Changing the Game for Girls

February 5, 2019  • Caitlin Morris

February 6 is National Girls and Women in Sports Day – the perfect moment to celebrate the women who are inspiring girls to get in the game. Now in its 33rd year, this day celebrates the power that sports can play in a girl’s life. This year’s theme, “Lead Her Forward,” is also an urgent call to action to get more girls active. Just over one-third of girls ages 6-11 meet healthy physical activity guidelines; that number only declines as they grow up. We need to change that trajectory.

Play is serious.

Physical activity is a key part of living a healthy and successful life. We know that active kids do better in every way, and all kids are made to play. Kids who move are more confident, they excel in school and they carry these benefits into their adult lives. But four in five kids aren’t getting the amount of physical activity they should — and girls are the most likely to be sitting on the sidelines.

“Girls” are not a single, homogenous group by any means; getting and keeping them involved in sport and play is a complex issue. But as the Aspen Institute and other leaders in this field know, there are actions we can take now to make progress.

Girls need strong role models and female coaches.

It starts with seeing and celebrating female athletes. Girls are inspired by sports stars like Serena Williams, Ibtihaj Muhammad, and Alex Morgan. We must continue to celebrate these women for their achievements – both on and off the court – because they show our girls what’s possible.

Four in five kids aren’t getting enough physical activity — and girls are the most likely to be sitting on the sidelines.

At the same time, girls also need female coaches who can directly connect with them, understand their experience and encourage them to persevere. Yet only 23 percent of youth coaches in the US are female. That number is the lowest on record since 2012, and it’s down from 28 percent in 2016. Title IX was an important milestone for pushing gender equality in sport, but 46 years later, we’re missing a key piece of the fight if we aren’t loudly and deliberately inviting women to the playing field.

When women are given the tools and resources they need, they step up to the plate.

That’s why so many of us across the public and private sector have taken action through initiatives like Nike’s Made to Play and the Aspen Institute’s Project Play. Committing to shattering the “glass sideline” and growing the number of female coaches takes new thinking and new strategies.

“How to Coach Kids,” a free online course that teaches volunteers the skills they need to effectively coach young athletes, is one way we can invite more women to participate as coaches. The course shows how coaching is a learnable skill, and a rewarding experience. It also reinforces messages and techniques taught at the beginning of the season, so coaches have a “pocket coach” to lean on whenever they need it. “She Can Coach,” a campaign led by Up2Us Sports, is another powerful example. This incredible campaign is training and placing female coaches in under-resourced communities, and it doesn’t stop there. After placing female coaches with teams, “She Can Coach” continues to support them by providing career mentoring and guidance on coaching techniques.

How girls are coached matters even more than who coaches.

There is surprisingly little curriculum focused on how to coach girls. Debating how much of the difference is intrinsic versus extrinsic social norming is a debate for another time, but many who’ve worked to coach girls report that the experience is different. Positively engaging girls in sport and play is the goal of every coach, regardless of gender. So, it’s important to pay attention to the data coming from organizations like the Women’s Sports Foundation that assess the state of gender-inclusive coaching curriculum and gather the research we need to inform smart program investments.

In addition to making sure girls have greater access to coaches and mentors, we also need to empower girls with sports programming that puts them at the center of the experience.

This work is already underway through programs like Mamba League, a youth basketball league led by Kobe Bryant in partnership with Nike and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Los Angeles. Aiming to help girls, and all kids, develop confidence both on and off the court, Mamba League’s programming gives youth players  new basketball skills as well as life skills like passion, optimism, fearlessness, focus and honesty.

As more girls jump into sport, we need to support them with the gear they need to play with confidence.

By age 14, girls start dropping out of sport at twice the rate of boys. When we listen to them, we can understand why: 41 percent of girls ages 11 to 16 report that low body confidence or fear of judgement hinders them from participating in sport. These feelings tend to grow during puberty, and as a result, the problem gets worse. Having the right gear can make a difference.

Whether it’s a hijab, team jerseys, footwear, or their first sports bra, it’s important that girls have the gear they need so they can play with confidence. We’ve seen progress on this front – there are more products on the market that speak directly to the needs of girls – but we must do more to identify and remove barriers in the way of girls getting and staying active.

Helping girls reach their potential on and off the playing field takes all of us.

Diverse leaders across business, philanthropy, civil society and government are taking on this challenge. We’re making progress, but this generation of girls still needs more.

We can change the statistics. 

Each of us can help girls reach their potential on and off the playing field. Decide to “Lead Her Forward” and create opportunities for the girls in your life and in your communities.

A girl’s future depends on it.

Caitlin Morris is the General Manager of Global Community Impact at Nike, where she focuses on getting kids active and reversing the physically inactive epidemic. Nike is a founding member of Project Play 2020, an initiative of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, which is a multiyear effort by leading organizations to grow national sport participation rates and related metrics among youth. Learn more about Project Play at

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