- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

It is barely light out when the two dozen girls stroll onto the field at Taylor Elementary School in Arlington for their morning workout.

First, they will stretch. Then they will talk. Today’s topic: values. Coach Jennifer Brown poses a question to them: “It is important to make a lot of money. Agree or disagree?”

The girls run in different directions, depending on their answer. Two girls take off for the undecided spot. “You probably don’t need a lot of money to be happy,” one fourth-grader says with a shrug.

This is a meeting of Girls on the Run, a nonprofit group aimed at getting girls ages 8 to 12 talking, thinking and moving. The semester-long program combines discussions about self-esteem, healthy living and positive emotional growth with preparations for a 5K race.

The goal is to create good habits and a positive outlook at a crucial time for girls, says program founder Molly Barker. Around fifth grade, many girls fall into what Ms. Barker calls “the girl box,” the place where they feel they are more valued for their appearance than for who they are.

“Girls tend to lose themselves and defer to others,” says Ms. Barker, a former social worker and triathlete. “We are trying to create a culture where girls’ voices are heard.

“Running is the experience,” Ms. Barker says about Girls on the Run. “But the lessons they get could help them get through adolescence with their self-esteem intact.”

Ms. Barker started Girls on the Run in her hometown of Charlotte, N.C., in 1996. Some 14,000 girls nationwide participated in the program at schools and community centers in 2003.

In the Washington area, there are Girls on the Run clubs at 21 locations in Northern Virginia and 11 in the Baltimore area. The program costs about $150, but most locations offer scholarships, says Rebecca Anderson, director of the Northern Virginia council.

Mrs. Anderson grew up playing team sports, but says one aspect that drew her to working with Girls on the Run was its noncompetitive nature.

“They are not really competing with each other here for a position on the team,” she says. “It’s all about individual goals while being part of a group.”

Katelynn Petrasic, age 8, puts it more succinctly.

“I like talking about things,” she said while chugging some water. “I just ran a mile, and I am proud.”

Reaching the nonathlete

It has been more than 30 years since the federal legislation known as Title IX guaranteed increased opportunities for girls who wanted to play sports. However, there still are many girls who are inactive, who are overweight or who are giving in to society’s message to be thinner, prettier and more like the unattainable celebrity ideal.

Despite increased opportunities for girls and sports, many girls are still not taking advantage of them, says Donna Lopiano, president of the nonprofit Women’s Sports Foundation.

Ms. Lopiano’s group reports that that two out of three teenage girls do not play sports and less than one-third participate in daily physical education. Still standing in girls’ way are lack of role models, societal pressures, body-image issues, lack of parental encouragement and fewer opportunities, according to data from the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Meanwhile, one in six American girls is overweight or obese, one in three will experience depression, anxiety or eating disorders, and one in four high school girls report she does not like herself, Ms. Lopiano says.

That is why the Women’s Sports Foundation recently started its GoGirlGo initiative. GoGirlGo seeks to turn 1 million sedentary girls into active girls over the next three years.

It plans to do so by earmarking nearly $3 million for increased sports opportunities, by encouraging adults to act as mentors and by offering a curriculum to educate girls about healthy habits and physical activity.

GoGirlGo is based on these principles: to encourage a healthy body image; to promote self-esteem, self-respect and self-confidence; to encourage girls to become advocates for a healthy lifestyle; and to help girls see they can take control of their lives and become leaders.

GoGirlGo is currently under way at the Jewish Community Center Greater Washington in Rockville and at the DC Redwings Youth Track program. Redwings head coach Desmond Dunham says it has helped pique girls’ interest in sports.

The educational component features women athletes telling their own stories on different topics. Soccer star Mia Hamm tells about when she felt she didn’t fit in. Olympic bobsledder Vonetta Flowers talks about making the decision not to drink alcohol. Olympic swimmer Lindsay Benko talks about her experience dealing with bullies.

Ms. Lopiano says GoGirlGo is reaching out to girls who may have gotten the message they can’t be athletes.

“A heavy boy can be encouraged to be a lineman on the football team,” she says. “Girls are not encouraged to do that. We recognize that a great number of girls has been told they couldn’t play sports or they feel too self-conscious to play sports.”

So the way to capture that segment isn’t to say “come play sports,” Ms. Lopiano says.

“What we are saying is come talk to other girls about issues, and we’ll sneak in some physical activity,” she says.

By being active, girls will develop self-esteem and become more confident in their own bodies, Ms. Lopiano says.

Girls on the Run offers a similar outlet for girls who might not otherwise participate in sports.

“I would say out of a group of 20 girls, three or four are gifted athletes,” Ms. Barker says. “A majority of girls in Girls on the Run have not found their niche in sports.”

