Power players

When girls stay in sports, they have a chance to connect with mind, body, and spirit

By Heidi Tattrie Rushton
Photos by Steve Smith/VisionFire Studios

A stellar performance by Canadian women at the Summer Olympics inspired many girls to take up new sports this year. But research by the Women’s Sports Foundation shows that by the time they’re 14, girls drop out of sports at two times the rate of boys. The Community Foundations of Canada’s Vital Signs Report (2015) shows that trend continuing into adulthood with about one in three men to every one in six women regularly participating in sport.

That’s why local fitness leaders say it’s time to change the conversation with girls about physical activity.

Joan Helson, owner of SISU, a martial arts based self-defence studio, started offering empowerment based self-defence programs specifically for girls when she realized many were dropping out of physical activity programs in their preteen years. She found that one of the main reasons the girls gave her was that they felt pressure to succeed at a high level in competitive sports. This pressure intensifies right around puberty, the same age many girls typically start questioning their body’s capabilities, leaving them feeling self-conscious when participating in sports.

“They start to lose touch with some of what I refer to as their superpowers, those kinds of things that make them invincible when they’re three, start to peel away a little bit,” Helson says.

Stacy Chesnutt coaches Girls Gone Gazelle, a non-competitive running club (which she also calls a confidence club), and says she hears that same message from girls who believe that if they haven’t mastered a sport by late elementary, they probably won’t try at all.

“All the girls that they know who are sporty are ‘experts,’” she says. “They think that if they’re going to be a runner or a hockey player or a soccer player they have to have perfect form already and they have to be really good. There’s no conversation about just starting somewhere.”

Jenny Kierstead, who was an elite basketball player, created the Yoga in the Schools program. She says that while being involved in competitive sport helped shape who she is today, she has also lived the flip side of it. When she was competing in basketball she dropped all other physical activities because, “If I wasn’t perfect, I didn’t want to play.” She sees this mentality potentially extending to body issues during teen years.

“The competitiveness of sports today can be really detrimental,” Kierstead says. “Girls today are faced with unprecedented social and academic pressure and I think that sport can add to that. She says in some cases she’s seen the pressure of fitting a certain image lead to eating disorders and body dysmorphia. That’s a disorder in which a person becomes obsessed with their appearance and often imagines defects with their body. 

Teaching young girls to be comfortable with their bodies and relieving the pressure of being “the best” at this critical age can set them on a path to a lifetime of fitness and the benefits that come with it. One way to do this is to provide a non-competitive physical activity option they can participate in where they have control over their performance.

“It’s hard to be a kid, and there are a lot of things girls can’t control at a certain age, but going for a run is something that they can control and that they can give to themselves,” Chestnutt says. “It’s very empowering to make the decision ‘I’m going to be a runner’ or ‘I’m going to be an athlete.’ And it’s been proven that exercise helps with everything. Studies have shown that you sleep better, you make better eating choices, you’re more focused in school.”

Helson offers a program called Be Your Own Superhero for preteen and teen girls. The class teaches them how to stand up for themselves, but it also helps them understand what their bodies are capable of doing. She says while most girls start out feeling self-conscious in class, they soon learn how to focus on their own activity and begin to understand that fitness is a form of self-care, knowing your own body, and it doesn’t have to be in a competitive arena.

“Most of us are never going to make a living as an athlete but what we do want is to have a healthy and active lifestyle through programs that encourage girls to get out of their head and get into their bodies,” Helson says. “There’s nothing else that’s going to give them that same kind of feeling as when they connect their mind, body and spirit.”

Kierstead agrees.

“My passion, my commitment, right now is to help everybody, but especially girls and their teachers and role models, to change the conversation; to pull it away from body perfection and body obsessing and start talking about what they can offer, what their talents are, what their gifts are,” she says. “In my research I found a sobering realization that girls are no longer seeking role models in teachers and spiritual leaders like they once used to. Girls’ main role models today are celebrities. Let’s give them other role models to look up to.”

Showing girls that they have the power over their participation in physical activities, including options that don’t require them to compete with others, and connecting them with strong, local, female role models can set the foundation for a healthy attitude towards a lifetime of physical activity.     

Living the active life

Mackenzie Tomlin, 14, is a member of her dance school’s pre-professional company and is a dancer in Symphony Nova Scotia’s production of The Nutcracker. She also spends time with her family biking, running, skiing, and playing outside for fun.

The Grade 9 student at l’École du Carrefour says staying involved in sports has given her confidence.

“If you’re active you can do anything and everything you want to do,” she says. 

Tomlin says being active is a great way to “wake up” her body after hours of sitting in a classroom.

“Going home and sitting on your couch or bed scrolling through your Instagram feed or playing video games isn’t healthy,” she says. “Being involved in structured sports and activities always gives you something to do, teaches you great life skills, and, depending on the sport, it can teach you how to work well with others. If you love it, why not do it?”