Sports Improve Girls’ Self-Esteem…Well, Sorta

As a former athlete I’d always assumed that participation in sports increased self-esteem in girls and women.  I’m not exactly sure from where or how I developed this notion, but I did. Perhaps it was that the vast majority of my teammates (I played tennis and soccer and ran track) seemed to be confident, well-adjusted, successful ladies.  Even now when I look at we ladies have gone on to accomplish and become in our post-athlete lives, we seem to continue to thrive and take on this big, bad world with a noticeable level of confidence and success.  But after my interview with future sports psychologist, Ashley Coleman, I began to wonder if participation in sports really did have the ability to develop high self-esteem in girls and women.  Did sports play a key factor in the personalities and success of my teammates or did I just happen to know some pretty amazing girls who would have been successful with or without sports?  So like any half-the-way decent writer, I set out to do some research. What did I learn?  Well, that participation in sports improves girls’ self-esteem…sort of.  

Self-Esteem

Before we look at how sports affect girls’ levels of self-esteem, we have to establish what self-esteem is and how it works.  Doctors better versed than I on this subject have defined self-esteem as “the level of global regard one has for the self” or how a person “prizes, values, approves, or likes” herself.  So global self-esteem (the type I will be referring to throughout this post) is essentially a measure of how you feel about yourself overall.  

But self-esteem isn’t just this flat, straightforward idea.  It’s actually a pretty multifaceted concept that is based on a number of factors.  First, think of global self-esteem as the top of a pyramid.  Each brick below feeds into a specific brick on the row above it. (See Figure 1 below.)  So your global self-esteem is determined by your self-esteem at the domain level, which consists of things like family, athletics and academics.  Your domain level is determined by your confidence at the sub-domain level which, for an athlete, would consist of the types of sports she plays.  And your sub-domain level is in-turn determined by your confidence at the situational level, which for a tennis player would be something like her strokes or strategy.  Got it?

The other important components to self-esteem are perceptions of competence (how capable one feels about a skill or activity) and social support (how much support or encouragement one feels from others).  These perceptions, along with the amount of importance an individual places on a particular aspect of their lives, are keys to determining how confident one is in their abilities.  For instance, as a child, I was athletic and loved sports, and my parents always supported my participation in sports.  My favorite sports were tennis and track.  I excelled at them and always put lots of effort into them.  I tried basketball.  It didn’t come as easy for me, but I never beat myself up about not being able to play it well.  So my abilities at tennis and track, plus the support of my parents and the hard work I put into them, improved my overall self-esteem.  I wasn’t good at basketball but it wasn’t important to me, so my lack of ability in the sport didn’t hurt my overall self-esteem.  Makes sense, right?  

So far what we’ve learned is that in order to affect one’s self-esteem, you have to affect the components that make up their self-esteem to begin with.  To build a high level of self-esteem we need to be able to excel at something that we believe to be important and we need support from those around us in pursuit of those activities. That’s not too complicated, right?  

Sports & Self-Esteem

So now that we’ve established what self-esteem is and what it’s based on, let’s turn to female athletes and their self-esteem.  Research has shown that a person’s athleticism (a domain level component) can absolutely affect her self-esteem.  But it’s really not as cut and dry as: playing a sport boosts a girl’s self-esteem. When determining how sports affect a girl’s self-esteem, two big factors come into play: 1) the type of sport she plays; and 2) the type of coaches and parents she has.  

All Sports Are Not Created Equally

Generally, there are two types of sports, those that are based on team competition/cooperation and those that are based on individual competition.  Research suggests that participation in team sports (in a healthy manner) has been known to improve a girl’s chances of having an overall high self-esteem.  Early participation in team sports fosters an increased sense of physical competency and body image; and develops teambuilding, networking and communication skills.  Unfortunately, the positive effects of participation in team sports are not always mimicked through the participation in individual sports.  

Studies have shown that participation in individual sports, especially those that place an emphasis on leanness and body weight (like gymnastics, cross country and swimming) have the potential to negatively affect a girl’s self-esteem and body health.  Unhealthy and unchecked participation in these lean sports has been shown to increase a girl’s susceptibility to the “female athlete triad,” a syndrome found in active girl and women that consists of disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis.    The pressure to maintain unrealistic body weights, in hopes of being more successful in competition, has been known to lead to the triad and to issues of depression, anxiety and stress.  While the type of sport a girl chooses to play is important, any sport can be played in a healthy manner depending on her support system.

Who’s Your Daddy…And Coach?

Key players in ensuring that a girl’s participation in sports remains healthy are coaches and parents. Parents and coaches can be significant sources of either encouragement or stress in the lives of young athletes. Girls who are coached by adults who provide vocal encouragement, who teach life skills (like communication, networking and teambuilding), and who stress the importance of balance and healthy living are more likely to reap the potential psychological benefits of playing sports.  On the other hand, coaches who are overly critical, who are focused on body image and winning, and who aren’t cognizant of players’ lives/issues outside of sports have the potential to negatively impact a girls’ athletic experience and in turn her self-esteem.

Likewise, parents who are supportive, who encourage healthy eating and lifestyles and who provide stable environments are likely to help boost their child’s self-esteem.  Conversely, athletes from less stable homes that lack cohesion and support may have a tougher time developing a strong sense of self-esteem within and outside of sports.  Parents’ views on eating habits and body image can also negatively impact athletes, especially those in the lean sports mentioned above.  The takeaway, athletes need coaches and parents to be supportive and to be positive influences on their mental and physical health. 

So This Means…

So what’s the moral of the story?  Merely participating in sports does not mean that a girl will grow into a self-confident, healthy woman.  Besides being good at a particular sport and caring about it, outside factors are also at play.  Care should be taken in choosing which sport(s) young ladies play and their participation should be monitored so that it remains healthy and productive. Coaches and parents need to provide healthy environments and be mindful of the athlete’s development outside of sports. While it may seem like an awful lot needs to occur before sports has a positive impact on an athlete’s self-esteem, typically everything comes together quite nicely and seamlessly. Most girls choose to participate in sports they like and are genuinely interested in being good at, and most coaches and parents provide loving and supportive atmospheres for girls to develop. Sometimes things don’t line up in the healthiest of ways, with effort from both the athletes and the supporting cast members, sports really can help girls and women develop high levels of self-esteem.  

Sources:

While I did not cite directly to sources in the post, here are the sources that I used for this writing-

Frost, Jackie and McKelvie, Stuart J., “The Relationship of Self-Esteem and Body Satisfaction to Exercise Activity for Male and Female Elementary School, High School, and University Students,” Sex Roles, Vol 51, Nos ½, July 2004, Partially Online: http://www.athleticinsight.com/Vol7Iss4/Selfesteem.htm

Jack, Dana C., “The Impact of Sports on Adolescent Development: The Importance of Title IX,” Forum on Public Policy, Vol 1, Issue 3, Online: http://forumonpublicpolicy.com/vol1.no2.wr/jack.pdf

Markowitz, Ellen, “Exploring Self-Esteem in a Girls’ Sports Program,” Afterschool Matters, Fall 2012, Online: http://www.niost.org/pdf/afterschoolmatters/asm_2012_16_fall/ASM_2012_16_fall_2.pdf

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