Girls who do sports get better grades, have higher self-esteem, and are more likely to become leaders later in life.

By By Karla Bruning
Updated: April 23, 2019
Photo: Charlotte Sutto 

"Go fast!" My daughter yelled as we arrived at the runDisney Kids Dashes during Star Wars Rival Run Weekend at Walt Disney World in Florida. It's the third Disney race for my budding athlete. She also takes gym, swim, and dance classes, rides a scooter (helmet on, of course) and swings a tennis racket while shouting, "Football!" And by football, she means soccer. P.S. She's two years old.

Tiger mom? Maybe. But research shows that girls who participate in sports get better grades, have higher self-esteem, and lower levels of depression. They're also more likely to land in leadership positions later in life.

While girls' high school sports participation is at an all-time high, according to a National Federation of State High School Associations survey, they still lag behind boys by more than 1.15 million students. At the same time, youth sport participation under the age of 12 has seen a steady decline since 2008, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. And 70 percent of those little athletes will drop out by the age of 13, according to the National Alliance for Sports. Female confidence-on par with boys at age 12-plummets by the age of 14.

Evidence shows that exposing girls to risk-taking and normalizing failure might be the key to battling that confidence gap. Sports are one sure-fire way to accomplish that. "Sport is simply an organized and easily available opportunity to experience loss, failure, and resilience," write the co-authors of The Confidence Code for Girls Claire Shipman, Katty Kay, and Jillellyn Riley in The Atlantic.

I've already seen a gender split at the youngest level. My daughter's swim classes tend to be an even mix of boys and girls; after all, swimming is a life skill. But her dance class is all girls and her sports class has two boys for every girl. (And yes, competitive dance is a sport and all dancers are athletes.)

But I see each as equally valuable. In dance, she's learned new ways to move, horse galloping and bear crawling down New York City sidewalks, much to my horror. (Hand sanitizer, STAT!) She jetés, chassés, and twirls, not because it's "girly," but because mastering a new skill is fun. And she's gotten so much stronger, physically, in the process. When my husband took her to see the New York City Ballet perform in intimate, floor-level spaces at the Museum of Modern Art, she was just as mesmerized by the dancers gasping for breath off stage as she was by their performance. Now she asks to watch "purrinas" on TV and pretends her ballet flats are ballet slippers.

At sports class, she learns a new sport and skill every week, like basketball and dribbling, baseball and throwing, soccer and kicking, along with shuttle runs, trampoline jumping sequences and more. As the weeks have progressed, I've watched her bring those skills home, throwing every ball she can find and dribbling any ball that will bounce. She wants to play with her tennis racket just about every day. Our #1 rule? Don't hit the dog. (Related: I'm Thankful for Parents Who Taught Me to Embrace Fitness)

And swimming? She'll jump into the water unassisted, dunk her head under and come up coughing and smiling. She is fearless. I hope being an athlete will help her stay that way.

Of course, the goal of all that physical activity isn't just to keep her healthy or tire her out, though it helps with both. Research shows physical activity actually improves concentration and memory. She's training to be a better learner, not just a better athlete. And that translates into a greater chance of success in school. Athletes get better grades, attend more school, and have higher graduation rates than non-athletes, according to a large body of research.

For a girl, that's as important as ever. If 2018's "Year of the Woman" taught us anything, it's this: We need to equip and empower girls in every way we can. Sexism is alive and well-hello, #MeToo-and the glass ceiling is firmly intact. After all, there are more men named John that run S&P 1500 companies than women, according to The New York Times. And as of that 2015 report, just 4 percent of those companies (which represent 90 percent of the U.S. stock market's total value), had a female CEO. In 2018, just 4.6 percent of Fortunes 500 companies were run by women. Major #facepalm.

But the "Year of the Woman" also screamed this: we're not going to take it anymore. We might struggle to earn the same pay, equality, and respect as men in many industries and corners of society. But more women are making inroads into leadership roles, like the historic 102 women sitting in the House of Representatives this year. With 435 house seats, we're almost halfway to equality.

Giving my daughter-and all our daughters-the gift of athletics is one way to get there. As many as 94 percent of female business leaders in C-suite positions have sports backgrounds, according to a survey by EY and ESPNW.

After all, sports-and other competitive activities, too-teach self-discipline, leadership, teamwork, time management, critical thinking, confidence, and more. As a competitive swimmer growing up, I learned that failure is often the first step to success. One year, my relay team was disqualified in a meet after our teammate left the block too early. We'd been working on a new exchange technique that felt awkward to all of us. As a kid, the DQ was tough to swallow. It felt like a big deal. So we worked tirelessly in practice, drilling our relay exchanges until we were all in sync. We eventually took that lineup all the way to the Illinois championship, where we placed fifth in the state.

As a collegiate rower, I learned what it meant for a team to work as one-literally and figuratively. We rowed as one and fought as one. When my crew felt our coach's behavior was not only counterproductive but sexist, we held a team a meeting and decided to speak up. He screamed insults at us routinely. His favorite? Slinging "like a girl" as a weapon. It riled us. As captain, I scheduled a meeting with him and the head of the rowing program to voice my crew's concerns. To their credit, they not only listened; they heard. He became a better coach and we became a better team in the process. More than 20 years later, that mentality still pervades our society. It's no wonder the Always #LikeAGirl campaign resonated with so many women.

Now, I'm a runner. "Mommy run fast," my daughter says when she sees me lace up my kicks. Sometimes she'll bring her sneakers to me and shout, "I go fast!" She loves to run up and down the sidewalk. "Fast! Fast!" she yells as she sprints. Never mind the fact that neither one of us is particularly speedy. She runs like a Muppet, whenever and wherever she can. But when we toed the line at the runDisney Kids Dash, she grabbed me. (Related: I Crushed My Biggest Running Goal As a 40-Year-Old New Mom)

"Hold you!" she said, indicating she wanted me to carry her. "Don't you want to run fast?" I asked. "Just a few minutes ago you were running and shouting, 'Go fast!'"

"No, hold you," she said sweetly. So I carried her through the dash. She grinned from ear to ear as we galloped together; pointing and smiling as we neared Minnie Mouse toward the finish. She gave Minnie a big hug (which she's still talking about) and as soon as a volunteer hung a medal around her neck, she turned to me. "See Minnie again. I run!" she yelled."OK, but are you actually going to run this time?" I asked. "Yes!" she screamed. I put her down and she sprinted off.

I shook my head, laughing. Of course, I can't make my daughter run or swim or dance or do any other sport. All I can do is give her the opportunity, along with encouragement and support. I know it will get tougher as she gets older, as peer pressure and puberty strike. But I also want to give her every chance to roar. That's the tiger mom in me.

When I look at my daughter, do I see a future CEO, congresswoman, or pro athlete? Absolutely, but not necessarily. I want her to have the option, if that's what she wants. If nothing else, I hope she'll learn a life-long love of movement. I hope she'll grow strong, confident, and capable, equipped to take up the mantle of feminism that awaits her. I hope she'll learn to embrace failure and speak truth to power, whether it's her coach, boss or someone else. I hope she finds inspiration in perspiration, but not because I want her to be like me.

No. I want her to be even better.

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