Girls Sports and Self-Esteem,,

Participation in Wrestling and other sports can have a measurable positive impact on young women.


A good coach will make his players see what they can be rather than what they are.”
……Ara Parseghian

Self-esteem is like an elevator. Push the right buttons and it can go up or go down.

The good news is that by that definition, if you feel you have low self-esteem, take comfort it’s not a permanent station.

In terms of self-esteem and how to build it, the research seems to divide into two areas. There are bodies of work on building confidence in minors and a completely different framework for enhancing confidence in adults. For our purposes here, let’s focus on student athletes.

A great traditional widely respected organization, The Girl Scouts, makes a correlation between girls participating in organized sports and a growth in self-esteem. They convey some interesting points.

1. The more physically active girls are, the greater their self-esteem and the more satisfied they are with their weight, regardless of how much they weigh. Eighty-three percent of very active girls say that physical activity makes them feel good about themselves. (The Girl Scout Research Institute, The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living (2006).

2. For teen girls, being both physically active and a team sports participant is associated with a lower prevalence of sexual risk-taking behaviors. (Kulig, K., Brener, N. & McManus, T. Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 2003).

The Sport Journal publication appears to be in agreement with the findings of The Girl Scouts. This was submitted by Ms. Allison M. Schultz.

For girls living in the 1990s, self-esteem is linked to both physical attractiveness and physical competence. Prior to the 1990s, however, the main factor contributing to a girls’ self-esteem was physical attractiveness (Nelson, 1994). Coupling self-esteem to both competence and beauty is a step in the right direction, although it’s still unfortunate that girls place so much importance on physical attractiveness as it relates to their happiness. Recognizing that young girls often compare themselves to unrealistic standards of beauty can help parents better understand, guide and influence their children (Nelson, 1994; Women’s Sports Foundation, 1998).

In attempting to de-emphasize the importance their daughters place on beauty and emphasize the importance of physical competence, parents may find it helpful to utilize the benefits of participation in sport.

Participating in sport is one way that girls can develop physical competence. Girls learn to appreciate their bodies for what they can do, instead of the perceived appearance by oneself or by others. In a sport environment girls learn to control their bodies and to rely on acquired physical skills. Participating in sports also helps girls trust and rely on themselves and teammates while working toward common goals.

In a sense, participation in sport allows each girl to become her own personal cheerleader – cheering on her physical self and what might be possible; not just standing on the sidelines, or in the bleachers, cheering others on (Nelson, 1994). Involvement in athletics provides lessons in teamwork and leadership, the development of citizenship, and community involvement.

Membership in sport also offers girls a greater pool of adult role models from where they can draw guidance and support (Melpomene Institute, 1996; Murtaugh, 1988). Additionally, girls find new friends in the sport setting. For girls, this sense of friendship is essential, being liked by other girls is sometimes more important than having others see them as smart or independent (Feldman & Elliott, 1990).

Ms. Schultz reports positive self-esteem is a favorable perception of one’s self, or, how happy you are with just being you. In general, feelings of self-esteem contribute to a person’s self-worth, confidence and competence. These feelings of worthiness, assurance and proficiency can influence a person’s life in regard to personal aspirations, motivation, achievement potential and relationships (Melpomene Institute, 1996). A person’s self-esteem is affected by and formed from a variety of circumstances in life, some of which are:

• degree of parental expectations, encouragement and influence
• degree of peer expectations, encouragement and influence
• involvement in making of decisions
• development of talents, hobbies or interests
• influence and importance of role models
• extent of emphasis on body image
• experiences and interactions during education
• participation in physical activity and/or sports (Kopecky, 1992)

She then cites an important study published by the Women’s Sport Foundation in 1998 on over 30,000 girls compared athletes to non-athletes.
The study stated that athletes were more likely than non-athletes to:

• score well on achievement tests
• feel “popular” among one’s peers
• be involved in other extracurricular activities
• graduate from high school (three times more likely)
• attend college and obtain a bachelor’s degree
• stay involved in sport as an adult
• aspire to community involvement
• not become involved with drugs (92% less likely)
• not become pregnant (80% less likely)

Now it’s time to press buttons that climb to the highest floors.

Let’s examine building self-esteem through participation in sports by the athlete, their coach and parents.

According to the KidsHealth website, self-esteem is based on how you feel about yourself. If you feel generally good about yourself, you’re more likely to have positive relationships and accept your own strengths and weaknesses. It can also be easier to set goals and ask for help when you have strong self-esteem. Physical activity, especially through sports, is an effective way to improve shaky self-esteem. Young people involved with athletics develop a positive body image, form relationships with teammates and also reduce stress.

