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Parenting: Girls II – Training Their Minds and Bodies

By Paul Schienberg, PhD

In Part I of this series, many benefits of girls participation in sports were described: greater sense of self develops when they can trust their bodies abilities; improve capacities for rolling with life’s ups and downs; intrinsic motivations are established; ability to make quick decisions and execute them; and higher thinking skills while in motion. Part II will round out the list of benefits of sports participation for girls as well as provide additional pointers for their parents and coaches.

Risk Taking and Mental Toughness

It has been said that new-born infants are brought into this world with only two fears. The first is the fear of falling. The second is the fear of loud noises. If that is so, then all other fears are taught. And if taught, it is important to be aware of what we say to children and how we say it. When a young child trips and looks up at the parent, the child is looking for a signal to know what to feel. If the parent remains calm and smiles, the child gets up and goes about life. “Hockey is too rough for girls.” “Skateboarding will break your legs and if that happens don’t come crying to me.” Sound familiar?

Raising girls with courage is not an easy task. It takes parents’ and coaches’ willingness to face their own fears of getting hurt. By helping a child face the challenges and possibilities of getting hurt, the adult improves the skills in themselves. Running from risk is a habit. It can be overcome by changing the response in the present. We are not recommending recklessness. Evaluate the activity and make an objective assessment. Girls will model how to handle situations that you haven’t tried in a way that reduces chances of serious injury. An allied bad habit that responsible adults slip into is not letting the child try something on her own. The anticipation that something will go wrong causes the parent to leap in prematurely. The result can be a girl reaching a road block in developing a life/sport skill.

Coaches can help a girl live with and overcome or not learn any fears. Fear of failure can become one of the greatest fears of all. It is important to let girls know that failure is just a part of the learning curve – and that if we didn’t come up short sometimes we would never improve or find better ways of doing the same task. Unique to girls is something called fear of success. The consequences of winning can be to lose the identification of being daddy’s or mommy’s little girl. Parents need to show the girl that she is adored as she achieves goals in sports. Fear of criticism can be overcome by using player-friendly language. Coaches should consult with parents if it is noticed that there is a hyper-sensitivity to even softly spoken criticisms. Fear of what other players will think of them can cause paralysis. Girls will struggle with feelings of humiliation if they are not performing as well as others. A coach might help by letting her know that you have been there too. Give her an experience from your past! The girl will nod and smile which a sign of emotional mastery.

Help girls make the link between reaching goals and taking risks. Set up little goals with little risks. A pattern of attempting new behavior or new activities can be created. It is good to condition the girl to the positive connection between risk and reward. Efforts made by parents and coaches to manage emotional risks can pay off when they are sincere and unwavering.

Another area of risk-taking is developing communication skills. By letting your daughter try to handle problems that come up between her and her coach, you will be helping her express her thoughts and feelings. Taking into consideration the girl’s age, you might want to accompany her in a discussion with the adult in question. Even in that case, it is important not to rescue her too soon. Standing up for herself by voicing her concerns will have payoffs throughout her life. Have her practice with you a conversation she needs to have with a coach. Instruct her to write down the ideas she wants to get across. Of course, you should let her know that you support her goal. If you go with her to the discussion, open up the talk and then let her take the center stage.

One of the greatest challenges girls need to face is learning to deal with the fear of injury. By attempting controlled risks repeatedly, girls who take chances with their bodies learn to become mentally tough. The U.S. Naval Academy demands that females take boxing and wrestling every semester. Direct physical threat helps build confidence. Providing varying opportunities to take physical risks and succeed is critically important. Beginning girl athletes need almost a 90% chance for success; intermediates should get 50% chance of success; advanced female athletes will try even if there is almost no chance of success.

Here are a few more recommendations we offer to parents and coaches of girls: if you challenge girls with goals that are way beyond their capacities, they will develop fear instead of courage; embarrassing girls in front of significant others will create intimidation and embarrassment; should the girl express fear do not turn your back on her – instead talk with her about where the fear is coming from – most fear comes from feeling inadequately prepared; providing too much assistance is going to create a belief in her that she can’t handle the problem.


Developing the confidence to start and stick with an activity, and thereby achieve a goal, is a life-long journey which sports participation can promote. Athletics put girls in situations in which they must be disciplined – being self-disciplined creates productivity. Participation in sports is about self-mastery.

The way you talk to yourself is a major component of developing the nerve to believe you can do something. This optimistic approach is called “positive self-expectancy.” If the mind can picture going for the best, the body will move toward the best. If a girl is having a negative vision, redirect how she sees herself and find a goal she believes that she can achieve. If girls are put in sport situations where they can make positive self-talk, they are more likely to succeed and believe in the idea of positive self-communication.

