Girls in sports: The power of play

My 5-year-old daughter’s first T-ball game was Tuesday evening. For weeks now, my husband has been out in the yard playing catch with her most nights. The day we registered her for the season, he rushed right out to Sports and Fitness Outlet and bought her a pink glove. Bless his heart. I made him exchange it for a black one. She’s a ball player when she’s on that field, not a princess.

I grew up with a backstop in my yard and a dad who taught me the three most important words in sports: practice, practice, practice. He still likes to remind me of the day (Just one day, Dad!) when I chose to go to the mall with my friends after practice instead of coming home and taking more grounders with him. I played ball through high school. I met my husband playing in a co-ed, beer-drinking softball league in D.C. So this, my oldest child’s first T-ball game, is significant in my home.

It is significant also because I know how playing sports can alter the course of a young girl’s life in profound ways. Athletes grow up to be leaders in their communities and at work. Ninety-four percent of female executives played sports as kids, according to a global study by Ernst & Young.

Sports changed my own life. Playing team sports helped clarify how I saw myself. It was how I made friends and stayed active and learned to lead and to handle life’s disappointments and to stick it out when things get tough. I’ll never forget the moment I learned I’d been cut from the soccer team junior year. Or the day I got called up to the varsity softball team. Or the silly cheers we belted out from the dugout. Or the funny, talented girls I played alongside for all those years. Sports shaped me, and I hope against all hope that both of my daughters experience that, too.

The odds of that happening are not great, however. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, girls drop out of sports by age 14 at a rate two times higher than boys. And by age 17, more than half of girls quit sports altogether. When asked why they stopped playing, seven out of 10 girls who quit during puberty said they didn’t feel like they belonged in sports.

This June marks 45 years since the passage of Title IX. In 1972, one in 27 girls played high school sports. Today, that number is two in five. That’s significant progress, but not enough. If we want more women in leadership positions as adults, we need them on the field as girls.

All of this is on my mind as I watch my baby girl enter the world of team sports. I am trying not to project all my hopes and fears on her, because I know that if I do, she’ll want nothing to do with baseball. So I keep my crazy to myself.

On Tuesday night under gray skies, Kate walked confidently to the plate for her first ever at-bat. After a last-minute tutorial from her coach, she swung away and — Yes! She connected and the ball plopped forward a few feet. Run, Kate, run! No, toward first! No, that’s the pitcher’s mound. Drop the bat, Kate! Way to go, Kate. We’re proud of you, girl, and we hope you like this game enough to keep playing.

(This piece originally appeared in The Wenatchee World on April 13, 2017.)

(Top photo: Wenatchee World/Mike Bonnicksen. Wenatchee second baseman Tiffany Tofani tags out Eisenhower base runner Haley Weiler as she runs towards second base in a 2016 game.)