Sports Mentoring for Girls
Scores High for Self-Esteem

By Nancy Weil
American News Service

The simple act of going to a women's basketball game at Duke University with her dad three years ago ignited in Allison Icardi a passion for sports. Soon she was shooting hoops and practicing dribbles with her brothers and school friends.

Allison, 11, from Cary, N.C., says, "I wasn't thinking about the way I looked anymore. I was thinking, I've got to practice and I love the game."

Allison's self-discovery about sports and the extra confidence it brought supports what researchers and psychologists have been saying -- that girls lose confidence far more than boys as they approach adolescence and are in greater need of self-image support.

Riding a crest of popularity for women's sports with the arrival of the Women's National Basketball Association and the high visibility of American women athletes at the Atlanta Olympics, the concept of sports mentoring for girls is proving especially effective in maintaining a healthy self-image in young womanhood.

John Icardi says of his only daughter's discovery of sports, "Instead of hanging around watching TV, she's out all the time." The pair recently ran a 5K race together, and Allison also plays soccer. "She's much more active as a person and real interested in acquiring skills."

So impressed was Icardi with the positive changes in his daughter that first he joined a grassroots movement that fosters sports participation for girls. Then, in February 1996, he formed the nonprofit g-wis Foundation (pronounced gee whiz -- girls and women in sports).

Under the program, women basketball players and coaches from Duke, North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina visited 44 schools in three counties, where they spoke to more than 6,000 girls. Over 4,000 of these later attended games.

Icardi's goal is to achieve a one-on-one mentoring program for girls in sports, using as his model SportsBridge, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco that pairs volunteer women with middle school girls. Student and mentor try sports like ice skating, bowling and swimming together and attend games.

SportsBridge founder Ann Kletz, who started playing soccer in an all-boys' league when she was 8, said, "It was just clear that the lessons I learned on the playing field were integral in my life. Things like self-confidence, the feeling I could go out there and take risks and do what I wanted to do. I knew that if you worked really hard at something it would pay off and you would get results."

Kletz played soccer at Harvard University and coached adolescent and high school girls in Berkeley, Calif., after she graduated and returned to her hometown. In September 1994, when she started planning and fund-raising for SportsBridge, she found there were no models for the sort of sports mentorship program she wanted to create.

SportsBridge mentors were paired with 20 girls the first year and 40 girls the second, and Kletz expects that number to increase. About 600 Bay Area girls have participated in SportsBridge programs, including sports clinics, workshops and a recent overnight camp in Monterey for 38 girls.

Halima Marshall, a SportsBridge mentor, said of the girl she was paired with, "She is aware now that not only does her family care about her, but so do other people."

Mary Pipher, author of "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls," published in 1994 and one of several books that came out at about that time examining the cultural pressures on girls, says connecting girls with good female role models is valuable.

"The best thing you can do for an adolescent girl is to get them with someone successful over 20 years old," said Pipher, a clinical psychologist who practices and teaches in Lincoln, Neb. She said she has noticed a big change in the last five years in the number and variety of sports programs geared toward girls.

The benefits of exercise were further underscored in "Physical Activity and Sport in the Lives of Girls," a report of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports unveiled by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala in March as part of her national GirlPower! campaign. Sports is one component of the effort, which is supposed to encourage and empower 9- to 14-year-old girls.

The President's Council pointed to research findings that girls who are physically active build stronger, denser bones that resist osteoporosis after menopause. Studies also show that physical activity decreases the risk of heart disease and might decrease the risk of estrogen-fed cancers, including ovarian, endometrial and breast cancer because girls who are vigorously active usually start menstruating later, said the council's report.

Posted August 11, 1997
Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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