All too often, girls get the message that they shouldn’t expect much of themselves. Society expects boys to be good at sports and girls not to be courageous and persistent. Coaches and parents must help girls overcome this barrier. They need a loud and clear communication from authorities that lets them know about higher expectations in sports. Girls need to be taught how to speak more positively to themselves – they need to evaluate themselves in a more positive, confidence-building style. Help girls erase negative self-talk and come up with more supportive communications. Let her know that how she speaks to herself will determine if she advances to the next level. When you evaluate girls make sure to keep self-defeating words out of your vocabulary.

Goal setting is a necessary technique that helps girls learn to discipline themselves. It is the moment-to-moment goal setting that makes the most impact. Repeat the word “goal” as often as possible. Work with short term goals. It is important with younger girls to make the goals as attainable as possible. Help girls to set the goals themselves – it will help them believe that they are ready for the next goal.

Organizing time effectively develops self-confidence. Parents and coaches need to demand that the homework must be done if they want to play sports. Let your daughter set up her own routine. By helping your daughter stick with the schedule, she will get a sense of teamwork.

Learning to cooperate with others to develop a cohesive unit and achieve goals is acquired in team sports. This skill is harder to come by when there is less than two parents in a household. If a girl grows up with siblings, she will learn to share space, responsibilities and time with their parents. Family dynamics affect how girls respond to pressure and compromise; how they support their teammates, and whether they rebel, confront or remain silent when they are upset about something. When girls enjoy and respect each other, you will have cohesiveness unlike any association you’ve ever had with boys. It is important to offer support when you see a girl doing something for the team. Never put a player down in front of other teammates.

Some behaviors are not in the interest of the team and must be pointed out quickly. Even though this may require some negative communication, it is in this case unavoidable. The primary focus of the group or team must be to achieve its goals. Horseplay (making jokes, fooling around at inappropriate times) distracts the team. Name calling is very undermining to cohesiveness. The girls involved should be taken aside individually. If you don’t know who is involved, the coach could try a team meeting – put the responsibility on the girls by saying “this behavior is causing us to lose points.” If the coach sees a girl becoming withdrawn or depressed, it is usually caused by feeling like she doesn’t fit in or is having significant difficulty learning the sport’s skills. Before deciding to go to the parents, try to draw her out. A player, who constantly objects to directions from the coach, undermines the flow of a practice or training session. One approach is to ask the player if the issue can be addressed after the session. If she insists that it be dealt with immediately, ask the other players for input about how to handle it. Dominating behavior sometimes needs to be taken care of in a one-on-one meeting with the coach. When a number of players are not giving 100%, the rest of the team has to pick up the slack. Resentments can grow in this atmosphere. The coach has to address this dynamic with the entire team before frustrations get out of hand.

Tolerating others’ attitudes, beliefs and feelings is a concern on the sports field and off. One negative characteristic of girls is that they tend to talk behind each others’ back and gossip more about other people than boys do. Coaches can try these steps to improve tolerance: point out common ground, have issues discussed in the open, quickly, by the teammates, let them come up with the solution, impose one if they don’t, encourage quiet girls to speak their minds.

There are few characteristics as important as persistence – it creates more stories of success than any other trait. One of the mechanisms used by coaches to improve persistence in girls is to provide small goals where they can see their improvement. Using numbers is very effective. How many practice swings will it take to learn how to hit a shot out of the sand-trap? Number of baskets needed to be shot to hit the foul shot 80% of the time? The girls will learn that if they just keep going they will be successful. Another way to improve persistence is to use visualization of success. When the image of the goal is kept alive, its pull to keep going is improved. The coach can also remind the player how far she has already come since she hit her first foul shot. A girl’s level of persistence can be evaluated by the coach asking the following questions: Does she enjoy the sport only if she has a particular coach or group of teammates? If injured, does she stop going to all practices or keep practicing those skills she can attend to? If the she loses, can she put it behind her and keep trying to improve her skills? When faced with additional challenges does she become excited or worried? If a teammate is better, does the girl stop trying?


Participation in sports provides girls the opportunity to develop personal skills that will last her a lifetime. A girl can learn to be decisive after weighing her options, feel confident in her problem solving skills, be a team player, communicate effectively, take risks and be persistent. Put together she will be prepared to move into her adult life with confidence and self-reliance. Regardless of whether she becomes a professional or a serious amateur athlete, she will have learned how to be a part of communities, handle authorities, live with people who have different points of view and maintain a sense of herself. All of these skills will assure her a healthy advantage in the game of life.