Study shows positive correlation between playing sports, better self-image among girls

A new report that surveyed more than 10,000 girls across the country has found a positive correlation between playing sports and increased confidence, body image, academic performance and personal relationships.

The Girls and Sports Impact Report, released today, is the first of many forthcoming reports stemming from the Girls' Index, a survey released in the fall by Ruling Our Experiences, or ROX, a nonprofit founded by Lisa Hinkelman. The organization focuses on the challenges of young adulthood among girls -- specifically issues of personal identity, leadership and navigating social media.

"I was an athlete all of my life and really believe that sports helped me in lots of different ways," Hinkelman said.

The report, which surveyed girls from fifth through 12th grade, shows that sports have a positive effect on young girls -- with little detriment to academic performance -- in the impact on girls' perceptions of themselves.

There's a significant drop-off in confidence among all girls in middle school, particularly from fifth through ninth grade. That includes girls who play sports, yet those girls say they're more confident at a rate that's at least 8 percentage points higher than those who don't. Girls who play sports are 11 percent more likely to say they're "happy the way they are."

As Hinkelman puts it, these are the years in which puberty hits, bodies begin to change and girls' confidence becomes much more entwined in body image. "When we look at the overlay of confidence and desire to change one's appearance, we see this inverse relationship. From fifth grade to ninth grade when confidence is declining, we also see this tremendous uptick in the percentage of girls who wish to change how they look," Hinkelman said.

Girls who play sports are 16 percent less likely to want to change their image, according to the survey.

Hinkelman also points to notions of identity -- that girls in middle school are still trying to find their place, while high school girls are mostly already settled into their social groups.

Hinkelman, who holds a PhD in counseling education from Ohio State University and has served as a volunteer rape crisis counselor, recognized the need to hear girls and women tell their own experiences. In that way, the survey is unique -- rather than providing multiple-choice answers, for example, it asked open-ended questions about how the respondents would describe their own perceptions of, say, healthy coping mechanisms and their confidence levels in school.

"Coming from a counseling background and working so much with girls and parents, it's one of the divides that we have in the work, is that girls don't think that adults understand their lives and adults don't know how to actively relate to and communicate with girls," Hinkelman said. She believes the research will help "adults, teachers, counselors and parents" better understand and communicate with these girls.

The study also found that a higher percentage of non-athlete girls spend more hours on social media. For example, 44 percent of girls who spend four to six hours on social media are athletes, compared to 55 percent who are non-athletes -- and that disparity only increases as time on those networks increases. That could be the result of coaches limiting time on social media, or the sheer lack of time to spend on those networks.

"When we looked initially at our first pass of the data we saw that girls who also are involved in theater or music or band were also likely to be spending less time on social media," Hinkelman said. "And so sports might be a strong function of that, but it also could be girls' connectedness to other positive activities that is part of the contribution."

Hinkelman pointed to the fact that girls who play sports seem to have stronger friendships with other girls. According to the report, girls who play sports are 10 percentage points more likely to say they "trust other girls" than girls who don't, while they're 7 percentage points more likely to "get along well with other girls."

"There's so much to be said about that teen connectedness and that feeling and that trust in other girls," Hinkelman said. "I'll be interested to see if those same trends are replicated when we take a deeper dive into other activities and clubs and religious organizations and music and dance and theater and gymnastics. But there's some strength that girls gain from being a part of a team." She says there's still more research to be done.

Overall, there are clearly positive correlations between being part of a sports team and better self-image for young girls. But in Hickleman's words, simply playing sports doesn't offset the various challenges that accompany growing up a girl, as evidenced in the broader Girls' Index.

"I think that we can say we recognize that girls universally particularly during these middle school years are experiencing tremendous challenges," Hinkelman said. "We know that girls who play sports and have this exposure to sports culture and relationships and longevity in sports tend to fare better."