From the Sidelines: Training Girls to Win in Sports (and Life!)

encouraging confidence in girls sports journal from athlete as adolescent

Dear Journal,

I don’t get it. Why are people so rude? I mean seriously. All people do is make fun of me because I’m small or flat or I ski to (sic) much. I already feel bad enough it doesn’t help to have my classmates say it to my face.

14-year-old female ski racer

Fast-forward nine years and the author of this raw adolescent journal entry is a seven-time NCAA All-American in ski racing.

Fast-forward another five years and Jilyne Higgins is part of a team mentoring young female athletes as they confront peer pressure, self-doubt and fear of failure to win in their sport of choice and off the field as well.

“Zero Limitations” — that is the core philosophy of ZGirls, a Seattle-based group offering team workshops and summer camps to girls ages 11–14 years old competing in a wide range of sports, from soccer and softball to skiing and swimming. Coaches do not attend, nor do parents, so girls are free to share openly with less fear of judgement.

With sport-specific instructors and lessons, the core curriculum empowers girls who may have mastered moguls and home-run hitting but occasionally stumble over the mental and social-emotional obstacles that come with adolescence.

The Women’s Sports Foundation reports that by age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys. “I remember that age — everything is so dramatic! I was so incredibly hard on myself, says ZGirls’ founder and Washington native Libby Ludlow. Now 32 years old, Ludlow herself overcame her smaller stature and a series of knee injuries to compete for ten years as a downhill, Super G and Giant Slalom racer on the U.S. Ski Team, including participating in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

skiierEmbedded in Ludlow’s curriculum of concrete tips and workshop exercises is the reminder that behind every victory a top athlete claims are the hundreds of losses they suffered to get there. “It’s about dealing with failure, says Ludlow. “It’s hard in this day and age when wins are what is celebrated, if the girls don’t win all the time, they think, ‘What’s the point?’”

At a recent workshop, ZGirls softball mentor Rogin Hardy worked with middle school fast-pitch players from the Bellevue Blast club. This fifth session of six got the girls thinking about body image and nutrition.

Hardy led a visualization exercise, where girls started by picturing themselves running outdoors in the hot sun, the feeling of their muscles working, breathing hard with their healthy lungs. The players then filled out worksheet prompts related to what they like about their own bodies and what their bodies do for them.

“Could those skinny supermodels do what you do on the softball field?, Hardy asks them.

“No! They’re not strong enough, one girl answers.

Another chimes in: “Their legs would snap.”

“That’s one reason they can’t do what we do, Rogin reminds them.

Earlier sessions had focused on building confidence and gaining a mental edge. The impact on the girls? “I appreciate myself much more, 13-year-old Mary Catherine Tolbert, a student at Sacred Heart School in Clyde Hill, relates afterwards. “I used to have a hard time with that because I have a lot of drive and push myself. Now I feel better and also I don’t make the same mistake twice.”


Pulled from ZGirls workshops, here are five things girl athletes need to hear to build up their self-confidence:

girls talking at table1. Appreciate your strengths

Athletes are almost always focused on improving their weaknesses, which is important, but if an athlete never acknowledges her particular strengths she is missing the big picture.

Everyone is strong or gifted at something. Encourage girls to have the mental discipline to intentionally recognize and appreciate their own unique and extraordinary strengths.

2. Take (the right!) risks

Have your athlete write down and maybe share with someone else a time when they thought something was scary but they went ahead and did it anyway. How did they feel? Most often, the response is, “Proud” or “Excited.”

With that, remind the athlete that next time they are confronted with something intimidating, they can tell themselves that they have done tough, scary stuff before and they can do it again.

3. Help your body to thrive

It’s an awkward time with the changes of puberty, plus where athletes want to be physically to compete at their highest level.

Help girls understand young bodies can do amazing things when cared for. Nutritional awareness is critical; when they are fueling their body properly they will compete and generally feel better. The supermodel ideal is not realistic, nor is it healthy for girls wanting to compete and win in sports.

4. Maximize positive influences, minimize the negative ones

Girls are in charge of their own “recipes for success.” Which people offer inspiration and encouragement? Keep them in your recipe and find more of those ingredients if need be.

Visualize hitting the home run or winning the race, practice by thinking positive thoughts during practices and warm-up drills. Help the athletes feel empowered to trash rotten ingredients — eliminate from their recipes things like hanging out with negative people or stressing about the outcome of the race before it has even started.

5. Track your achievements

Athletes are always trying to improve and constantly field criticism. Encourage girls to keep an achievement journal which forces them to recognize and give credit for improvements, no matter how small.

Competitors are always trying to improve and constantly field criticism, so when they make one improvement, she immediately focuses on the next weakness to fix. By logging the positive progress, an athlete can revisit that achievement journal if her confidence is shaken to review the long list of reasons why she should believe in herself!

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