Thanks to Title IX, the ground-breaking legislation that prohibited gender discrimination in education (and hence, extra-curricular sports), girls sports teams are not nearly as uncommon as they before the early 1970s. Today, girls can be found on high school and collegiate soccer, softball, volleyball and fields as well as participating in track and swim meets across the country in droves.
While statistics show that 69 percent of American females between the ages of 8 and 17 took part in an organized sport of some kind in 2010 (compared to 75 percent of males), studies show that girls who compete are 92% less likely to get involved with drugs, almost three times as likely to graduate from high school and have fewer self-esteem issues than non-athletes.
The pluses may have many a parent anxiously awaiting the moment their daughter decides she wants to suit up and play, but what happens when she wants to try her hand at martial arts, football, ice hockey or even rugby?
A little bit of panic
When her then 9-year-old daughter, Tanner, asked about starting karate, New Windsor mom Gretchen Quill initially balked at the idea, thinking that the activity was too rough for her little girl.
“The concerns I had were about her injuring herself,” Gretchen says.
That was until she saw Tanner participate in a demonstration during a summer program when an instructor – a fourth-degree black belt who taught karate and self-defense – recognized her ability to land safely while tumbling, flipping and doing break falls.
“After seeing her train [for] and participate in the events, my anxieties were put to rest,” Quill says. “She is an introvert by nature but on the mat, she becomes a beast.”
Tanner joined the instructor’s karate class in Newburgh shortly after the demonstration and now at 14, she is on track to earn her black belt within the next two years or so.
According to Laura Bagnarol, a social worker who coordinates the Pigskin Princess Project (an empowerment flag football program for girls based in Fishkill she started when her daughter, Giuliana, was just 4), society in general tends to assume that little girls are somehow more fragile than little boys.
“I…recently read about an Olympic wrestler, Adeline Gray, who mentioned her only obstacle when wrestling against the boys as a kid was her hair,” she says. “Just as boys and girls start out playing soccer and tee ball against one another at age 3, they can – if they have the drive, knowledge and passion – suit up and play football or hockey against one another when they are 9 and 10.”
Especially if there is an older female sibling who plays a sport, you’d think that the little girls watching them from the sidelines might gravitate to that same activity. But that isn’t always the case.
“Our eldest daughter played softball so we had assumed that would be the direction [our youngest daughter] would go,” Barbara Jasiel of Poughquag says about 10-year-old Shaye, who began watching her big brother play roller hockey at age 3 1/2. “Rather quickly, we realized softball was not fast enough for Shaye.”
Describing the transition to the ice as a “natural progression,” her mom says Shaye started playing in the predominantly male Pawling Youth Hockey League three years ago. She also plays lacrosse and basketball on all-girls teams, but part of the draw to hockey for Shaye is the competitive interaction with the boys, as her entire team and her coaches are male.
“Shaye’s experiences with her coaches and teammates have created her eagerness to continue on with such a great sport. [Competing with] boys bring[s] a different dynamic to her world,” Jasiel says.
Shaye just loves to play, especially when she scores a goal, but also because she gets to play with friends. Although she’s only met two other girls around her age that played ice hockey, she loves to watch older girls from other teams compete.
“Basically, ice hockey is a lot of fun!” she says.
Naturally, there may be some parental trepidation when any child wants to don shoulder pads or a face mask to play, but Bagnarol says it’s important to nurture those interests regardless of the sport or your child’s gender.
“Get outside and throw a football around together or sign her up for a trial karate lesson and see how serious she is about wanting to participate,” she says. “When it comes to [contact] sports, we need to ask ourselves if we are allowing our sons to play them, why wouldn’t we also allow our daughters to play?”
Bagnarol says the benefits to trying contact sports are big, primarily because there’s much more to it than simply learning how to play – like teaching girls they can do and be anything.
“[It] has helped my daughter equate being female with being smart, strong and capable,” she adds.
Kathleen Workman of New Windsor says that even though her daughter, Bailey, started playing soccer, basketball and softball when she was around 4, playing rugby once she got to college offered benefits she never expected.
“This sport has been one of the biggest confidence boosters for Bailey,” she says.
Although her daughter has always been a talented athlete when it comes to just picking a sport and trying it, she excelled quickly at rugby when she started at SUNY Cortland in the fall of 2015 and scored three trys (goals) as a rookie. “She loves [it] and additionally has gained a great group of friends.”
The injury factor
It’s tough enough seeing little Suzy skin a knee on the playground, but watching her go down after a crash or collision on the field can absolutely excruciating.
Workman says that although Bailey had fractured a knee cap playing basketball, broken her nose and gotten a concussion during soccer, serious concern set in after Bailey’s very first rugby game netted another concussion.
“One thing about rugby that scares the hell out of me is that there is NO [mandatory safety] equipment besides a mouth guard,” Workman says. “I was ready to go…get her and bring her to a concussion specialist. The brain is not something I want to play around with.” (Bailey now wears concussion prevention headgear when she plays, which has eased her mom’s mind a great deal.)
“Any time you have a group of kids running around, there's room for injury to occur,” Bagnarol says, adding that because so much more is known about injuries than ever before, the thought of a child getting hurt can often deter parents from involvement in contact sports altogether.
“I totally understand the safety concern parents have for their sons and daughters when it comes to playing contact sports. It’s a decision that each parent needs to consider on their own,” she says.
In addition to the educational and confidence-building pluses, experts agree that physical activity is a very good thing for anybody – with contact sports generally being no exception.
“Kids learn about leadership, teamwork, and how to win and lose graciously,” Bagnarol says. “They learn about looking out for one another on and off the field and that they are all a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Felicia Hodges is a six-time All-America athlete in track and field and the editor of Hudson Valley Parent magazine.