Friday, April 4, 2014

Let's Get Physical

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

When Title IX was passed into law back in 1972, it was a major win for the feminist movement. Although, technically, it applies to everything from law school acceptance to science curricula to scout meetings, the main focus has always been sports. Once Title IX was mandated, schools had to scramble to create equal opportunities for girls.

Today, when I look at my daughter's high school and its athletics program, it's hard to believe how far we've come in just forty years. In our relatively small town, girls can choose from: Cross-Country, Field Hockey, Golf, Soccer, Cheerleading, Basketball, Ice Hockey, Swimming, Gymnastics, Indoor and Outdoor Track, Skiing, Wrestling, Baseball, Lacrosse, Tennis and Sailing.

Phew! I'm out of breath just thinking about it.

The benefits of organized sports for teens of either gender are plentiful. Student athletes develop close, collaborative friendships. They learn how to handle pressure, to work as a team, to deal with success (and failure). They're busy; they have less time to "hang out" and get in trouble.

For girls, the list gets even longer. At an age when appearance and popularity can mean everything, girls who participate in sports can feel better about themselves through physical activity, dedication and accomplishment. Because most sports help girls build lean muscle, participating can (should) help them avoid eating disorders and yo-yo dieting. (I say "should" because we've all heard stories about athletes who take dieting to extreme.) Strong becomes more important than thin. And, in this era of mean girls, being on a team may help facilitate friendships and avoid bullying.

I was never much of an athlete myself (although I did a lot of dancing and took many an aerobics class). Nevertheless, when my daughter started high school I wanted her to do ... well ... something. Her earlier seasons in girls softball were less than spectacular, but there were so many more options available. She agreed and focused on Cross-Country (she's always been a fast runner, and — way more importantly — some friends were doing it). 

I figured that one sport and one after school club (French, peut d'ĂȘtre?), along with her part-time job and the hundred million hours she spends working at the stable and training for equestrian events, and we would be welcomed with a full scholarship to the college of her choice.

I figured wrong.

Not about college (we're not quite there yet), but about one sport. In fact, it was over before it even began. She signed up for Cross-Country as she wrapped up her last year at middle school. The captain of the team would get in touch over the summer so they could start training. Well, that happened as expected, but the training turned out to be pretty much all summer and six days a week. Between camp and family vacations and riding her horse, my daughter didn't have the bandwidth to run.

September, when high school officially started, we took a look at the other options. Every organized sport practiced every weekday after school and competed every weekend. This was hardcore; no dilettantes need apply. With her lifelong commitment to riding (not to mention our enormous investment in the horse and all that comes with it), there was simply no way my daughter could participate. Even the so-called "Volleyball Club" quickly evolved into a highly competitive, time-intensive, official (if injury-ridden) team.

I was disappointed. My daughter? Not so much.

Still, I wish there was a way for her to get physical and enjoy some of the benefits of sports, to somehow participate without such a full-on commitment. In fact, I'd argue that encouraging a more balanced athletic program would better serve our kids. Yes, these long hours of practice keep them off the streets and out of the malls. But, they also keep them from their homework. Too many moms I know, too often bemoan the fact that their student athletes are still up at 2:00 a.m. studying. That can't be very healthy.

That said, wouldn't it be great if our kids grew up active, enjoying physical activity in a moderate, real-life way? Someday, when they're salespeople or doctors or teachers or lawyers or engineers or baristas, maybe they'll know how to get and stay healthy, manage stress and enjoy their free time.

After all, how many of our kids are really going to win athletic scholarships? A few, maybe. How many will go on to be professional or champion athletes? None, maybe. 

Not even maybe. None, most likely.

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