Our Story

Why Was GAALS + PAALS Created?

The only photo of Dawn playing sports as a kidWhen I was a child, I was an overachiever in school in every class, except gym.  When it came to health and wellness, you could say I was an underachiever. 

I never played sports and struggled with my weight. I wasn’t coordinated and didn’t know how to play sports. I lived in fear of embarrassing myself.

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 (even though post college I became more health conscious and began to exercise). As luck would have it, I married a 6’4″ athlete who weighs 165 lbs, and whose career is in Sports Marketing – a man who believes that those who play sports are more prepared for life given the life skills learned through their participation. Based on his strong sentiment, it was important that sports were a part of our lives.

When we became parents, we were committed to helping our two daughters develop into strong, confident, courageous girls. We wanted them to love their bodies and themselves, and have positive feelings about being physically active.  We knew that one of the best ways to help ensure that happens is to have our daughters participate in athletics. Despite our efforts (including their participation in various programs), that didn’t happen. I became adamant about changing that.

Photo of Dawn during a marathon

We enrolled our girls in various structured physical activity programs. Regardless of the athletic activity, they didn’t enjoy it and often refused to participate. Both girls  said they felt uncomfortable because they didn’t know how to play or that other kids were better. Not wanting then to follow in my footsteps, I was determined to figure out why, so I could hopefully change it!

One week, at my daughter’s basketball class, I watched the boys playing on one side of a gym and girls on the other. I quickly noticed that their lessons were identical, yet their responses couldn’t have been more dissimilar. The girls just didn’t seem as comfortable with the ball. When I inquired with my daughter to see if she was going for the ball because she was afraid of it, she answered, “No mommy, I’m afraid if I take the ball from someone they’ll be mad at me.” That was my a-ha moment! I realized that girls often approach life from a more emotional and social perspective.

Dawn biking picture

I wondered why girls are being taught the same way as boys when their approach to sports, competition and life is typically very different. 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 their actions won’t impact their relationships. They need to be taught that what happens in these types of structured settings should not be treated the same as what happens in their free time. Girls need to learn that it’s okay to fail in front of others because everyone has different strengths and weaknesses (and everyone has insecurities). They need to be taught to surround themselves with people who will lift them up and support them.  

I began seeking programs that allowed for my daughters to be physically active while taking into account their social and emotional needs. But I came up empty-handed. Since I didn’t want my girls (or any girl for that matter) to carry the same insecurities I had, I needed to figure out how to make that happen.

Dawn on the trapeze

I began researching. And in my typical fashion, that included speaking with pediatricians, educators, therapists, moms and girls. I came to realize how important it is to work with children on becoming more aware of their emotions, and to help them develop the skills to manage themselves, their relationships and their daily lives more effectively. 

Armed with this information, and the passion to prevent as many girls (and children) from growing up feeling inadequate, I created GAALS: Girls Athletics And Life Skills. Our programs aimed to deliver on that promise using a simple approach – before, during and after lessons, engage in conversation about their emotions and reflect on their experiences. 

We would also incorporate conversations about how the life skills learned during the lessons could be applied to daily life, because the valuable life skills my husband referenced gaining from sports aren’t necessarily transferrable to everyday situations. According to Nick Holt, Professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta, Canada. “Positive outcomes, such as life skills, must be directly taught to young athletes. They do not naturally occur just by playing a sport.” 

Not long after launching GAALS in September 2013, I quickly witnessed the powerful transformations that occur when girls are given an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings among their peers. I saw firsthand how connecting with themselves and others helped them develop more self-esteem and confidence. This increased sense of self-worth enabled them to grow more comfortable participating, trying new things, challenging themselves, and solving problems. 

The GAALS holistic approach was so well received that I received requests to the meet the needs of schools and communities by offering coed programs. Thus PAALS: Physical Activities And Life Skills, was born. We expanded our customized workshops to meet the varying needs of the participants and began facilitating professional development workshops.

In just six short years, GAALS and PAALS have empowered more than 8,000 children and over 1,200 educators and parents. In doing so, we have received positive feedback and glowing testimonials from educators, parents, children, and therapists (physical, occupational and social workers). Perhaps what is even more gratifying than the positive feedback I hear and the transformations I see, is knowing that as a result of the skills they gained in our programs, so many children will grow up strong inside and out.


Dawn Berkowitz-Ader
Founder & President, GAALS & PAALS

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