A lack of opportunity has in the past denied girls the fun and benefits of sports. Now a group of Edina middle-schoolers is tackling a new problem that is discouraging fellow female classmates from jumping in — the notion that being the best is all that matters.
Hypercompetitiveness is showing up in girls who play sports rigorously in grade school, they say, as is burnout. Others report feeling embarrassed to “only” play at the recreation level, or assume they’ve started too late to succeed. The concern is that these thoughts are driving girls away from activities that offer proven benefits of leadership, confidence and risk-taking.
“You don’t have to be a superstar to be an athlete,” said Lila Emerson, 13, an eighth-grader at Edina’s Southview Middle School.
Their solution is the first Edina Girls’ Sports Summit, a celebration of sports that will feature professional female athletes, as well as experts in sports psychology and nutrition.
Nearly 150 teen girls have registered for the event, which is being held Monday, Sept. 30, when Edina schools are out. The nine girls arranged the summit as a volunteer “JV board” for Her Next Play, an Edina-based nonprofit that promotes the career-development benefits of athletics for women. The organization notes that 65% of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women competed in sports, and 95% of female executives played as well.
“There’s a lot of resources and time being spent on sports,” said Sara Wegmann, founder of Her Next Play and the mother of two daughters. “We think we can impact the next generation of leaders by keeping girls in sports and helping them understand everything they are learning” from them.
On the surface, high school participation figures don’t suggest a problem. The 117,885 girls in high school sports in Minnesota last school year was a record, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Girls also represented 49% of all high school athletes in Minnesota. No other state had such equity in its high school athletes.
However, rapid growth over the past two decades in female high school athletes has stagnated, which could reflect population trends, but also burnout. High school figures also don’t account for girls giving up sports at the recreational level.
“What we hear from the girls is they do feel a lot of pressure,” Wegmann said, “and they do see their friends dropping out because it’s too much and their friends feel like they’re either all in or they’re out. It’s, ‘You don’t play travel soccer, so you can’t play soccer anymore.’ ”
While the JV board received help from adults, including many of their parents who are involved with Her Next Play, the girls said the summit was their own creation. They recruited a cliff diver to speak, along with Olympic hockey and pro softball athletes, to highlight diversity in sports.
And they mixed in yoga and soccer free-play sessions at the Life Time Sport facility in Eden Prairie.
“We didn’t want it to feel like school,” Emerson said.
The girls behind the summit said sports provides a safe environment for trial and error. Carolina Cultu, 13, said she used to be scared running to the net in tennis, but gained confidence through practice. Emerson said sports helped her when applying for the student ambassador program at her school, because she learned to speak up.
“You have to have these certain qualities teachers are looking for,” she said.
Creating the summit was an exercise in confidence-building, as the girls first won a $5,000 award from the Edina Community Foundation, then gained sponsorships.
The girls earned the award, in part, by attending a banquet and pitching their idea to foundation members, including Edina Mayor Jim Hovland. He voted for it.
“We had to learn how to mingle on the spot,” said Claire Wegmann-Krider, 13, a South View eighth-grader and summit organizer. “I was just kind of hanging by the cookies.”
They won the award in a tie vote, meaning they needed every person they lobbied. Their goal is to hold the summit annually, and to expand it.
Wegmann said the cost of sports isn’t as much of an issue in affluent Edina, but recent studies have shown cost to be the leading cause of declines in participation in the U.S.
Future summits will need to tackle economic issues, but will continue to confront the inequities and misconceptions that drive girls from sports, she said.
“It can just be about getting out there and playing and moving around,” Wegmann said. “It doesn’t have to be so overdone.”