The confidence crisis

No question, much ground has been gained in empowering young girls over the last generation, says psychologist Sylvia Rimm, author of the book “See Jane Win for Girls: A Smart Girl’s Guide to Success.” She also writes a weekly syndicated column in Sunday’s Family Times.

Nonetheless, there still is somewhat of a confidence crisis among middle-school aged girls, Ms. Rimm says.

Sports can go a long way in bolstering self-esteem, if families approach it correctly, she says.

“When girls don’t have confidence, they tend not want to enter unless they can win,” Ms. Rimm says.

“The first thing we need to do is to teach them to compete against themselves, then they will get the proof they need that they can succeed,” she says. “Second, being part of a team shows them that they are not winning or losing by themselves.”

Finally, competing in an area in which they are not all that skilled is actually a good thing for girls, Ms. Rimm says.

“If you feel you are at the bottom, then all you have to do is move up a little,” she says.

In this age of the super child — where there is no room for mediocrity or less-than stellar stats — it is important to remember the girls who are just trying out different sports for size, says Rosalind Wiseman, the Maryland-based author of the best seller “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence.”

“I love the idea of programs that have short-term goals that build up to a longer goal,” she says. “What if you have a kid who is not that athletic and goes to the soccer field where 10 girls are whipping around like lightning? That is intimidating for both parents and kids. A daughter can use her body in many ways, and it does not have to be on a select soccer team.

“Anything we can do to lessen the feeling that she has about the way the culture wants her to be is like a life preserver,” Ms. Wiseman says.

Meanwhile, back at Taylor Elementary School, the girls have discussed drugs and friendships and whether it would be your friend’s fault if she offered you drugs, you took them and got sick.

“Is this the type of person you would even want to be friends with?” Ms. Brown, the coach, posed to the group.

Now the group is running laps around the field. The idea is to run more laps than the day before.

“I play soccer and basketball, too, but this is different,” fifth-grader Danielle Logan says as she finishes her laps. “In team sports, you practice what you are going to do in the game. I like the running and the talking here.”

Raising girls?

Here are some tips for encouraging a healthy lifestyle and increasing self-confidence.

• Break down the barriers to activity. Let her know it is OK to sweat and be athletic.

If she doesn’t know anything about sports, start to watch different sports together so she can understand the rules and how different games are played. Encourage her friends to participate; when she sees them doing an activity, she may be persuaded that it is cool.

• Emphasize the nonaesthetic benefits of exercise. Many teen and preteen girls are preoccupied with their bodies and physical appearance. Emphasize that physical activity has many benefits that don’t just have to do with looks. Talk about strength, stamina, flexibility and improved self-esteem.

• Find some role models. Let her see you working out and making physical activity part of your life. Go to women’s sporting events. Pay attention to local girls’ teams and national sports stars.

• Discover activities that fit her personality and body type. Suggest activities in which she can be successful and challenged, which use her existing abilities and where she will learn a new skill.

• Emphasize intelligence, hard work, independence, sensitivity and perseverance in your daughters.

De-emphasize the importance of appearance. Relationships that are appearance-based fade as may pretty appearances. Relationships based on shared interests and values have much more potential for depth.

• Teach healthy competition. Encourage the exhilaration of winning, but don’t always let girls win. Winning builds confidence; losing builds character.

Sources: The Women’s Sports Foundation, a nonprofit organization is dedicated to increasing the participation of girls and women in sports; and psychologist Sylvia Rimm.

More info:

Books —

• “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence,” by Rosalind Wiseman, Three Rivers Press, 2003. This is a good general book for parents of preteen and teen girls. It explores what goes on in their social world and how to help girls find empowerment.

• “See Jane Win for Girls: A Smart Girl’s Guide to Success,” by Sylvia Rimm, Free Spirit Publishing, 2003. This book, a follow-up to the author’s “See Jane Win,” offers strategies for success for girls in grades five to nine.

• “Girls on Track: A Parent’s Guide to Inspiring Our Daughters to Achieve a Lifetime of Self-Esteem and Respect,” by Molly Barker, Ballantine Books, 2004. The founder of Girls on the Run wrote this book, which combines running advice with coping with real world issues.

Association —

• The Women’s Sports Foundation, Eisenhower Park, East Meadow, N.Y. 11554. Phone: 516/542-4700. Web site: www.womenssportsfoundation.org. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to increasing the participation of girls and women in sports. The group has ideas for getting non-athletes involved and keeping athletes continually involved. A copy of a detailed report “Her Life Depends on It,” which outlines the many health, social and emotional benefits of physical activity, can be found on the foundation’s Web site.

Online —

• GoGirlGo, an education and awareness campaign sponsored by the Women’s Sports Foundation, has a Web site (www.gogirlgo.com).

• More information about Girls on the Run International, a nonprofit running and education program for girls ages 8 to 12, can be found on its Web site (www.girlsontherun.org).

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