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Girls dropping out of sports spark concerns and conversations

Scripps News talks with a girls' basketball coach about the current climate of women and girls in sports and what needs to be done to change it.
Girls dropping out of sports spark concerns and conversations
Posted at 6:17 PM, Jun 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-23 18:18:22-04

Nike and the Tucker Center on Girls and Women in Sports are joining forces to help keep girls in sports. 

Research shows that 14-years-old girls are dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys.

A 2022 survey by Women in Sports found that more than 1 million teenage girls, 43%, who once considered themselves sporty dropped out of a sport after elementary school.

Karen Self, the head girls' basketball coach at Seton Catholic Preparatory High School in Chandler, Arizona is a trailblazer with an impressive record. Self's coaching has led to 17 championship game appearances and 12 state championship wins. Over Self's three-decade career, she's gained insight on the pressures girls now face.

"20 years ago, I had to make cuts within my program for freshman JV (junior varsity) and varsity. Now we don't make any cuts — we just take anybody," Self said.

She partially blames social media for exposing girls around the clock to unrealistic athletic expectations and for making them feel inadequate to the point that they may drop out of a sport they love or not even try out.

"We say the fastest way to kill something you love is to compare it to something else you know," Self said.

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The Women's Sports Foundation reports that 40% of teen girls are not actively participating in a sport, and adds that boys have 1.3 million more sport opportunities than girls.

Girls drop out of sports due to many factors including lack of confidence, school pressure, transportation and economic barriers. Nike also blames coaches' unconscious gender biases and stereotypes for girls leaving sports.

Nike CEO John Donahoe told CNBC the rate at which girls are dropping out of sports is alarming. He said more female coaches would increase girls' participation and retention. Scripps News reached out to Nike for an interview, but the company declined to comment, only releasing links to the company's effort to help engage more girls in sports and attract more women as coaches.

Nike developed a free digital coaching resource called, "Coaching HER" in partnership with the Tucker Research Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota.

"I think it starts at the grassroots level, so opportunity at the bottom will create the opportunity at the top," Phoenix Mercury Head Coach Vanessa Nygaard said.

She believes more female role models in sports and a greater spotlight on women's athletics can help breath inspiration into young girls.

"When young people can see somebody in a role, then they think that's a possible job for me or that's a possible opportunity," Nygaard said.

Phoenix Mercury Forward Michaela Onyenwere said her first official female coach was in college.

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She credits that coach and a nearly all women's leadership for her success in basketball.

"They taught me the ropes and they taught me, you know, what it meant to be a basketball player. What it meant to be even a better woman," Onyenwere said. 

She adds that having a coach like Nygaard who has played basketball in the WNBA also helps create a better connection and understanding. 

"She understands the struggles, the hardships, you know, the trials, tribulations, but also just like the good things as well. And so, you know, I'm really blessed to be able to have her," Onyenwere said. 

Mary Fry, a Kansas University professor in sport and exercise psychology, points to changes coaches can embrace to help retain players based off research. Coaching tactics include building confidence, creating a safe and caring environment, using motivational responses and assuring kids that mistakes are part of the journey in sports. Fry said research shows that increasing a kid's confidence and providing a healthy environment increases their commitment levels.

"They're more committed to both continuing in the sport and the team that they're on," Fry said. "They have better psychological well-being, better control of their emotions, emotional regulation. When bad things are happening, they can deal with it and keep it in perspective."

Self said she knew she wanted to become a basketball coach in fifth grade. She looked to successful male family members who played basketball to guide her and vividly recalls her Arizona State University basketball coach, Charli Thorne. Thorne retired in 2022 after 25 seasons. She achieved the most wins in ASU women's basketball history.

Self, a humble coach and mother of four, said she aspires to be even just a fraction of the inspiration Thorne has been to girls and women in basketball. Self's career shows she's already inspiring girls and helping build a foundation that includes more women in sports. She said nearly all of her assistant coaches are her former alumni.

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