Sports have always been vehicles for positive change. Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Serena Williams, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe, and Gabby Douglas are a few of the influential athletes who have broken barriers for the Black community in American sports through their athleticism, know-how, and hard work. These athletes are among the ranks of incredible role models who offer hope and remind us of the transformative power that sports and exercise can have in each of our lives.
Shattering Glass Ceilings
It’s hard to imagine a world where these people hadn’t each shattered a glass ceiling. Without a doubt, if such a world existed, it would be less diverse and inclusive.
The opportunity for everyone, regardless of differences, to challenge him or herself to the greatest extent physically, mentally, and even spiritually possible is what sports have always been about. Training for competition is long and arduous, often filled with tests of strength, endurance, and willpower for athletes, but this is exactly what we connect with on an emotional level as humans. At the end of the day, no matter what our skin tone, gender, religious beliefs, moral code, sexual orientation, or lifestyle choices are, we tend to have the same aspirations, both on and off the field.
At one time or another, we’ve all performed our best and hoped for a win – and without a doubt, we’ve all suffered the pangs of defeat. We’ve all sat on lawn chairs, bleachers, and couches watching our favorite athlete or team with sweaty palms and a racing heart, their success or failure feeling akin to our own.
At a collective level, our energies are interwoven and transformed together through sports.
The power of sports is unquestionable and perhaps at its finest when athletes use their platforms for good. For example, in 2018 Chloe Kim became the youngest woman to win an Olympic gold medal in snowboarding. She used the opportunity to speak out about the harms of bullying, a topic personal to the young athlete having been a target of bullying herself. Two-time Olympian and World Cup champion, Megan Rapinoe, is another great example of a woman who has extended her platform off the field advocating for racial justice, equal pay for women, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Arguments Instead of Solutions
It’s inspiring to see sports stars caring about the same issues that we all do. If we want to see sports continue to be vehicles for positive change and personal fulfillment then we must look carefully, thoughtfully, and critically at the current fear-infused conversations currently happening over trans youth in sports. We must also become reflective about our own hang-ups as parents who at times cling too tightly to athletic achievement for our own children, perhaps at their great expense…
Let’s begin this conversation by diving into the currently treacherous waters of the trans youth in sports debate. Much of the current language in sports revolves around protecting girls and protecting girls’ sports, which on the surface seems very positive but is laced with something dangerous…
I personally and wholeheartedly believe in the meaningful way that participation in youth sports improves confidence, body awareness, self-esteem, body image, academic performance, and resilience alongside fostering peer relationships. I have volunteered in various capacities for the non-profit Girls on The Run and participated in eight different sports between my childhood and adolescent years. Girls learning to move and love their bodies is so important and uplifting!
I have also worked with young women and teens overwhelmed by eating disorders, body dysmorphia, calorie cutting, and fat-shaming. I have seen firsthand how low self-esteem coupled with a lack of sports participation can cripple young girls and lead to a lifetime of struggles. I have also seen the long road to recovery for female athletes whose entire identity was wrapped up in their sports performance and who had unfair pressures placed on their bodies.
Girls face an uphill battle today thanks to growing pressures on appearance from social media coupled with mental health challenges following the pandemic. At present, 7 in 10 girls feel that they aren’t “good enough” and 98% of girls feel immense pressure from an outside source to look a certain way. With this information in hand, it’s not surprising that 1 in 4 girls today suffers from depression, eating disorders, cutting, and other mental/emotional disorders. Youth sports offer a unique opportunity to get girls involved and improve both physical and mental health. An incredible 90% of girls report that sports participation positively impacts their self-esteem, especially about their bodies.
Girls’ sports participation is important. It matters. There’s no questioning that. But should cisgender girls be protected at the expense of trans youth who identify as female?
As we all know, there are many laws currently being passed to push trans youth off the field. I say “off the field” because it is my belief that many trans children and teens will quit sports altogether after being told they are only allowed to participate on a sports team that matches the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans youth are at a greater risk for suicidality (over 40%) than cisgender peers and tend to have higher anxiety levels. Research suggests these mental health challenges are most pronounced if a trans person has not socially transitioned, meaning they haven’t changed pronouns, started wearing different clothes, etc. In short, being authentic to one’s true self is key for optimal mental health. By contrast, trans people who have socially transitioned report high or similar self-worth when compared to same gender peers and siblings.
Girls matter. Trans girls and people matter too. Must these two groups be pitted against one another? We are all humans.
I understand concerns from parents of girls about current or future sports involvement (I have a daughter of my own). It makes sense that people are a bit overwhelmed about changes to the institution of sports. I won’t lie and say that I clearly see or understand the healthy solutions ahead and how to navigate the path forward, but as woman who has worked in fitness and wellness for 17+ years and who has degrees in Exercise Physiology and Sports Management, I can say plainly that targeting and excluding at-risk groups of individuals (or any individuals for that matter) goes against the very essence of what makes sports good.
Sports are meant to be accessible (we have Special Olympics for a reason) and are a force for positive life change. What kind of world are we creating by claiming that everyone has a place on the field…but not really? What kind of mother am I if I only care about the athletic prowess and accolades of my own children, at the expense of the opportunity for another?
I have worked firsthand with children in sports who later transitioned. The overwhelming majority of these kids frankly weren’t capable of knocking someone off the winner’s platform. They were struggling to make sense of their bodies at all. They were insecure and in desperate need of body confidence.
Movement has always been freeing for people of all ages and backgrounds. When people are insecure, they don’t move in healthy, biomechanically efficient, and neurologically positive ways. Their posture, mental health, nervous system, muscle tone, and more suffer. I’ve spent my entire career working to find holistic ways to help people restore confidence and feelings of worth to their mind/body health. I hope that leaders in the sports industry alongside policymakers can find ways to thoughtfully consider these factors in the effort to make sports healthy, safe, accessible, and inclusive for all athletes.
Again, I may not have definitive answers, but I suggest we start by asking ourselves humbly if the solutions we are creating are coming from a place of fear or compassion. Generally speaking, we will find more creative and holistic opportunities for change when we choose compassion over fear.
Yours in health and wellness,