By Linda Marsa - Family Circle Magazine
Extensive research shows that girls who are involved in athletics boost their self-esteem; improve their physical fitness; do better academically; are less likely to drop out of school, do drugs, smoke or get pregnant; and are more able to weather the physical and emotional storms of adolescence. "Gymnastics was a wonderful outlet for me," agrees gymnast Dominique Dawes, a three-time Olympic gold medalist. "It kept me from falling into a dark hole during the down times we all have."
Playing sports also establishes life-long habits that translate into dramatic health benefits. Sportswomen have lower incidences of heart disease, osteoporosis, obesity, and breast and other reproductive cancers. The psychological gains are important too. "Athletics build character," says Tracy Austin, who was the world's number one female singles tennis player in 1980 at age 17. "They teach you tenacity, discipline, social skills, and how to win and lose graciously."
Keeping Girls in the game - "Parents can play a key role in encouraging their daughters' lifelong involvement in sports. The good news is there's plenty that moms and dads can do to raise athletic girls, ranging from chauffeuring their kids to practice, to coaching teams themselves, to attending women's sports events with their daughters, to lobbing school, town and state officials for more money.
However, make sure your daughter is involved because she wants to be, not because you're pushing her. Unflagging parental support and positive reinforcement can counteract the negative cultural messages girls are bombarded with in adolescence. "My mother was a never-ending bowl of encouragement," says Olympic skier Picabo Street, who is naturally big and strong, and battled stereotypes of femininity throughout high school. "My mother constantly told me, You're great. You' re beautiful. You're so coordinated. I'm so proud to be your mother.' It made me feel substantial. I also had my father encouraging me to excel because he knew what I was capable of doing."
As with mastering a foreign language, the younger you are when you learn to play sport, the easier it is to acquire the skills and more likely they are to stick with you for life. The all-important first step is to introduce your daughter to athletics as early as possible. In fact, studies indicate that if a little girl does not participate in athletics by the time she's 10 years old, there is only a 10 percent chance she will participate when she is 25.
Johanna Winters has accepted an athletic scholarship from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. "I love to train hard and be in shape," says Johanna. "What has helped me resist some of the social pressures is that all of my friends are involved in sports, too. For us, being active is what's cool."