Positive self-esteem is a favorable perception of one’s self, or, how happy you are with just being you. In general, feelings of self-esteem contribute to a person’s self-worth, confidence and competence. These feelings of worthiness, assurance and proficiency can influence a person’s life in regard to personal aspirations, motivation, achievement potential and relationships (Melpomene Institute, 1996). A person’s self-esteem is affected by and formed from a variety of circumstances in life, some of which are:

  • degree of parental expectations, encouragement and influence
  • degree of peer expectations, encouragement and influence
  • involvement in making of decisions
  • development of talents, hobbies or interests
  • influence and importance of role models
  • extent of emphasis on body image
  • experiences and interactions during education
  • participation in physical activity and/or sports (Kopecky, 1992)


Many studies have been done to investigate the self-esteem of young girls and have concluded that as girls move from grade school to high school, their self-esteem levels drop (Feldman & Elliott, 1990; Gilligan, Lyons & Hammer, 1990; How Schools Shortchange Girls, 1992). For example, one study found that 69% of grade school boys and 60% of grade school girls responded that they were “happy the way I am”. The same study found 46% of high school boys and only 29% of high schools girls reported being “happy the way I am”. Overall, girls self-esteem dropped at a rate three times that of boys. Feelings of low self-esteem in adolescence are one contributing factor that increases the likelihood of a young girl dropping out of school or becoming pregnant. The low self-esteem seen in girls does not disappear with maturity; girls with low self-esteem often grow to be women with low self-esteem. Low levels of self-esteem are linked to increased rates of depression, substance abuse, suicide and eating disorders in both adolescents and adults (How Schools Shortchange Girls, 1992; Melpomene Institute, 1996).

What can be done about the decrease in self-esteem? What can girls do to maintain their self-esteem as they mature? To answer these questions, it is important to look at what boys are doing differently from girls as both groups move from grade school to high school. One important difference to consider is the rate of sports participation among boys and girls. As girls move from grade school to high school, they drop-out of sports at a rate six times higher than boys (Women’s Sports Foundation, 1998). Could the lower rate of sports participation among girls be linked to a lower self-esteem? In order to answer the question, it is essential to consider two factors: what contributes to the development of self-esteem and the benefits of sport participation.

For girls living in the 1990s, self-esteem is linked to both physical attractiveness and physical competence. Prior to the 1990s, however, the main factor contributing to a girls’ self-esteem was physical attractiveness (Nelson, 1994). Coupling self-esteem to both competence and beauty is a step in the right direction, although it’s still unfortunate that girls place so much importance on physical attractiveness as it relates to their happiness. Recognizing that young girls often compare themselves to unrealistic standards of beauty can help parents better understand, guide and influence their children (Nelson, 1994; Women’s Sports Foundation, 1998). In attempting to de-emphasize the importance their daughters place on beauty and emphasize the importance of physical competence, parents may find it helpful to utilize the benefits of participation in sport.

Participating in sport is one way that girls can develop physical competence. Girls learn to appreciate their bodies for what they can do, instead of the perceived appearance by oneself or by others. In a sport environment girls learn to control their bodies and to rely on acquired physical skills. Partaking in sport also helps girls trust and rely on themselves and teammates while working toward common goals. In a sense, participation in sport allows each girl to become her own personal cheerleader – cheering on her physical self and what might be possible; not just standing on the sidelines, or in the bleachers, cheering others on (Nelson, 1994). Involvement in athletics provides lessons in teamwork and leadership, the development of citizenship, and community involvement. Membership in sport also offers girls a greater pool of adult role models from where they can draw guidance and support (Melpomene Institute, 1996; Murtaugh, 1988). Additionally, girls find new friends in the sport setting. For girls, this sense of friendship is essential, being liked by other girls is sometimes more important than having others see them as smart or independent (Feldman & Elliott, 1990).


A study published by the Women’s Sport Foundation on over 30,000 girls compared athletes to non-athletes.

The study stated that athletes were more likely than non-athletes to:

  • score well on achievement tests
  • feel “popular” among one’s peers
  • be involved in other extracurricular activities
  • graduate from high school (three times more likely)
  • attend college and obtain a bachelor’s degree
  • stay involved in sport as an adult
  • aspire to community involvement
  • not become involved with drugs (92% less likely)
  • not become pregnant (80% less likely)

(Women’s Sports Foundation, 1998).


It is important that parents realize the many contributions participation in sport can make to young girls’ development. The positive aspects of sport can help girls maintain their self-esteem as they make the difficult transition from grade school to high school.


Feldman, S. & Elliott, G. (Eds.). (1990). At the threshold: the developing adolescent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, C., Lyons, L., & Hammer, T. (Eds.). (1990). Making connections: The relational worlds of adolescent girls at Emma Willard School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

How Schools Shortchange Girls – The AAUW Report. (1992). New York, NY: Marlowe & Company.

Kopecky, G. (1992). The age of self-doubt. Working Mother, July, 46-49.

Murtaugh, M. (1988). Achievement outside the classroom: The role of nonacademic activities in the lives of high school students. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 19, 383-395.

Melpomene Institute. (1996). Melpomene Institute packet -Girls, physical activity and self-esteem. St. Paul, MN.

Nelson, M.B. (1994). The stronger women get, the more men love football – sexism and the American culture of sports. New York, New York: Avon Books.

Women’s Sports Foundation. (1998). Eisenhower Park, East Meadow, New York.

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