than boys to exhibit cynical attitudes and engage in illegal or unsporting conduct. The concern is that such winning-at-all-costs philosophy will threaten the growth of women's sports by turning girls and women off to sports. Many of the girls who continue to play sports persist only because of the social and more emotional aspects (i.e. they feel connected to teammates and coaches).

  • Teenage girls experience a crisis of confidence. Studies confirm what women know from their own experiences as teenagers: that girls suffer a severe crisis in confidence and larger drop in self-esteem during adolescence than boys (who gain self-confidence as they mature). As a result, girls are more likely to quit sports and other challenging activities than boys because they don't view themselves as being good enough.

  • Poor coaching. Of the eleven reasons cited by girls in a classic 1988 study as to why they dropped out of sports, the fourth highest was that coach was a poor teacher; number nine was that the coach played favorites. Coaches who berate and belittle girls turn sports into such a hurtful, harmful experience that dropping out becomes for many a way to avoid further damage to their self-esteem.

  • Teenage girls still think sports are unfeminine. Back when I was in high school it was not real cool for a girl to be a jock. That is why I didn't go out for basketball my senior year: even though it was one of my best sports, I didn't want my senior class to vote me "most athletic" (I was pretty sure that I would have won the award otherwise - I was captain of the field hockey team that won a Massachusetts state championship and on the softball team). Sadly, it is still mostly true today. High school girls interviewed by Roselind Wiseman for her best selling book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, said girls can be athletic and have high social status but only if they have thin, "feminine" bodies, and that a large, "masculine" build was unacceptable (which is why many excellent female athletes worry about getting bulky if they lift weights).

  • Middle school and high school sports are about winning, not participation. Girls are hard-wired to desire connection, cooperation and collaboration and resist overt competition. Unlike boys, who are more willing to sit on the bench because it allows them to connect with other boys, girls who go out for a sports team expect to play. Many girls quit sports as they enter their teen years because they know that the only way to keep playing is to play sports like boys in a hyper-competitive, winner-take-all environment where only the most skilled girls play.

  • Girls sometimes don't receive the support they need from their family. The primary place where girls learn about gender roles is the family. Families still tend to engage, perhaps unconsciously, in gender stereotyping, conveying to girls the message that girls are inherently less athletic than boys, and that sports are less important for girls than they are for boys.
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Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) by Brooke de Lench.

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