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PARENTING: Girls – Training Their Minds & Bodies

Girls learn and play sports in their own way. They usually spend less time running, climbing, tumbling, or playing with balls. Girls are not usually aggressive or competitive in their play. There has been extensive scientific research attempting to get at the heart of this issue, but the implications drawn are always controversial. From observation alone it can be learned that boys, when left alone in a room will soon be wrestling, playing dodge-ball with an old shoe, a basketball, or anything that is lying around. Girls are more likely to form a circle, create a group dance, or do some other cooperative activity. Regardless of these tendencies, little girls are very athletic and receptive to sports instruction at any earlier age than little boys. They can listen, they can convert coaching information to skill, and they can strive with the best of the boys through the elementary school years. But, then something happens. They often lose self-esteem, interest, and strength unless they are encouraged to keep on the sports track.

Psychological Benefits

          Parents feel best when they know that their daughter has a good relationship with herself. A girl’s participation in sports not only builds physical strength; it is also one of the best ways to insure that she develops the kind of inner strength that she’ll need throughout life. A research program at Melpomene Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota, has shown that physically active girls have a better outlook on life than those girls who were sedentary as kids, that they take pride in their physical and social selves.

          People won’t invest in themselves if they don’t think they are worth the effort. Developing a sense of worthiness begins with feeling capable. The first relationship we have with ourselves (ego) is physical. As girls build physical strength through sports participation, and acquire sport skills, they feel capable. The more competent girls feel, no matter what body type they have, the more likely they are to cultivate realistic expectations about themselves and accept themselves for who they are.

          Girls who want to make their way in the real world have to earn self-confidence, which comes through striving and years of investment in themselves. Confidence is not something that can be acquired at the last minute, just before you need it during one of life’s many tests. It has to be developed over the course of a life-time – and playing sports is one of the best ways to make it grow.

          Learning to adapt to the ups and downs of life is an indispensable skill. Several components of resiliency should be nurtured while raising children and are also important in raising athletes. Parents can help promote this characteristic in their daughters by providing a caring and supportive environment (where coaches bond with the athletes), teach persistence and confidence, communicate and set high expectations and create the opportunity to have a meaningful experience. Coaches and parents who believe in these concepts will go a long way toward helping girls learn how to get back on track after inevitable defeats and disappointments.

          Motivation is generally established by the time a child is twelve or thirteen. She is either motivated intrinsically by the desire to do well, or extrinsically, by the desire to please or by concern for what others will think. Living in a state of good mental health becomes more difficult for girls as they approach the teenage years. That’s why it is so critical to have sports be solidly in place in a girl’s life early on. Just taking the time for recreation can help balance a person’s life and alleviate depression. Half of all girls who participate in some kind of sports have higher than average levels of self-esteem and less depression.

Decision Making

          The ability to make quick decisions and follow through is often what differentiates the person who is great from the person who just does well, whether on the playing field or in a professional field. One of the greatest gifts we can give girls is the ability to know the difference between goal-oriented and tension-relieving decisions. A tension-relieving decision provides only immediate relief from a problem without considering the long-range implications. A goal-oriented decision is one that calls for planning and a step-by-step approach.

          Developing decision making in sports should begin in non-pressure situations. First teach the progressions of learning various skills, then let the athlete help decide the course of the training by giving input about what skills need the most improvement. Girl athletes will feel like they are part of the decision making process if they are asked to give their input. It is very important to show them how to take specific factors into account, how to weigh them and how to evaluate the potential result.

          Thinking on your feet in a real situation is another decision-making skill playing sports helps girls develop. Many actions in sports are reflex reactions, but decision such as where to kick, hit, or throw a ball require some strategic thinking on the move. One of the benefits of being involved in physical activity is that it constantly forces girls to make decisions involving strategy, with barely a moments notice. During any given practice, girls are called upon to make dozens of snap decisions. Having to deal with the unknown regularly helps girls learn to make the best of what comes their way.

          In order to train girls to think for themselves and solve problems, ask questions instead of giving commands. Supply the girl with choices and ask her to choose the response that she thinks is correct. This makes athletic training a mental as well as a physical exercise. An example of such a tactic is asking a short answer question. “When you missed hitting the ball, were you looking at it or looking someplace else?” When a coach poses more complicated questions, give the players enough time to think of an answer. Word the question so that she can give a short answer. If it is answered incorrectly, keep refining the question. When the right answer comes, give her some positive feedback. The older girls can handle more open-ended questions, assuming you have instructed them in an effective way. Try not to ask what the problem is – instead use situation. The “problem” word sounds like a personal confrontation, and girl athletes will lose sight of the situation at hand. The word “situation” takes the sting out of a coaching statement and helps the girls stay focused. Also, the coach should ask more than one player before giving the correct answer. Certain questions can provoke self-observation skills. For example, “What would be the best thing to do the next time you have an opportunity to kick the ball in front of the goal?”

          Thinking about athletic progress is an important long-term process for girls. In order to assess progress accurately, it requires practice in self-evaluation. Start with asking the girls what they are doing correctly. Then guide her into identifying areas that need improvement. Questions that provoke short answers work best (i.e. “Did that work when you tried it that way?”). Girls seem to respond positively to keeping a journal. After each practice or game, ask them to write two or three items down that need improvement. This is very effective because it gets the athlete to make note of stumbling blocks. Even if her ideas are not right, at least she is thinking.


          The most valuable benefit of sports participation for girls is the development of the personal skills that have been explored in this article. Even if they never pick up a tennis racquet or hockey stick after graduating, she can learn to have faith in herself. By teaching how to make decisions, evaluate progress and learn skills, coaches and parents will be helping her to have a healthy advantage in the game of life.