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Playing to Win: How Women Benefit from Team Sports

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Millions of girls have had the opportunity to participate in school athletics since the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Before the legislation, girls’ sports were often underfunded or subjected to outright discrimination, with some “experts” claiming that playing sports put girls at risk of harming their reproductive organs. 


Since that time, girls’ participation in school-sanctioned sports has increased 904 percent in high schools, and 456 percent at the college level. For years, research has demonstrated that the physical, emotional, and social benefits that girls derive from playing sports are irrefutable. Girls who participate in school sports are less likely to smoke, do drugs, or get pregnant. Girls involved in sports are more likely to have healthy body image and self-esteem, and less likely to be overweight. Sports teach all children the importance of practice, patience, dedication, fair play, good sportsmanship, and healthy competition. But the benefits don’t stop when the student hangs up her soccer cleats or her tennis racquet. Sports continue to have a huge influence on physical and psychological well-being, both for adults who continue to play on a team and for those who have long since left the field. 


Hear Us Roar
Team sports can provide a regular and beneficial outlet for stress reduction, cardiovascular exercise, and friendly camaraderie. The regular activity can help mitigate the effects of long-term health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or arthritis, and it decreases the likelihood that women will develop obesity or other, related health problems. Many adults have trouble sticking with a workout, but loyalty to team members may be the perfect motivation to keep them exercising. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, about 55 percent of Americans over the age of fifty are at risk for osteoporosis, and the majority of those affected by the disease are women. By continuing to do weight-bearing exercise, women who play sports maintain their bone density and bone health. 


Playing on a team also helps women maintain social bonds. A recent issue of the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports published a collection of studies from several countries that examined the benefits of running training versus football (soccer) training for adults. Although both groups experienced performance enhancements and decreased risk of accidents and disease, the women playing football also experienced an increase in what the researchers called “social capital.” The football players interacted more as a team and developed “we stories” that solidified their bond as a cohesive unit working together toward a common goal. Runners worked hard at improving their own performance but never developed the social bonds that the football players did. The football players not only bonded with their teammates but were also more motivated to keep working out, even after the experiment had officially ended. 


Breaking into the Boys’ Club
Besides fostering friendship bonds and keeping women healthy, the experience of playing sports is highly beneficial for women’s future social development, especially when it comes to skills related to career and the workplace. The Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by legendary tennis player Billie Jean King, teaches that participation on a team imparts valuable lessons that help women develop strong intrapersonal skills, especially in business, in which male-centric modes of communication tend to be the norm. Women without these vital skills often find themselves at a disadvantage when asked to compete or collaborate with men. 


Women who play on sports teams learn to value coworkers based on their skills and capabilities, rather than relying on personality traits or existing friendships. They learn that successful people are able to project an air of confidence, camouflaging their doubts and insecurities. When women have experience in sports, they learn that it’s okay to make mistakes while practicing a new skill, and that a person can achieve any goal she commits to. They learn how to work within the limits of a hierarchy, as exist in many male-dominated workplaces, and that decisions made in the office (as on the field) aren’t the final word on a person’s worth. They learn to lose and try again, or to win and enjoy the process. Experience in sports gives women the ability to get along in a world where men make the rules and set the standards for behavior and communication. Women without this experience may lack the understanding or the nuance to make themselves heard effectively. 


While other activities may provide some benefits, none compare to the experience of competing on a team during women’s formative years. Individual sports, like tennis, golf, and running, or activities like dancing may offer excellent physical benefits, but they focus on individual achievement, not group cohesion. Participants in nonathletic activities, such as extracurricular clubs and music lessons, may learn and develop from them, but they miss out on opportunities for competition, group socializing, and shared goals. 


Even the most unathletic person can benefit from a team sport, whether it’s a bowling league or a weekend kickball tournament. We’ve got a long way to go in achieving equality for women both in sports and in life, but every youngster enrolled in softball is one more step to a level playing field.

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