Tips from an Olympian on how to keep girls in sports

Three-time Olympian Isabelle Charest knows first-hand how sports can help build resilience and self-confidence. Here’s how to encourage your daughter.

Photo: Courtesy of Isabelle Charest

We need to find a way to keep girls involved in sports. My opinion may be biased. After all, I am a former speed skater who competed at three Olympic Games. But I can tell you that participating in sports has had an indelible influence on my life. It’s why I encourage my daughter to play—I know first-hand that it’s a fantastic way to learn important life skills. Whether or not they end up having careers as amateur or professional athletes, sports is an excellent way for girls to learn how to overcome failure, understand how to push their limits and build self-confidence.

Getting the parent/mentor balance right, though, can be tricky. It’s easy to be overprotective or to take on the coaching duties ourselves. I’ve noticed that, much like when I was younger, my daughter is very hard on herself. She likes to find her own way and doesn’t want to be coached, especially by her mother. I’ve learned to respect her development and her progression, knowing that she has her own path.

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The best thing we can do for our daughters is to only control what we can control. That means not forcing them into a sport we like because it’s what we played. It means teaching sportsmanship, creating a positive and healthy environment away from the field of play and, most importantly, simply letting them have fun. When I was growing up, I was incredibly lucky to have such supportive parents who were, without a doubt, the key to my success.

Here are some helpful tips I learned from my parents that I use today with my own daughter.

Be a parent, not a coach
Every parent wants his or her daughter to be the best player on the field or on the ice, but you have to fight the urge to be a secondary coach. Shouting from the sidelines will only confuse and stress your child. There is only one person who should be giving directions, and that is the coach! This doesn’t mean that you should say nothing, though. Talk about how your daughter feels after she plays and give her plenty of encouragement.

Know that winning and losing don’t equal success and failure
It’s important that your daughter understands that, when she loses a game, it’s just a game. She shouldn’t fear disappointing you. In my experience, knowing my family loved me regardless of my results actually helped me perform better.

Isabelle and her daughter swing on a tree
Photo: Courtesy of Isabelle Charest

Give positive reinforcement
Providing positive reinforcement is a very easy and effective tool to make your daughter feel good about herself. Focus on the values you want her to learn from sports by providing feedback like “I’m so proud of you because you didn’t give up.”

Persevere through the difficult phases
Many studies show the rapid drop-off in girls’ participation in sports as they get older. I believe that one of the main reasons is body image. As your daughter grows older, her body changes and she might not feel comfortable showing it. Discuss the positive impacts that being active can have on her health and how knowing and understanding her body and feeling good about herself are the keys to building confidence.

Don’t make comparisons
We must accept that every girl matures differently and develops athletic skills at a different rate. One of the worst things you can do is to compare your daughter’s performance to that of someone else on her team, which will only push her away from the sport she loves. Allow your daughter to set goals for herself, and make sure that she is aware of her own progress and achievements. It was important for me to find out how to push my limits on my own.

Make sure your daughter wants to compete for herself, not for you
It’s normal for parents to want their child to be successful, but if your daughter is competing for any reason other than because she wants to, she shouldn’t be playing at all. You can challenge your daughter to grow in her preferred sport, but avoid pressuring her with unrealistic expectations. Your daughter’s athletic results aren’t a measure of your success as parents.

We can’t let our daughters think we live in a country where sports is a male thing. I grew up watching my sister play sports. She gave me the confidence to try different things, which eventually led to lacing up my first pair of skates. I want my daughter to feel the same way: that if she chooses, she has every opportunity to participate in any sport she wants to.

Olympian Isabelle Charest competing in Nagano
Photo: Scott Grant, CP

Canada wouldn’t be as successful on the international stage if it weren’t for our female athletes. Take last year’s Rio 2016 Olympic Games, for example: Of 313 athletes that competed for the maple leaf, 63 returned as medallists. Of those medallists, 55 were women—that’s an incredible 87 percent. Now that’s girl power!

I’m so lucky to be able to talk to Canada’s highest-level athletes. While there are many paths to Olympic glory, the common factor among successful athletes is the support they receive from their parents. It’s only with that support that they were able to grow and choose what they wanted to be. But even if they aren’t athletic prodigies, sports can help our daughters discover themselves. Sports can help them find out what they like and dislike, deal with winning and losing and learn values that that they will benefit from for the rest of their lives.

A native of Rimouski, Quebec, Isabelle Charest is a retired three-time short-track speed skating Olympic medallist. She will be attending the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 as Team Canada’s Chef de Mission. She served as Team Canada’s Chef de Mission at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games, as well as assistant Chef de Mission at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Read more:
Why kids need risk, fear and excitement in play
9 tips for growing strong girls

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