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Want to Keep Your Daughter in Sport? Don’t Make Comments About Her Body

Sep 26, 2017

I'm not a numbers person. No matter how engaging the subject, I often gloss over stats and figures. But this one I couldn't ignore. That 61% did more than stand out. It shot out from the screen and hit me in the gut. Hard.

Statistically, girls are six times more likely to drop out of sport, compared to boys. That wasn't news to me. The eye-opener was learning the degree to which body-related guilt, shame, envy and embarrassment increases, while feelings and pride decreases as adolescent girls who participate in sports get older. And the shocker was learning that 61% of weight commentary and body talk comes from parents!

Of the many topics on the agenda, it was this study that first attracted me to the Sport Initiative Research Conference: "Body-related emotional experiences in sport among adolescent girls: Participation outcomes over time."


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And at the conference, while I listened from the edge of my seat in the Chelsea Hotel Churchill Ballroom, I thought about the group of girls I'd met during my own training at the Toronto Track & Field Centre.

The bubbly eleven-year-olds approached me in a pack one night after practice. "You look like Phylicia George!", a girl named Alexia exclaimed. "Do you know Phylicia George? Do you train with her?" I was flattered by the comparison. A formidable Canadian athlete, Phylicia was clearly a powerful role model to them, as she was for me.

I continued to see and speak with the girls throughout the track season. I commented on their efforts, answered questions about technique, and wished them luck before their races. All the while, warmed by the notion of them developing into talented athletes and confident women.

And the shocker was learning that 61% of weight commentary and body talk came from parents!

The harsh reality is that Alexia and her friends are likely to experience less enjoyment and higher sport-related anxiety in their teen years to come. Based on the research findings, one can predict that after wrestling with negative body-related emotions as their weight and shapes change, half of these amazing young women will drop out of sport.

This concerns me because when girls withdraw from sport, two things happen. The girls themselves miss out on the multitude of physical, social and mental benefits of sport. And the greater consequence for Canadian sport and culture is that fewer women progress into coaching, administration and policy making positions, not to mention becoming high-performing role models like Phylicia George.

Body talk and weight commentary are not isolated to sport. We hear both (often negatively) in our media, workplaces, gyms and homes. But hearing that 61% of comments came from parents themselves? That disturbed me and the room of conference delegates, many of whom were also mothers and fathers.


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So what can be done to reverse this trend and increase sport participation among girls over time? Along with the research results, the presenters offered recommendations for policy change, education programs and further studies.

Stemming from those ideas, here are my suggestions for ways in which we as parents can help our daughters enjoy and derive greater feelings of pride from sport participation:

  1. Don’t comment on her weight or body shape (or anyone else's).
  2. But be willing to listen and talk about her body-related emotions as they arise.
  3. Focus on her skills and strengths as an athlete rather than how she looks.
  4. Practice self-compassion (remember, she’s watching you) and help her do the same.
  5. Suggest recreational activities as an alternative if she’s no longer enjoying competitive sport.

Through sport, we have the opportunity to produce not only strong female athletes, but strong female leaders, role models and citizens. When we focus on creating positive environments that keep girls in sport longer, we all win.

Article Author Debbie King
Debbie King

Read more from Debbie here.

Debbie King (aka SUPAFITMAMA) is a Toronto-based masters athlete, influencer, freelance writer, wife and mother of one. At age 42, she is training toward her goal of becoming a 2020 World Masters Athletics track and field champion. In her work as a writer and influencer, Debbie creates powerful content and connections in female fitness, sport, wellness and culture. Body positivity, inclusion and representation are strong themes throughout. As a regular contributor for CBC Parents, she explores a range of healthy living topics for individuals and Canadian families. Follow her journey at supafitmama.com and on Instagram and Twitter.

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