This Saturday 3 October we celebrate one of the most iconic dates in the Australian sporting calendar: the AFL Grand Final. But did you know that sport can be so much more than just a game? For girls, sports participation can be a great way to foster leadership skills.
For Nina* from western Tanzania participating in sport has been nothing short of life changing. To meet Nina today you would be welcome by a poised, energetic young woman. However if you had me her just three years ago – before she joined a CARE-supported leadership through sports program – you may have had a very different impression.
“I was such as ‘yes’ girl … I couldn’t even speak in public,” says Nina. “I had no direction, no ambition and no self-confidence.”
But a few years ago, she enrolled in a girls’ leadership and mentorship program offered by CARE in her village. By helping girls learn how to express themselves articulately, be decisive, develop and pursue personal goals and share these skills with others, the program helps girls to take action and exert positive influence on the people around them.
Among the most effective tools in the girls’ leadership tool box is a ball. Put a girl who has never played soccer or volleyball before – or never been allowed to play before – onto a field or court, and she’ll exercise more than just her arms and legs. She’ll exercise basic life skills like how to lead others, how to listen actively and how to develop and execute strategy. These skills, once uncovered, serve her well in other areas of her life.
A growing pool of evidence backs this up. In the 40 plus years since new legislations opened the door for girls to play sports in American schools, researchers have found a clear link between participation in sports and better academic performance, improved self-confidence and lower rates of teen pregnancy.
But Nina doesn’t need research to explain to her what sports have done for her. She credits learning to play volleyball with opening her mind; with showing her personal skills she didn’t know existed. She doesn’t want to be professional athlete though. She wants to be a lawyer. And she’s already a mentor to other girls and women in her village.
“I’m young but I lead a group of 40 adult women in our village sports group,” she says. “Some of these women are my mother’s age, but they respect me.”
While Nina’s story is impressive, it reflects the transformative power sports holds for many. Nina’s classmate Jenny* has a similar story to tell. “Before I played sports, I was too shy to even ask questions of teachers,” Jenny says. She credits the girls’ leadership program which includes sports with improving her overall academic performance.
And across the Indian Ocean in Bangladesh, CARE-supported girls’ leadership programs are finding the same results with soccer. Young girls who’ve never before had a chance to play organised sports with each other or with boys are discovering new physical and intellectual skills, and overturning long-held stereotypes about what girls can and should do.
After Saturday, the AFL season is over for another year. But keep Nina, Jenny and millions of other girls just like them in mind when you’re watching sport – or even just watching children in your neighbourhood kick or throw a ball around. Yes, they’re having fun. But they are also learning invaluable leadership and life skills.
*CARE is committed to being a child safe organisation. Names of children have been changed. This story was first published by CARE UK.