Girls and the Field of Play

It may not feel like it but Fall has arrived with the start of classes and while many a youth have been lamenting the end of summer fun a good portion of them are looking forward to reading hour, special science, the math lab, art class, lunch time, recess and signing up for sports.

As the leaves begin to turn, that northern chill begins to drift down and the Canada geese flock south to poop on our lawns thoughts are turned to those traditional fall activities such as soccer, football, field hockey, cross-country, swimming, basketball and “here before you know it” ice hockey.  There are a vast number of other sports that may not have a defined season but are getting underway as parents and kids settle back into the school year routine.

What has struck me as I’ve returned to the realm of youth sports with my boys is the high number of girls not only getting involved in sports but there not even being a question that they should.  Moreover, many young ladies are seeking opportunities to do so in sports not traditionally open to their gender.

Kaylin models her new shoulder pads.

Kaylin models her new shoulder pads.

While back in my days, girls participated in basketball, softball, volleyball, and soccer there were hardly any youth programs for these sports and almost no expectation of girls playing them beyond on the high school level or, at best, college level, and really, back then, the most popular girls were the cheerleaders and the dance team because they were doing what good girls should.

Oh, how times have changed.

Title IX, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Nixon in 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in any educational program or activity receiving any type of federal financial aid and is viewed by most people in the sporting world as the pivotal action that has lead to increased participation in sports by girls from age 3 to 18 and beyond simply by giving them the opportunity to do so.

Born that same year, one of the most famous beneficiaries of Title IX was soccer player Mia Hamm who would lead the U.S. to the World Cup in 1999.  In a Sept. 2014 article in TIME magazine she is asked about sports for young women.

TIME: We’re finally starting to see more attention paid to women’s sports. Do you think we will ever reach point where there’s as much encouragement for young girls to play sports as young boys and as much interest in women’s sports as men’s?

HAMM: I hope so. You just look at women in high-powered positions in top 500 companies and a lot of them will attribute their time in organized sports as something that really made a difference and had an impact in their lives. And I see the confidence it has built in my daughters when they work really hard at something, let’s say it’s soccer. They’re working really hard on passing or shooting or a certain move, and then all of the sudden it just clicks, and you just see this big smile come on their face.

And to see that confidence grow in a young girl is so important because I think boys are naturally encouraged to do those things, and the opportunities to do it for our daughters is so important.

Now retired with girls of her own, Mia Hamm represents a generation that fought and struggled to gain both the respect of the sporting world but also the thick skin to ignore those who would rail against it.

When I was ten, we had one girl in our Little Dribblers organization, and she had to put up with a lot of crap from a lot of boys and their parents.  It helped that her older brother was on the team and her dad was the coach but I can’t even imagine what that experience must have been like for her and I remain incredibly in awe of what my sister went through that year and how well she handled it.  If I remember right, the next year we had four girls playing.

What Erin did for the Little Dribblers, Mia did for a nation of young women that have grown up with greater opportunity, but also greater expectation.

One of those women is a local hero, UMaine basketball star, Liz Wood.  The 2014-15 America East Scholar Athlete of the Year, stated:

“I would not be me without sports. Beginning at a very young age, sports ingrained in me lessons that many who don’t play sports have to learn the hard way. They taught me how to work hard, what happened when I didn’t, how to work together, how to depend on others and know that they are depending on me right back. They taught me that even when you’ve done all you can sometimes you still don’t win and that’s okay because you were never really competing with the other team anyways, you were competing with yourself and you realize that you’ve come farther than you ever believed you could. Youth sports taught me at a young age that a woman can be powerful, confident, aggressive and still beautiful and polite. I consider and take care of my body in such a different way than I would if I was not an athlete.  I owe youth athletics so much in terms of my health, social skills, and confidence.”

From Mia and Erin to Liz and now the young women just entering the field of play.

Sarah Gardner-Miller, the mother of two and a former Orono High School Basketball player as well as recent Bangor Roller Derby gladiator, spoke of her hopes for her daughter, Carmen, age 6 (almost 7).

