Sports Improve Girls’ Self-Esteem…Well, Sorta

As a former athlete I’d always assumed that participation in
sports increased self-esteem in girls and women.  I’m not exactly sure from where or how I
developed this notion, but I did.
Perhaps it was that the vast majority of my teammates (I played tennis
and soccer and ran track) seemed to be confident, well-adjusted, successful
ladies.  Even now when I look at we
ladies have gone on to accomplish and become in our post-athlete lives, we seem
to continue to thrive and take on this big, bad world with a noticeable level
of confidence and success.  But after my
interview with future sports psychologist, Ashley Coleman, I began to wonder if
participation in sports really did have the ability to develop high self-esteem
in girls and women.  Did sports play a
key factor in the personalities and success of my teammates or did I just
happen to know some pretty amazing girls who would have been successful with or
without sports?  So like any half-the-way
decent writer, I set out to do some research.
What did I learn?  Well, that
participation in sports improves girls’ self-esteem…sort of.  


Before we look at how sports affect girls’ levels of
self-esteem, we have to establish what self-esteem is and how it works.  Doctors better versed than I on this subject
have defined self-esteem as “the level of global regard one has for the self”
or how a person “prizes, values, approves, or likes” herself.  So global self-esteem (the type I will be
referring to throughout this post) is essentially a measure of how you feel
about yourself overall.  

But self-esteem isn’t just this flat, straightforward
idea.  It’s actually a pretty
multifaceted concept that is based on a number of factors.  First, think of global self-esteem as the top
of a pyramid.  Each brick below feeds
into a specific brick on the row above it.
(See Figure 1 below.)  So your
global self-esteem is determined by your self-esteem at the domain level, which
consists of things like family, athletics and academics.  Your domain level is determined by your
confidence at the sub-domain level which, for an athlete, would consist of the
types of sports she plays.  And your
sub-domain level is in-turn determined by your confidence at the situational
level, which for a tennis player would be something like her strokes or
strategy.  Got it?

The other important components to self-esteem are
perceptions of competence (how capable one feels about a skill or activity) and
social support (how much support or encouragement one feels from others).  These perceptions, along with the amount of
importance an individual places on a particular aspect of their lives, are keys
to determining how confident one is in their abilities.  For instance, as a child, I was athletic and
loved sports, and my parents always supported my participation in sports.  My favorite sports were tennis and
track.  I excelled at them and always put
lots of effort into them.  I tried
basketball.  It didn’t come as easy for
me, but I never beat myself up about not being able to play it well.  So my abilities at tennis and track, plus the
support of my parents and the hard work I put into them, improved my overall
self-esteem.  I wasn’t good at basketball
but it wasn’t important to me, so my lack of ability in the sport didn’t hurt
my overall self-esteem.  Makes sense,

So far what we’ve learned is that in order to affect one’s
self-esteem, you have to affect the components that make up their self-esteem
to begin with.  To build a high level of
self-esteem we need to be able to excel at something that we believe to be
important and we need support from those around us in pursuit of those
activities. That’s not too complicated, right?  

Sports & Self-Esteem

So now that we’ve established what self-esteem is and what
it’s based on, let’s turn to female athletes and their self-esteem.  Research has shown that a person’s
athleticism (a domain level component) can absolutely affect her self-esteem.  But it’s really not as cut and dry as:
playing a sport boosts a girl’s self-esteem.
When determining how sports affect a girl’s self-esteem, two big factors
come into play: 1) the type of sport she plays; and 2) the type of coaches and
parents she has.  

     All Sports Are Not Created Equally

Generally, there are two types of sports, those that are
based on team competition/cooperation and those that are based on individual
competition.  Research suggests that
participation in team sports (in a healthy manner) has been known to improve a
girl’s chances of having an overall high self-esteem.  Early participation in team sports fosters an
increased sense of physical competency and body image; and develops
teambuilding, networking and communication skills.  Unfortunately, the positive effects of
participation in team sports are not always mimicked through the participation
in individual sports.  

Studies have shown that participation in individual sports,
especially those that place an emphasis on leanness and body weight (like
gymnastics, cross country and swimming) have the potential to negatively affect
a girl’s self-esteem and body health.  Unhealthy
and unchecked participation in these lean sports has been shown to increase a
girl’s susceptibility to the “female athlete triad,” a syndrome found in active
girl and women that consists of disordered eating, amenorrhea and
osteoporosis.    The pressure to maintain unrealistic body
weights, in hopes of being more successful in competition, has been known to
lead to the triad and to issues of depression, anxiety and stress.  While the type of sport a girl chooses to
play is important, any sport can be played in a healthy manner depending on her
support system.

     Who’s Your Daddy…And Coach?

Key players in ensuring that a girl’s participation in
sports remains healthy are coaches and parents.
Parents and coaches can be significant sources of either encouragement
or stress in the lives of young athletes.
Girls who are coached by adults who provide vocal encouragement, who teach
life skills (like communication, networking and teambuilding), and who stress
the importance of balance and healthy living are more likely to reap the
potential psychological benefits of playing sports.  On the other hand, coaches who are overly
critical, who are focused on body image and winning, and who aren’t cognizant
of players’ lives/issues outside of sports have the potential to negatively
impact a girls’ athletic experience and in turn her self-esteem.

Likewise, parents who are supportive, who encourage healthy
eating and lifestyles and who provide stable environments are likely to help
boost their child’s self-esteem.  Conversely,
athletes from less stable homes that lack cohesion and support may have a
tougher time developing a strong sense of self-esteem within and outside of
sports.  Parents’ views on eating habits
and body image can also negatively impact athletes, especially those in the
lean sports mentioned above.  The
takeaway, athletes need coaches and parents to be supportive and to be positive
influences on their mental and physical health. 

So This Means…

So what’s the moral of the story?  Merely participating in sports does not mean
that a girl will grow into a self-confident, healthy woman.  Besides being good at a particular sport and
caring about it, outside factors are also at play.  Care should be taken in choosing which
sport(s) young ladies play and their participation should be monitored so that
it remains healthy and productive.
Coaches and parents need to provide healthy environments and be mindful
of the athlete’s development outside of sports.
While it may seem like an awful lot needs to occur before sports has a
positive impact on an athlete’s self-esteem, typically everything comes
together quite nicely and seamlessly.
Most girls choose to participate in sports they like and are genuinely
interested in being good at, and most coaches and parents provide loving and
supportive atmospheres for girls to develop.
Sometimes things don’t line up in the healthiest of ways, with effort
from both the athletes and the supporting cast members, sports really can help
girls and women develop high levels of self-esteem.  


While I did not cite directly to sources in the post, here are
the sources that I used for this writing-

Frost, Jackie and McKelvie, Stuart J., “The Relationship of
Self-Esteem and Body Satisfaction to Exercise Activity for Male and Female
Elementary School, High School, and University Students,” Sex Roles, Vol
51, Nos ½, July 2004, Partially Online:

Jack, Dana C., “The Impact of Sports on Adolescent
Development: The Importance of Title IX,” Forum on Public Policy, Vol 1,
Issue 3, Online:

Markowitz, Ellen, “Exploring Self-Esteem in a Girls’ Sports
Program,” Afterschool Matters, Fall 2012, Online:

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