Work Hard, Play Hard

By Paige Hawkins

I always dreamed of flying with the birds. Of jumping off of cliffs with wings I wish I had and playing in the hazy tides of the clouds: weightless and free. What is it like to glide alongside your flock; sticking with your team through any storm sent your way, able to communicate and work together to overcome any obstacle? The closest I’ve come to that euphoria was through playing team sports, as unlikely as that may seem.

Sports did for me what Aladdin did for Jasmine: they opened up a whole new world for a child determined to soar.

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The Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by Billie Jean King, explains that statistically girls are more likely to get involved in sports at an older age than boys. This comparatively limits their time to advance highly before finishing high school or college, which contributes to the fact that women are more likely to drastically reduce their amount of exercise as they age. Lack of physical activity leads to health problems such as osteoporosis, heart disease, cognitive decline and even cancer, to name a few, and girls who begin playing sports at a  younger age are more likely to continue as they get older.

Those girls involved in sports at a younger age though are generally better equipped to, “reach their goals, handle what life presents to them, and draw upon their own power when necessary” according to a report done by the Women’s Sports Foundation, “Her Life Depends On It.” Kids who play sports grow up with the unwavering belief that they can accomplish their goals if they work hard enough, because they’re able to prove it to themselves every weekend on the field. Each new skill learned, each play mastered and each fall they get up from is another confirmation to themselves that they are powerful, and able to roll with the punches.

In a study done by EY in May 2013, it was determined that out of a pool of about 500 female executives, approximately 90% of them had actively played a sport in either, “primary and secondary school, or during university or other tertiary education.” Additionally, research from the American College of Sports Medicine determined that female participants in sports are more likely to graduate from college and have higher test scores, as well as be highly skilled in teamwork and goal-setting. It therefore stands to reason that having an extensive background in athletics provides skill sets that are held in high esteem in our society, and helps to set that person on a path toward success socially, academically and financially.

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So if playing sports gives us such a huge boost in life, why doesn’t everyone compete? Social, cultural and economic factors or, “intersections between personal preferences and social opportunities,” are generally the biggest reason why people don’t become involved in sports.

To start with, the misconception that physical activity was not “ladylike” and therefore unacceptable for girls stunted the advancement of female athletes for the majority of the twentieth century, creating a cultural standard that women are still overcoming. As times changed though, the public was gifted with pioneers such as Billie Jean King, Serena Williams and Mia Hamm, who continue to set the standard of excellence that little girls and boys can now look up to. Additionally, the Women’s Sports Foundation found that participation in collegiate-level sports has increased over 500% among women since 1972, with those numbers increasing every year.

Economic and racial factors also contribute to which demographics are involved in sports from an early age. Girls living in suburban areas are more likely to play sports than those in urban or rural communities, and are generally given more opportunities to help them succeed. Proportionally, women of color are less likely to be involved in sports as children than white women, and girls in immigrant families report less participation in sports than boys. 15% of all girls who play sports are African American, 17% are Hispanic, and 8% are Asian. That means 40% of all female athletes are women of color, and yet in general the best, most well-funded and accessible athletic programs are found in white-dominated suburban schools and communities.

Even the best female sports programs generally take a backseat to their male counterparts. Girls tend to get the worst fields, the latest practice times, and the oldest and most used equipment; it’s the little things that let us know that female athletes are not a priority.  It’s one microaggression after the other that tells girls that their presence in athletics is not quite as welcome, not quite as celebrated, and not quite as important.

Childhood is the time we expect adolescents to learn the skills and values they will use for the rest of their lives, and playing sports is clearly an extremely valuable variable. However, we must ask ourselves what it means that everyone does not have the same the opportunities. Women, particularly women of color, have been deprived of those opportunities for too long, and as a result are robbed of their own potential. Having the privilege to compete athletically, whether that be in soccer, dance, wrestling, cheerleading, etc., can help you accomplish anything.

Leadership, teamwork, sportsmanship, strategic thought, perseverance, and confidence are just some of the qualities I learned over my decade-long+ athletic career. It’s not just kicking a ball. It’s not just running around a field. It’s not just throwing something at a net. The stereotypical connotation of a “jock” as someone who is stupid or arrogant and singularly obsessed with sports is a mischaracterization; success and participation in sports is an incredibly strong indicator of success later in life.

Being an athlete helped define who I am. It gave me wings to fly and the confidence to take a leap and the strength to keep my head up, no matter what. Every child should have access to those same opportunities, and the chance to soar.