How to keep girls in the game after puberty

Story highlights

  • By age 17, most girls (51%) will have quit sports, according to a new survey
  • Survey: 7 out of 10 girls who quit sports after puberty didn't feel like they belonged
  • Sixty-one percent of female executives said sports contributed to their career success

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)When I ask my girls, ages 8 and 10, what they want to be when they grow up, my younger daughter says a professional athlete (she's not sure which sport just yet!) and my older daughter says an Olympian in track and field. With those goals, I simply cannot imagine they won't be playing sports throughout middle and high school and beyond.

But the numbers tell a different story.
By the age of 14, girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys, according to the Women's Sports Foundation.
    And by age 17, after most girls have gone through puberty, more than half of girls -- 51% -- will have quit sports, according to a survey sponsored by Always, a maker of sanitary pads.
    Seven out of the 10 girls who quit sports during puberty said they didn't feel like they belonged in sports, according to the survey of more than 1,000 girls ages 16 to 24. Nearly the same number (67%) said they felt that society doesn't encourage girls to play sports.
    Hoping to change those numbers and keep more girls in the game, Always has come out with the latest installment in its viral #LikeAGirl campaign (the first #LikeAGirl video has been viewed nearly 100 million times around the world.)
    The newest video, titled "Keep Playing," features girls from around the world sharing the messages they've received about playing sports.
    "A lot of boys have told me that I can't play rugby because I'm a girl," says one girl rugby player, who later says that girls not only can play rugby, they can be the captain of the team.
    Another girl, a shot-put competitor, said she has been told that "You have to be girly. You have to like certain things."
    To any girl thinking about quitting sports, a young girl basketball player says, "You are worth it, and you deserve to play whatever sport you want to play. So don't let anyone tell you you can't do it."
    Soccer star Alex Morgan says the skills girls learn in sports can help them throughout their lives.
    That is a message Alex Morgan, a member of the World Cup and Olympic champion U.S. women's soccer team, feels in every fiber of her being. It's important to keep girls in sports, Morgan told CNN, because the skills they learn while playing can help them throughout their lives.
    "Personally, playing sports helped me grow and build confidence while also learning the skills of teamwork, leadership and perseverance -- both on and off the field," said Morgan, a spokeswoman for the #LikeAGirl campaign, in a statement.

    What sports can do for girls

    Building confidence in girls is crucial, especially when surveys show that their confidence dramatically drops around puberty. In a national survey of 1,800 people sponsored by Always last year, 89% of girls 16 to 24 said there is pressure to conform to the way a girl is supposed to feel and act. Seventy-nine percent of girls who believe that society puts girls in boxes think that if society stopped pressuring girls, they would be more confident, the survey found.
    Beyond building confidence; teaching our girls about teamwork, winning and losing; and pushing them physically and mentally, sports can do something else: It can help them get ahead.
    Sixty-one percent of female executives said sports contributed to their career success, according to a global study by Ernst & Young and espnW.
    Ninety-four precent of women in the C-suite played sports, 52% of them at the university level, the study found.

    How to keep girls in the game

    The benefits of sports, for girls and boys, are not in dispute, so how do we get more girls to stay in the game?
    "The best way to keep girls playing is to encourage them and let them know that they belong and have reasons to play that extend far beyond physical fitness," said Morgan.
    Role models such as Morgan are crucial, experts say, because the more young girls see women playing sports and hearing about the benefits they receive from sports -- on and off the field -- the more they can see that sports can be good for them, too.
    "Girls drop out of sports a lot of the times because they don't see girls at the highest level to the same extent that boys do," said Jen Welter, a sports psychologist who made history as the first female coach in the NFL in 2015, when she was hired as an intern linebackers coach for the Arizona Cardinals.
    Jen Welter is the first woman to be hired as a coach in the NFL.
    Nearly seven out of 10 girls in the Always survey said there are not enough female role models in sports today. "Why would you think that a girl would feel like she belongs in sports if she doesn't see girls in sports in the same amount and degree as the boys do?" asked Welter, who is also working with the #LikeAGirl campaign.
    She says people come up to her and tell her she was living the dream when she coached in the NFL, but she says that being an NFL coach was never really something she could have imagined.
    "This is a dream I was never planted to have, because I couldn't look at the NFL sidelines and see a coach and say, 'I want to be her when I grow up,' " said Welter, who is not currently coaching in the NFL but is working with NFL Canada on its Play 60 program to get kids moving each day. "The beauty of any time you have a first, is that now, everybody's permitted to dream that dream. I love to say, 'When you change the visibility, you change the possibility.' "
    Parents have a huge role to play as well, said Nanette Burstein, who directed the #LikeAGirl video and who has a 7-year-old daughter who plays soccer.
    "There was a girl who came in and said, 'Oh, my mom didn't want me to play soccer ... It wasn't ladylike,' " Burstein wrote in an email. "I was surprised to hear that it wasn't peer pressure that was causing some girls to quit playing, but instead it was coming straight from home. And I'm sure parents don't realize what that does to girls who hear that message."
    Parents should be the support system that our girls need, said Burstein, who played soccer, field hockey and lacrosse growing up and credits sports with helping define her identity and boost her confidence. "We need to show them that we value their participation and that we're going to be there to cheer them on, help them grow and build that confidence, whether it's win or lose."
    We can do something else as parents, said Welter: We can simply play sports with our daughters.
    "Go out and play with her," she said. "Just because you're not a great basketball player doesn't mean you can't go out there and work some basketball drills with her."
    Involvement and engagement are so key to girls, especially as they go through a point where they may not feel like they're the best, Welter said. Parents need to make it clear there are positives to sports, regardless of their level of play.
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    "We want them to know that there are benefits of just playing, no matter if you're the superstar or you're just playing because it's fun ... And guess what, Mom, you are the number one person who can teach them that, because you're saying, 'I'm playing because [I] love it and it's fun to have mom-daughter time playing time basketball.' That's something boys have had from their dads forever."
    Why do you think so many girls are leaving sports? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.