Susie is crazy about the Washington Redskins, so she's getting pretty excited as Super Bowl Sunday gets closer. She knows every word to "Hail to the Redskins," and she watches every game. She likes to pretend that she's out there on the field, running for a touchdown. The crowd roars! Her play has won the Super Bowl!
In her imagination, Susie is a great football player. In real life, she thinks it's pretty dumb that girls rarely play the game. She plays touch football with some of her friends in the neighborhood, and she's good. She's fast, and she can throw a pass well. But at her private school, girls don't play on the football team.
Child development experts disagree about whether girls should try out for sports that have been played only by boys for years and years. Some psychologists think that playing on a coed team can be confusing for a youngster who is just beginning to figure out what it means to be a girl or a boy. These experts feel that kids need to spend time competing with members of their own sex before they start trying to rival members of the opposite sex.
Most people think that playing sports is good for everybody. A study conducted by the Women's Sports Foundation showed that girls who grew up playing sports with boys felt better about themselves when they were teen-agers than girls who didn't participate in sports at all. The girls who played sports with boys were also more likely to participate in sports and physical fitness activities when they grew up.
In 1972, the government passed a law -- known as Title IX -- forcing school systems to provide equal sports opportunities for girls and boys, whether on the same team or different teams. Sports programs cost money, and schools had to be told by the government that girls' sports should get as much money as boys'. Within a few years, thousands of coed sports teams had been set up around the country, and girls had the legal right to play on previously all-male teams if they wanted to.
At most public schools in the United States today, students attend coed physical education classes. But when it comes to contact sports like football and soccer, the schools have single-sex teams. There are many exceptions: boys play on girls' basketball teams, girls play on boys' soccer teams. Girls and boys participate in swim meets and volleyball tournaments together. A few girls play on boys' football teams, as Susie would like to.
When boys and girls are tested for their athletic ability, they do about the same until the ages of 10 to 12. After puberty, when boys' and girls' bodies begin to go through the changes that lead to adulthood, boys become more active. Girls become more sedentary, or inactive. But why does this happen? Many people believe that girls aren't naturally more sedentary but that society expects girls to begin acting "like ladies." In our society, all that is changing. There are now 25 officially recognized inter-school competitive sports for girls.
Since girls have started playing more sports, doctors have reported more sports injuries among girls. But most experts feel that girls will do fine, even on boys' teams, if they are good enough at the game to be selected for the team.
Girls may have a hard time getting enough practice to develop the skills they need to compete on boys' teams. In general, girls spend less time taking part in sports than boys do. One study showed that a boy gets eight hours of athletic instruction for each hour a girl gets. This is changing, but girls like Susie still have to make an effort to get as much training as they need to play a tough competitive sport.
As you grow up, you should try to make some sports activity a part of your life. Playing sports not only keeps your body healthy, it also teaches you things about how to get along in the world. On a sports team, you learn to cooperate with other people. When your coach shouts signals from the sidelines, you learn to follow directions. During practice, you learn to understand and follow rules. During competitions with other teams, you learn to be a good sport, and to lose gracefully sometimes. Those are all important things to learn, whether you're male or female.
Tips for Parents
All young athletes need proper conditioning, competent coaching and supervision, appropriate equipment and safe facilities, as well as good medical care. If your daughter shows interest in pursuing a competitive sport, you can help by being sure she has access to all these things.
Sports experts advise parents to remember that too much competition can be difficult for children and cause stress. For instance, eating problems and sleep disturbances have been reported in children after Little League games. Similar upsets happen after other "on stage" events like school plays and piano recitals. You can help your children deal with the pressure of these events by being understanding rather than critical.
Olympic skater Peggy Fleming, honorary membership chairman for the National PTA, advises parents: "If children lose, they shouldn't be yelled at or criticized but made to understand what went wrong or what went right."
To find out more about your daughter and sports, write the Women's Sports Foundation, 342 Madison Ave., Suite 728, New York, N.Y. 10173; or call 1-800-227-3988.
Catherine O'Neill is a free-lance children's writer in Silver Spring.