- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2002

Playing sports can help prepare girls for the rules, politics and teamwork of corporate America, University of Virginia psychologist Linda Bunker says.

Ms. Bunker studied female Fortune 500 executives and found that 80 percent of them had played organized sports at the junior high school level or higher. Ms. Bunker's research was conducted almost a decade ago, and she says the number of female executives who were athletes is probably much higher today.

The Women's Sports Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group, estimates that about one in three girls now participates in sports at the high school level. Thirty years ago before the advent of Title IX, which added greater opportunities for women to play sports the number was one in 27.

That has made for a generation of women who are fitter, more confident, more goal-oriented and more open to criticism, says Ms. Bunker, who has long studied women athletes.

"I think playing sports has definitely changed how women communicate with each other and with men and how they cope with adversity," she says. "Traditionally, women in business carried around hurt feelings. Sports has taught women that tomorrow is another game."

The empowerment girls feel from playing sports begins early. Adolescent girls are bombarded with messages from the media and peers about their body and looks, but playing sports gives girls psychological benefits that can offset other pressures, say researchers at the University of Florida.

In a 1998 study of 114 adolescent girls elite athletes, general athletes and non-athletes the athletes had more confidence in their appearance and felt more in control of their lives, researchers said.

That confidence couldn't come at a better time. Between ages 10 and 14, adolescents of both sexes depend on their peers for validation, Ms. Bunker says. Boys tend to rely on competition, while girls rely on self-comparison. Playing sports provides a healthy arena for girls' comparisons. Teams, after all, are picked on people's competencies rather than who is liked or disliked.

"I asked a bunch of girl athletes if they had ever heard the term 'tomboy'" says Dr. Jordan Metzl, a New York physician specializing in sports medicine and author of the book "The Young Athlete: A Sport's Doctor's Complete Guide for Parents."

"Many of them had never heard the term. Girls are playing sports in so many numbers now and gaining so much more self-confidence. They are participating in the kind of bonding that will carry over into Wall Street and other male-dominated environments."

Other notable benefits girls and women get from playing sports:

•They are likely to stay healthier. Physically active girls are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior, such as cigarette smoking or getting pregnant before they want to, according to the Women's Sports Foundation. Several studies have shown that staying active may reduce the chances of getting breast cancer.

•They learn about setting goals and committing to them. Mariah Burton Nelson, an Arlington author and advocate for women's sports, says sports taught her to set goals that were based on personal performance, not necessarily winning or being the best.

"As an author, I have had to figure what this means," she says. "Some might say, 'best seller,' but my definition is writing good books that are beneficial for a lot of people. So I am wildly successful by my own standards."

Kathy Montgomery, an Oakton woman whose 13-year-old daughter, Rosie, plays for the Chantilly Youth Association's Purple Aces, a select girls' soccer team, says sports have given her daughter a certain level of focus.

"The girls on the team are at an age where they could start to be disinterested and where social things could start to take over," Mrs. Montgomery says. "That hasn't happened, yet."

•They learn the camaraderie to which only boys were exposed in previous generations. Sports teach that everyone on the team has a role to play, even players who sit on the bench. Appreciating one's teammates can go a long way in learning how to get along with others, Ms. Nelson says.

"Sports teaches you how to sit on the bench and cheer for your teammates and how to step up and take a leadership role," she says.

Tina Wallace, whose daughter, Hillary, also is on the Purple Aces, says the social aspect is an important part of the overall picture for her daughter.

"At this time in adolescence, sports helps them even out," Mrs. Wallace says. "If they are moody, they know they cannot act that way in front of their teammates, and when they are exercising and focusing on the game, all the petty stuff falls away. They stop being focused on themselves and focus on the team. They realize they need each other."

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