Sports Help Girls Run and Hit and Swim Their Way to Feeling Good About Themselves

Erin Lynn Nau, PhD, LCSW
4 min readFeb 2, 2022

National Girls and Women in Sports Day is February 2, a day to celebrate women and girls’ participation in sports, and also to cement the rights girls have to play sports as stated by Title IX. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, “This celebration inspires girls and women to play and be active, to realize their full power.”

I want to embrace this celebration. I know how important sports are to the girls I have interviewed for my research and how important they are in my life.


One of the unexpected findings in my dissertation was the importance of sports for adolescent girls. One of the ways girls develop self-worth is through feeling competence and achievement. Participation in sports can be a part integral in developing competence. Girls want to be able to achieve their highest level at sports, they want to work hard toward that achievement. When they are not given that chance it negatively impacts how they feel about themselves. They want to play sports — all sports.

Girls understand that not all sports are for them. A couple of the girls I interviewed talked about the injustice of being told they could not play football on the playground or in gym with the boys. They were brushed off by adults and told they might get hurt. They also talked about being compared to boys who played sports, that the boys were seen as stronger and had more resources. They saw it in their own schools but also on TV.

In 2021 during March Madness, athletes were showing pictures of their weight rooms. The boys’ weight room was just that — a weight room fully equipped with everything they needed to train. The girls’ locker room was a handful of weights and yoga mats. Not only is this wildly unfair to the athletes, it also sends a message that girls’ sports are less important.

One of the most important protections of Title IX is that people are protected from sexual violence and harassment. We know that this protection is not working, especially for female athletes. Athletes are being assaulted by the adults in their sport and are shamed into not coming forward. The most well-reported case was the assaults of gymnasts throughout their sport by one man. Some of the survivors began reporting their assaults in the 1990s but were silenced, and it continued to happen for 30 years.

Some of the girls I interviewed talked about their fears of being assaulted and also of not being believed if it did happen. The youngest girl who talked about this was 11 years old.

Sports should be a safe place for girls to develop their self-worth without fear of being assaulted or harassed.


Sports were a big deal in my house when I was growing up. We spent weekends watching college football. My siblings and I all participated in various sports from the time we were very young.

My feminist origin story comes from my participation in sports. When I was in elementary school, I played coach pitch baseball — this is a step up from t-ball when the coaches act pitch the ball to their own players. I was the only girl on my team. I remember the boys talking about how I should not be there and how I would be too afraid that a pitched ball was coming at me. That may have been true, but I also remember not being the only one. I also remember sitting in the dugout while the boys talked about the kind of girls who would be their girlfriends, making hourglass shapes with their hands. We were no older than 10. That was my last year playing baseball.

I went on to join the swim team. Swimming is my true sports love. It makes me so happy and so confident. I admittedly don’t always feel good about myself or my body, but I never hesitate to put on a swimsuit when I have the chance to swim.

Me running, and crying my way to the finish line on the NYC Marathon
Me running and crying my way to the finish line in the NYC Marathon

Playing sports as a kid gave me the confidence to do lots of things. So when my then-boyfriend, now-husband said he wanted to run a marathon the year he turned 40, I said, “Sure I’ll join you.” I had never run longer than a 10K at that moment. But I gave myself over to running, and I finished the New York City marathon.

I would not be who I am without sports.

If you are an athlete or are inspired to learn more check out Women and Girls Sports Foundation. I am also a fan of Girls on the Run. You can also read about some of my Sheroes, including a few women in sports.



Erin Lynn Nau, PhD, LCSW

Feminist. Social Worker. Researcher. I am a PhD candidate whose research focuses on self-worth and early adolescent girls.