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From high-profile women's professional leagues to high-school-level champions, girl athletes are acheiving record breakthroughs. Witness, for example, the first spectacular season of the WNBA, or the celebrated victories of women's teams at the 1996 Olympics. The female athlete is a new media darling especially beloved of today's teenage ...
From high-profile women's professional leagues to high-school-level champions, girl athletes are acheiving record breakthroughs. Witness, for example, the first spectacular season of the WNBA, or the celebrated victories of women's teams at the 1996 Olympics. The female athlete is a new media darling especially beloved of today's teenage girls, who are almost as likely to have pictures of Rebecca Lobo, Mia Hamm, or Gabrielle Reece on their walls as posters of Leonardo DiCaprio.
So it seems paradoxical that many books and studies attest to a truly sobering picture of girls' lives. With her book Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher was only the latest in a string of theorists to describe the dramatic ways in which girls loose self-esteem during the critical years of adolescence, contributing to eating disorders, drug problems, and chronic depression in many young women. In Raising Our Athletic Daughters, journalists Zimmerman and Reavill set out to talk with girls and their parents about how sports can transform girls' lives. Here are firsthand stories from the inner cities and rural playing fields across the nation, offering compelling evidence that participation in athletics makes an extraordinary difference in the lives of young girls, from reducing pregnancy rates and substance abuse to increasing college attendance. Raising Our Athletic Daughters is a clarion call for all those eager to help their children succeed and level the playing field, at last.
A wake-up call for many parents came with the widespread dissemination of a survey report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in 1992. "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America" is only one of a series of studies that have painted a dark picture of the way our society treats its daughters. The survey found a troubling downward arc to related aspects of girls' lives as they continue through secondary school. They experience a larger drop in self-esteem than do boys, and as a result are "more likely to lose interest in activities that challenge them, less likely to believe in their own abilities, and less likely to question teachers even when they believe the teachers are wrong."
Other research has reinforced the findings of the AAUW report. Most recently, the Commonwealth Fund's Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls, conducted in 1996-97 by Louis Harris and associates, recorded the responses of 6,748 boys and girls in grades five through twelve. Two of the survey's key findings were that girls are at a significantly higher risk than boys for suffering depressive symptoms and that girls lose their self-confidence as they mature, in contrast to boys, who gain in self-confidence as they grow older.
Clearly, there is a pronounced difference in the way young girls and young boys respond to modern life. The life choices of too many of our daughters are compromised by drug and alcohol abuse, early pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, eating disorders, self-mutilation, depression, and suicide. For many, concerns about body image become almost an obsession. We give radically different messages to our daughters and our sons, with often tragic results. We are raising a nation of Ophelias, to use a metaphor made popular by clinical psychologist and author Mary Pipher, who describes our culture as "girl poisoning."
But one source of optimism registers against this bleak background. Our daughters are pouring onto the playing fields of this country in unprecedented numbers. There is a growing awareness that girls enjoy sports and that sports are good for girls. New evidence is developing which indicates that girls who play sports tend to avoid the physical, psychological, and social pitfalls of modern adolescence. For a number of reasons, playing sports empowers girls.
But something is still not right. For girls today, the desire and the readiness to play are there, but the way is often blocked. Raising an athletic daughter--even in this era of ferocious WNBA court pounders and the triumph of female athletes at both the 1996 Atlanta and 1998 Nagano Olympic Games--parents may experience and observe situations that are disconcerting, if not disturbing. Twenty-five years after the passage of Title IX, the law that mandates equal resources for girls' and boys' athletic programs, stubborn disparities still exist. It can be as simple as the number of sports available for girls in your area, either in the school system or outside of school. Boys might be able to participate in soccer, baseball, football, basketball, swimming, hockey, martial arts, while for girls there may be only basketball, gymnastics, swimming, and soccer. Girls' locker rooms always seem to be smaller, their practice times less convenient, and their games likely to be scheduled on school nights, when attendance is sparse, rather than on crowd-friendly weekends. The girls' teams carpool, the boys' teams get the hired bus.
The national media offer only minimal news coverage of our daughters' sports heroines or of the women's teams they follow. Studies reveal that more than 95 percent of national sports coverage pertains to male athletes. Athletic girls lack female role models. Even if your daughter loves sports and gets a chance to play, her coaches might be all men.
Our daughters drop out of sports at much higher rates than our sons, and it tends to happen right on the cusp of adolescence, when girls most need the benefits athletics can provide. Too many parents have the experience of seeing their child get involved with some kind of activity--soccer, say, or gymnastics--when she is in elementary school, only to have her announce her intention to quit when she reaches junior high. While a third of high school freshman girls play sports, that percentage drops to 17 percent in their senior year.
