Playing Sports Has Lifelong Benefits for Girls

In 2019 alone, about 25% fewer high school girls than boys played sports, according to the latest numbers from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Research by the Women’s Sports Foundation suggests that girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys by age 14, and by 17, half of girls quit sports altogether. Some may look at these numbers and shrug their shoulders. “Who cares? If girls don’t want to play sports, don’t make them.” But it’s actually a big problem with far-reaching consequences. 

You see, this dropout rate is particularly alarming because studies have shown that girls who play sports do better in school, and that’s true for both grades and standardized test scores. Girls who play sports also report increased confidence, teamwork and leadership skills as the top benefits of staying in sports.

And there’s a clear connection between those perceived benefits and the outcomes women have once they’re off the playing field and working in a professional field. Studies show that girls who play sports are more likely to graduate from college, land competitive jobs and work in male-dominated industries. What’s more, a survey by Ernst & Young and espnW found that 94% of women executives participated in sports and more than half played at the collegiate level. Nearly three-fourths of these women said their time on the playing field helped develop their leadership “muscle.”

In short, to get girls to play sports is to give them an advantage when it comes to self-confidence, discipline, leadership, problem-solving, teamwork and resilience—critical skills that will serve them when they’re in middle school, high school, college and beyond. 

The challenges to getting girls involved in sports

Here’s a pair of questions we hear a lot: “What are the most popular sports for girls?” and “What are the best sports for girls?” The answers couldn’t be simpler. 

To the first question, our answer is, “It doesn’t matter.” (If you must know, the top 5 sports for girls are track and field, volleyball, basketball, soccer and softball based on the number of participants alone.) But do you know why it doesn’t matter? It’s because the best sports for girls aren’t the most popular ones—they’re the ones your daughter enjoys playing. They’re the ones she plays because she likes to play them—not because they’re popular or she feels pressured to play.

Another barrier to getting girls involved in sports has to do with exposure. Everywhere a boy turns, from the moment he’s born, his gender identity is linked to sports—baby blankets with balls on them, and baby’s first football, baseball and soccer ball. And that messaging only grows stronger as boys grow older. Meanwhile, girls are bombarded with images not of strong female athletes, but of external beauty. Not only do they lack positive role models in sports, they may face stereotypes and discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Then, there’s the problem of opportunity. It’s a fact that girls have fewer opportunities to play sports than boys. The Women’s Sports Foundation reports that high school girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities, to be exact.

Finally, there’s the issue of funding­. Who saw the side-by-side photos showing the weight room disparities for the NCAA women’s and men’s basketball tournaments? If women competing at the top levels of college athletics can’t get a decent workout room, what does that mean for their younger counterparts? 

When girls’ sports programs go underfunded, that impacts playing venues, playing times, availability of quality coaches, equipment and even uniforms. And these obvious disparities can drive girls away from the game. In many cases, cuts to school funding force the issue, and girls either drop out of the sport or have to find their own opportunities to play. Then it becomes an issue of cost, safety and transportation—barriers that disproportionately face girls of color and those from economically disadvantaged families. 

How to keep girls in the game

Now that we’ve established why it’s important for girls to be involved in sports and the many barriers standing in their way, let’s end on a positive note. We can address these barriers for girls in sports and we can help make sure girls can become women who harness the critical life skills learned on the playing field for success in a professional field. And we can do that by creating opportunities for girls to play sports and for them to engage with the strong role models who represent the best in women’s sports. 

A major part of our commitment at Play Like a Girl is providing girls with positive experiences in sport and active play. We’ve been in the business of creating these opportunities for nearly two decades, with the help of major companies, collegiate and professional athletes, and sports teams and leagues at all levels. Together, we aim to inspire girls to reach their full potential—aspiring to be and do anything they can imagine.

In 2018, we started offering Hot Wheels® Speedometry™ at STEM+ Saturday to teach our girls about concepts such as energy, force, and motion. Students also learn scientific and engineering practices such as data analysis and interpretation. But the fun didn’t end there—we’ve since partnered with Bridgestone, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla to help girls engineer toy racetracks, design their own electric cars, engage with female role models in mechatronics, and attend STEM field trips designed to expand how they see their future.

Hundreds of girls also received a die-cast Matchbox replica of the Mercedes-Benz 220SE commemorating Ewy Rosqvist’s historic Argentinian Grand Prix victory in 1968. It was in this car that Rosqvist and co-pilot Ursula Wirth shattered world records and the notion that women could not compete in the sport.

Just before the COVID-19 shutdown, we had the chance to work with girls at the NFL FLAG National Championship in Orlando. Then later in the year, Sarah Fuller, the Vanderbilt University soccer goalie turned football kicker, joined our Meet + Mentor program as guest mentor. In January, we teamed up with the Nashville Predators to hold a free hockey clinic for Play Like a Girl participants.

After some time on the ice, the girls chatted with women leaders in the Predators’ front office—many of them former athletes. Some of our girls went on to participate in the Preds’ girls hockey program, which just wrapped last month. With a full set of free equipment, they’re now outfitted and ready to improve their hockey game this summer.

In just a few weeks, over 100 girls and women will take the driver’s seat with Play Like a Girl at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where we’ll go behind-the-scenes of the iconic racetrack and get an up-close and personal look at the first female owned, female driven, and female forward race team at this year’s Indianapolis 500. Race car driver Simona de Silvestro and her No. 16 Chevy-powered INDYCAR will be the focus of this high-energy event which will follow a special mentoring series connecting middle school girls in our programs with female leaders in the fintech and motorsports industries. 

We round out our summer schedule by introducing golf to a group of girls who have never stepped foot on a green. With help from several professional women golfers and Play Like Girl alumna Emma Clonan, we will kick off the Play Like a Girl On the Green charity golf scramble with a free Junior Girls Clinic powered by LPGA Girls Golf.

Proceeds from the tournament will provide even more exciting and unique opportunities to get girls involved in sports, connect them with powerful women role models and mentors, and, ultimately, keep them in the game.