“Growing up my sister and I were always encouraged to engage in sports. It was really an expectation of my dad’s, although I didn’t mind, I wanted to play. Nothing against cheerleaders, but it was never even a possibility that we would be on the sidelines waving our pompoms while a group of stinky boys sank 3 pointers. In that regard, I don’t think Carmen’s experience is very different. She’ll be encouraged and appropriately pushed to be an athlete. And I really hope she decides not to be a cheerleader (again, nothing against them;)). Hockey is something available to Carmen that was not around when I was growing up. If a girl did decide to play that, it would be considered unusual. So there is definitely more choices for girls now. I played field hockey, basketball, and softball. If given an opportunity I probably would have picked football, basketball, and lacrosse. She could do that now, so that’s a positive change (although females playing football is still a stretch). Dave and I really hope sports will help Carmen appreciate what her body can DO, not what it looks like. It’s hard to escape, especially if you’re female. We want her to be healthy, athletic, and strong. If she’s all those things, it doesn’t matter how much she weighs or the size of her jeans. I really hope she’ll realize that.”

A recent survey by ESPN noted that the highest participation in youth sports occurs with suburban, middle class boys and the lowest participation occurs with young, urban girls.  We may logically surmise that much of this data is due to socio-economic status, cultural views, civic goals, and local opportunity.  What we should no longer, and largely don’t, consider is biology.  As seen in suburban girls, given the opportunity, they are nearly as likely to participate in sports as boys do and while it may not be as important to their overall life, it is a significant part of it.

Still a divide does remain between girls and boys participation, the sports they play and how they play them. Contact in women’s sports is both confusing and controversial. Ronda Rousey is inspiring a world of women with her devastating performances inside the octagon bludgeoning other female MMA fighters and popping their arms into unnatural contortions and yet female hockey players aren’t allowed to body check.

Sara Gardner Miller added, “One thing that does REALLY bother me, is the fact that the girls in hockey and lacrosse aren’t allowed the full contact (checking and whatever it’s called in lacrosse). I think that’s crap and ridiculous.”

Female lacrosse injuries are mainly due to high sticks and head collisions which would, perhaps, be mitigated by more protective gear and more body contact much like hockey which ranks lower on the danger scale for both girls and boys due, in part, to the massive amount of padding they wear.

A recent viewing of both the Little League World Series and the Little League Softball World series showed a major discrepancy between boys and girls.  Girls wear cages when batting and the 1st and 3rd basewomen wear facemasks.  I, at first, took this to be a sexist rule designed to protect the girl’s looks until it was pointed out to me by UMaine catcher Rachel Harvey that the mound is much closer in softball than it is in baseball and some girls can rip that not-soft-at-all-ball pretty hard.  I stand corrected.

The most dangerous sports for girls are cheerleading, gymnastics, and horseback riding due to mainly to falls and the surfaces they fall on.  Close to these are basketball and soccer which can, and often do feature numerous collisions between players with little to no protective gear.  I will leave the debate on helmets, padding, cages, shin guards, etc. to another day but the fact that we are having these discussions shows just how far women’s and girl’s sports have come from the days of tennis played in long dresses to Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs at the Astrodome.

Speaking of King, her Women’s Sports Foundation notes the positive outcomes of girls in sports.

  • High school girls who play sports are less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy; more likely to get better grades in school and more likely to graduate than girls who do not play sports.
  • Girls and women who play sports have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem and lower levels of depression.
  • Girls and women who play sports have a more positive body image and experience higher states of psychological well-being than girls and women who do not play sports.


What it comes down to, of course, are the kids.  I asked three young ladies who play soccer, field hockey, gymnastics, and ice hockey among other activities why they like sports.  Emma and Kaylin said, “It’s fun.”

Annalee stated, “Because I can.”

Travis Baker

About Travis Baker

Travis Baker grew up playing baseball, basketball, football and soccer. There was a brief stint with karate and a briefer one with fencing but he would not return to the glory days of youth sport until he moved to Maine and had a couple of boys, Zane (11) and August (7), of his own. Inspired by his lads, he learned to play hockey at the age of 35 and now plays every Monday night in Brewer. Thanks to a number of former students, he’s learned a wee bit about lacrosse, field hockey and track and field. When not helping out in his kid’s activities, is the award-winning playwright of One Blue Tarp and Hair Frenzy, both of which premiered at the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor. Travis is the author of Night and the Texas Sky, and numerous short stories and essays. He is married to the founder of Maine Yoga Adventures, Holly Twining. Currently, he coaches hockey, baseball and serves on the board of the Maine Junior Black Bears as the PR Director.