When I was young, I never played sports. I didn’t know how to properly throw a ball. I struggled with my weight and hated gym class. As I got older, regardless of successes in other areas of my life, those feelings of inadequacy – in terms of athletic competence and body image – resurfaced time and time again.
As luck would have it, I married an 6’4″ athlete who weighs 165 lbs and whose career is in Sports Marketing – a man who believes that those that play sports are more prepared for life given the life skills learned through their participation. Based on his strong sentiment, sports would be a big part of our lives.
When I gave birth to my first daughter, and then a second, my husband and I agreed we wanted to build strong, confident, courageous girls who love their bodies and themselves. We knew that one of the best ways to help ensure that happens is to have our daughters participate in athletics.
Despite our efforts, they resisted. When playing with friends (regardless of the athletic activity), they refused to participate, saying they didn’t know how to play or the other kids were better. Hoping to combat this aversion, we enrolled our girls in various structured physical activity programs. They didn’t respond favorably to any of them. And I was determined to figure out why.
One week, as I watched the boys shoot hoops on one side of a gym and girls on the other, I noticed that their lessons were identical. But their responses couldn’t have been more dissimilar. They just weren’t as comfortable with the ball. When I asked my daughter why she wouldn’t grab the ball from the other girls, inquiring if she was afraid of the ball, she said, “No mommy, I’m afraid if I take the ball from someone they’ll be mad at me.” That was my a-ha moment!
Why are girls being taught the same way as boys when their approach to sports, competition and life is typically very different? They are often approaching things from a more emotional and social perspective.
Girls need to know that it’s okay to grab the ball from a friend. And that they not only can, but should, make decisions for the group when they are tasked with being the leader. They need to be reassured that these things won’t impact their relationships. They need to be taught that what happens in these types of structured settings should be treated independent from what happens in their free time. Girls need to learn that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. And that everyone has insecurities about different things. It’s okay to fail in front of others – that those around you should be there to lift up and support you when that happens. One of the ways to do that is to facilitate conversation in these settings – during these experiences.
I began seeking programs that allowed for my daughters to be physically active while taking into account a girl’s social and emotional development, but couldn’t find any. Since I didn’t want my girls (or any girl for that matter) to carry the same insecurities I have for decades, I decided to consult pediatricians, educators, therapists, moms and girls to create GAALS: Girls Athletics And Life Skills, a place where girls can develop their C’s – Courage, Character and Confidence to assertively navigate their everyday experiences and daily lives.
In my research, I learned some interesting things about the valuable life skills my husband referenced gaining from sports. According to Nick Holt, Professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta, Canada. It isn’t enough to just participate and learn them. “Positive outcomes, such as life skills, must be directly taught to young athletes. They do not naturally occur just by playing a sport.” So even if my girls played on a team, we would have to incorporate conversations about how the life skills learned could be applied to their daily experiences. But as we all know, learning from mom and dad isn’t quite the same as learning from others – especially peers and adults seen as role models.
I am fortunate not only to find women who exemplify everything I hope our GAALS girls (GAALSters) will become, but also to have local high school girls spend their free time with us helping assist the girls during classes and events. All of these women are incredible role models to the young girls.
It is equally important for me to be an integral part of our classes and events. Being there not only enables me to share my vision and experiences with the coaches (and girls), it provides an opportunity for me to learn and adapt the program. And frankly, there is simply no substitute for the wisdom of a mother – especially the mother of girls. But the most gratifying aspect of being there is that it allows me to witness powerful transformations in many of our GAALSters. Knowing that these young girls will not grow up with the feelings of inadequacy that I did is my greatest reward.
Founder & President, GAALS & PAALS