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Women's Health | KATHY SMITH

When Girls Play Sports, Forget Final Score--They Win

March 30, 1998|KATHY SMITH

My husband and I were both athletic as kids, so it was natural for us to steer our young daughters into sports. Three years ago, when my oldest daughter, Kate, was 6, we visited our local rec center and happily enrolled her in coed soccer and T-ball. Our bubble of excitement burst, however, at the first practice. What we discovered surprised us.

"Mommy," Kate asked, "why am I the only girl on the team?"

Trying to find an answer for her question, over the next several days I quizzed parents of girls who weren't involved in sports. Apparently, these parents still believed that it was normal to get their sons playing ball yet regarded it as exotic for their daughters.

"Isn't it dangerous for girls to play sports?" some asked. "Won't the boys be too rough?"

Considering how women's collegiate sports have grown astronomically in popularity (witness the fevered enthusiasm for the NCAA basketball championship), I'd thought that such attitudes had evaporated long before. But I was wrong. And even now, with two (!) women's professional basketball leagues, that old prissy attitude persists. Young girls are still many times less likely to receive sports-related gifts, like balls and mitts, than young boys are.

Too bad. Not just for those girls, either. According to a study by the Women's Sports Foundation, it seems that all of society wins when girls take an active interest in sports and are encouraged by their parents to participate.

Here's how:

* Girls who play sports benefit from higher levels of self-esteem than nonplayers.

* They enjoy better body image, leading to fewer eating disorders and dangerous dieting practices.

* They're less liable to suffer severe bouts of depression.

* They earn better grades.

* They finish high school at significantly higher rates.

* They get pregnant far less frequently.

* They use drugs far less frequently.

* They reduce their lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and osteoporosis.

* They learn lessons that serve them well throughout their lives and careers.

In one survey, 80% of female executives at Fortune 500 companies said they'd played team sports when they were young.

How many more reasons do you need before nourishing your daughter's zest for athletics?

It's never too early to begin. Studies show that the younger a girl starts playing, the better are the chances that she'll continue to enjoy sports throughout her life. That's a terribly important statistic. Because studies also show that a 14-year-old girl is six times more likely than a boy her age to drop sports completely.

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Obviously, not every parent is athletic. But you don't have to be Michael Jordan to give your little girl a ball and throw it back and forth with her. Sometimes, that's all it takes, letting her know that you encourage her to try.

You might also try taking her to watch other kids play. Seeing them, she'll probably want to emulate them. If she does, let her know that you think it's fun and appropriate for her to get involved.

Then, once she is on the field, encourage her gently. Too often, a girl who's just learning a game--soccer, for example--is turned off by her parents' wild exhortations on the sideline to play harder and harder. While a sense of competitiveness may occur naturally in time, your trying to instill it in her too early usually only backfires.

Winning the game or contest is beside the point. A girl first has to take pleasure and pride in the process itself. She has to believe that what you consider a win is simply her effort and participation. And you have to trust that, as her skill level improves, her interest and enthusiasm will likewise grow.

Nor does your daughter have to display the obvious talent of Jackie Joyner-Kersee. I remember hearing the great Olympic speedskater Bonnie Blair talk about how completely inept she was at every sport. But she kept trying sport after sport until she finally found skating, because in the Blair house, participation itself was the prize.

As it is in our house. Kate, now 9, still plays soccer and has added basketball to her mix. Meanwhile, 6-year-old Perrie is following in her sister's sneakers. Both have discovered the thrill that comes from trying your hardest and being responsible for and to your teammates.

As their mom, I couldn't be more pleased. It's impossible not to see how these experiences are building their character in wonderful ways. Win or lose, they're learning sportsmanship, poise and grace under fire. Watching their faces, I have to believe that these memories will last their entire lives. But even if they don't, they'll certainly last mine.

Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

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Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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