Some parents may be surprised by the characterization of American girls today as eager to play sports. They might see their daughters spending much more time loafing around the house watching TV than engaging in any kind of physical exertion. This is the source of a contemporary paradox: at a time of spiraling interest in sports for girls and women, physical activity among our children is dropping precipitously. Since 1982, there has been a 21 percent plunge in the number of teenagers who exercise regularly. It's as if our society is made up of two cultures, playing-field culture and television-watching culture, and the two of them are drifting inexorably apart.
This book represents the fruit of our efforts to talk to those people most intimately involved with these concerns--girls who play sports. We spoke to athletes all over the country who are participating in a wide range of sports, as well as some girls who have dropped out of sports entirely. We also interviewed professional athletes, parents, educators, coaches, trainers, program directors, and academics. We talked with girls in grade school, high school, and college, with their friends and relatives. Our own friends and family members gave us opportunity for interviews. The community we live in furnished a rich ground for investigation. We sifted through studies and reports and delved into the "secret history" of the female athlete.
We were looking for ways in which the world of sports can benefit our daughters as well as ways to open that world as much as possible for them.
We found considerable cause for optimism. The girls we met impressed us with their energy, poise, and confidence. These are young women who actively and intelligently make their own choices and shape their own lives. They help communicate the message that sports, at their best, can be an expression of the human yearning for excellence. And they provide reason for us to believe that in raising our athletic daughters, we are raising girls to be strong, self-determined women.
1. Parents' personal history colors their approach to introducing their daughters to sports. What were some of your own sports-related experiences growing up?
2. More people tuned in to televised coverage of the Women's World Cup in Summer '99 than the NBA finals the same year, seemingly disproving the theory that there is no large-scale audience for televised female athletic events. Was it a fluke or a trend?
3. The authors cite studies saying that 95 percent of national sports coverage focuses on male athletes. They say the trend has begun to shift in other venues. How are local newspapers' coverage of women's and girls' sports different, and why? What difference does it make to girls what sports get covered in the media?
4. The authors make the claim that playing sports not only boosts girls' confidence and enhances their physical well-being, but can even "save girls' lives." What evidence is there to support this assertion? Do you know girls for who this conclusion is true?
5. Debate exists regarding the benefits of same sex or coed sports participation. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each?
6. What about athletic activities that are traditionally "boys only"--such as wrestling, ice hockey, football, boxing--what are the benefits for girls of taking part? Is there a downside? Are they different than participating in more "feminine" sports--like swimming, gymnastics, tennis?
7. Kate Morrel is a soccer player whose teammates helped her through a tough time. Have you ever played on a team that felt like family?
8. Girls' games are not often capable of drawing big crowds of spectators, something girls in the book note with disappointment. Why does it matter--and who do girls want most in the stands cheering them on?
9. Fathers and athletic daughters share an unusual bond. What are some of the advantages that a father might bring to his daughters sports experience? Disadvantages?
10. The authors assert that how we treat girls and boys even before they start kindergarten shapes their later sports participation and ability. What messages do we send by putting girls in tutus and boys in dungarees, or by scolding girls when they come in dirty from playing outside?
11. The hours of 3 to 8 pm have been described by child professionals as "the witching hours." Why? In addition to the teen crime rate tripling, the teen pregnancy rate also rises. What's the relationship researchers have found between girls' physical activity and premarital sex?
12. Kids play neighborhood pickup games less frequently than they did years ago. Instead, we have much more adult-organized team play. What are the pluses and minuses of this evolution?
13. The authors describe the boom in girls' sports involvement as a "children's crusade." What evidence do they cite for this view? What are some of the obstacles to equal sports participation for girls?
14. What are some of the barriers in schools to girls' sports participation? What can parents do to monitor what goes on in their kids' school?
15. What are some of the sporting events of the last several years that have altered the public expectation for women athletes and fueled girls' desire to play?
16. The authors profile a number of young athletes throughout the book. What are some of the more memorable characters? Did any of the girls remind you of a girl you know? Did the descriptions of girls' personalities ring true?
17. The book talks about the role of some especially devoted coaches. What makes them good? Talk about your own experience with coaches. Do you remember a standout coach?
18. Corporate America is taking notice of the explosion in sports for women. Examples? Why is business so interested?
19. How do some coaches ensure that kids excel academically as well as athletically? Can you think of an example the authors give of a high school student who was motivated by her sports involvement to improve her academic performance?
20. It's been said that while sports teach boys what they must be, they teach girls what they can be. Can you explain what this means? While physical activity is good for all kids, do you think it holds particular advantages for girls? If so, what are they?
21. "Not to have confidence in one's body is to lose confidence in oneself," wrote Simone de Beauvoir. Social theorists like Mary Pipher have described the culture we inhabit as "girl poisoning." What kinds of features make girls lose confidence in their bodies and how can physical activity help girls regain a healthy body image?