First choose a sport you enjoy with a peer group you relate to. KidsHealth suggests that focusing on the positive aspects of your life can help strengthen self-esteem. Choosing an enjoyable sport in which you feel confident will help you build from your strengths. Sports can be individual, like swimming or running, or they can be team sports like basketball or soccer. You will be able to develop relationships with other athletes in almost any sport, and these relationships, along with the physical fitness that you gain from practicing a sport; can make you feel more confident with
yourself and in your peer interactions.


Second, set fitness and performance goals related to your training program. The National Association for Self-Esteem notes that goal-setting is a key aspect of self-esteem development. When you set an athletic goal, you challenge yourself. Reaching the goal will boost your confidence and enhance your self-image. If you fall short of your goals, it can be a valuable lesson in how to accept difficulties without feeling negative about yourself.

Third, discuss your goals with an adult mentor or coach. Being able to discuss your feelings, thoughts and hopes is an important part of self-esteem. This will help you learn that you can be honest with other people and ask for their support. People with high self-esteem have a strong sense of their own self-worth and thus are more likely to speak up for themselves and their needs. Practicing this with an adult mentor will improve your communication skills and overall confidence. Asking a coach for feedback on your performance and progress is a great way to start.

Fourth, keep a journal to track your progress and achievements. Tracking your achievements and any difficulties you encounter is an important tool to help remind you of your hard work. Recording positive moments like scoring for your team or winning a race will give you accomplishments to reflect on when you face challenges or disappointments. Record meaningful moments, such as when a peer compliments your performance or your coach asks you to demonstrate a skill for teammates.

Fifth, share your achievements with family and friends. The National Association for Self-Esteem notes that it is important to be able to talk to others about your accomplishments. Showing friends and family members results from a game or awards for specific performance is an important part of feeling positive about yourself. This may feel strange at first because you may be worried that you’ll be bragging, but expressing your pleasure and excitement about your athletic experiences is an important part of relating to others in a confident manner.

How Can Coaches Enhance Self-Esteem in Young Athletes?

[pullquoteleft] Jimmy Johnson… “Treat a person as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat him as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”

Here are some helpful tips from the website Being positive, respectful, inclusive and keeping sport in perspective are key aspects of a positive sporting environment. These factors can enhance coach-athlete relationships and help build positive self-esteem. Children who participate in highly competitive or intense environments may have more feelings of low self-worth when they lose a game. Wins and losses can be more important to some kids than the physical abilities they develop by being involved in the sport.

The coach can help to refocus these negative emotions by letting the team know:

• What they did well in the game.
• What they learned from the game.
• What they could improve for the next game or practice.

A good relationship with their coach can improve children’s self-esteem. A positive coach-athlete relationship is based on mutual respect. The coach can offer sincere, positive encouragement and recognize the athlete’s effort. Good communication skills are the key to the coach-athlete relationship. Coaches need to be able to communicate with the athlete and to listen to what the athlete says, both verbally and in body language.

How Can Parents Enhance Self-Esteem in Young Athletes?

Parents are also important role models. Try to give your children a balanced life that includes sports but is not overwhelmed by them.

Children need the chance to play with friends and participate in social activities other than sports. This helps kids understand that their self-worth is not solely based on their athletic ability.

You can bolster your child’s self-esteem using some of the following strategies:

• Ask “how the game went” versus “did you win?”
• Encourage your child to focus on the team and the child’s personal game highlight rather than on whether the team won or lost.
• Let your children talk about their feelings during and after the game. This can help solve any frustrations or problems in non-violent ways.
• Although it’s important to talk about your child’s sporting experience, don’t let conversations at home be dominated by sports (such as evaluating your child’s performance, talking about opponents).
• Help your kids experience the fun in playing sports such as being part of a team, making new friends, travelling to other communities, learning new skills and getting some physical activity! summarizes very well. Sports can put your daughter in touch with her body—she will learn what her body can do and what it can’t. Becoming aware of her body’s abilities and skills can be a source of pride for your daughter. According to The United States Sports Academy, “Participating in sport is one way that girls can develop physical competence. Girls learn to appreciate their bodies for what they can do, instead of the perceived appearance by oneself or by others.”

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Psych, Good, Girl Scouts, The Sport Journal, Allison M. Schultz, Women Sports Foundation,,,,, Photos courtesy Microsoft and Wikimedia Commons.