Today, girls play sports more than in past decades, but young women still drop out much earlier than young men.

I grew up with six brothers, and we loved playing sports. I spent thousands of hours playing basketball, volleyball, baseball, kickball, flag football, racquetball, pingpong and even kick the can. I loved it. Back then I had no understanding of the research around girls, sports, physical activity and leadership. Little did I know I was developing the leadership skills and abilities that I still use today.

It’s true. Sports (at any level) can help develop leaders. An Ernst & Young study found that 90 percent of the women senior managers and executives in their sample played sports at some level growing up. Interestingly, among women currently holding C-suite positions, it was 96 percent, and most of these women played at higher levels (i.e., high school and college).

In today’s turbulent world, we must have more ethical leaders prepared to step forward, both men and women. Yet, particularly in Utah, most leaders are currently men. Research shows that at every age (children, teens and adults) males are more likely than females to see themselves as leaders. True change must include working with individuals (the girls themselves) and society (changing norms and dynamics that currently don’t support or encourage girls and young women to lead).

So, the question is: What kinds of opportunities can we provide so girls can better see themselves as leaders and also learn leadership? Research confirms that sports (whether a girl is naturally athletic or not) is one of the most powerful activities that girls and young women can participate in to develop leadership. Although all types of sports and physical activity can be helpful, most research revolves around team sports.

"  Research confirms that sports (whether a girl is naturally athletic or not) is one of the most powerful activities that girls and young women can participate in to develop leadership. "
Susan Madsen

When comparing young women who play sports to those who do not, studies have found a host of potential benefits pertaining to leadership:

  • Higher confidence, self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.
  • Enhanced physical fitness and health.
  • Improved psychological and emotional well-being.
  • Lower incidence of depression, teen pregnancy and suicide.
  • Stronger social abilities and interpersonal skills.
  • Increased ability to set and achieve goals.
  • Greater self-management abilities.
  • Stronger teamwork and cooperation skills.
  • Higher responsibility, dependability and work ethic.
  • Enhanced conflict resolution and management abilities.
  • Stronger ability to rebound after failure.
  • Increased problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
  • Greater levels of independence and autonomy.
  • More opportunities to give and receive feedback and explore identity.
  • Increased motivation, initiative and seeking out challenges.
  • Enhanced ability to compete.
  • Improved sense of fairness and justice.

Now, I’m not saying that sports is the only way for girls and young women to develop leadership, but valuable leadership development can occur when girls participate in noncompetitive and competitive leagues. Of course, coaching matters too. My daughter dropped out of soccer after her sophomore year because of a coach’s negative influence. Fortunately, she had about 20 other coaches who were fabulous.

5 comments on this story

Today, girls play sports more than in past decades, but young women still drop out much earlier than young men. There are many recreation leagues where girls can continue to play for fun and still get the important development opportunities highlighted above. Keeping a habit of movement is key to so many benefits throughout life.

I am grateful for my active upbringing with my parents and six brothers. What we saw then as just having fun truly laid the foundation for a lifetime of leadership. We must provide the same opportunities for our girls today.