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Ground-breaking WSF research uncovers important information about girls’ sporting experiences

In a nationally representative sample, more than 2,000 girls who play sports and their parents made their voices heard as part of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s newest, ground-breaking research, “Coaching Through a Gender Lens: Maximizing Girls’ Play and Potential.” The study, which was released April 4, was conducted in partnership with Nike Social & Community Impact Division.

The report seeks to examine the intersection of girls’ sports development needs with their “current day” experiences. By collecting data from girls aged 7-13, their parents and sports program leaders, the research analyzes girls’ sports experiences and how specific coaching practices impact girls’ participation, retention and motivation within athletics.

The conclusion?

Girls love sports. They want to compete. And certain coaching practices help ensure that they maximize their potential in sport and stay in the game.

While 93 percent of girls aged 7-13 who participate in sport responded that they ‘like’ or ‘love’ to play, the report also dove into the ‘why’ behind that statistic. Their coaches, parents, teammates and overall experience with sport all play crucial roles in their retention and motivation.

So what are girls looking for?

First, a combination of competition and fun is a winning formula to keep girls in the game. An emphasis on winning was perceived to be a highly positive coaching behavior when combined with an emphasis on fun and skill development. Per the report’s findings, healthy forms of competition are ideal for fostering girls’ engagement.

“You don’t have to be soft, just nice,” one participant wrote in their response. “Do not infantilize or underestimate girls’ ability. Treat girls as powerful, strong, very capable individuals.”

The report also found that female coaches are powerful role models for girls in sport. Only 27% of the 6.5 million youth sports coaches in the United States are female, but the research clearly illustrates the benefits that girls receive when they have female coaches, which include increased confidence and challenging the negative cultural messages that girls receive about their participation in sport. Indeed, both girls and boys benefit from positive images of female coaches.

Finally, parents are hugely influential in shaping their daughters’ sporting experiences, but also have been shown to sometimes prioritize boys’ athletic experiences.

“We also still see brothers as a priority,” said one responder. “When there is a conflict, the sisters are usually the ones who lose out.”

Though age 7-13 has proven to be a critical period for shaping girls’ future participation in sport, the report found that parents still place greater value on sports for their sons. Moreover, girls internalize the negative societal messaging they receive about girls and sports. These both contribute to the fact that girls’ participation rates are still lagging far beyond boys.

In “Coaching Through a Gender Lens,” WSF seeks to provide the information that could help create equal sports participation opportunities for girls.

“Our Foundation’s enduring commitment is to ensure that all girls and all women have access to sports and physical activity, together with the benefits they provide,” WSF CEO Dr. Deborah Antoine said. “We were purposeful in designing this research to examine the girl-parent-coaching dynamic through a gender lens, to discover best practices for maximizing girls’ personal and sport potential.”

To read about the multitude of other findings in “Coaching Through a Gender Lens: Maximizing Girls’ Play and Potential,” download the full report here or check out the report’s key findings illustration and infographic here.