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What holds us back from trying new sports?

This is part of a continuing series women and confidence in sports; excerpts from The Girl's Guide to Swagger in the Outdoors and Sports - continued from this post.

What holds us back?

Whenever we take on new challenges, we may feel fear. We can let the fear stop us or we can face it and move forward. What do we fear about the outdoors and sports?

Women and girls often feel that they are not athletic enough to play sports. The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living, reported that 40 percent of girls ages 11 to 17 don’t participate in sports because they feel they’re not skilled enough.

In a recent study of 14 year olds in Lisbon, researcher Maria do Mar Pereira, the deputy director for the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Women and Gender observed that girls and boys changed their actions in order to act within expected gender roles. In an interview with Think Progress, she reported that “even girls who enjoyed sports often avoided physical activity at school because they assumed it wouldn’t be a feminine thing to do, they worried they might look unattractive while running, or they were mocked by their male peers for not being good enough.”

How do we overcome our fears?

When I talk to groups about hiking, one of the fears most often mentioned is encountering bears, mountain lions, or other wildlife on the trail. We talk about how unusual it is to actually see animals on the trail, as they usually avoid humans as much as possible, often sleeping during the day and seeking water and food at night. If you do see wildlife on the trail, it is best to quietly back up and give the animal room to escape. If the animal won’t leave or seems aggressive, you can make yourself bigger by holding up your arms and spreading your jacket wide. It is important to stay calm and not to run. In all my years of hiking, I’ve only seen a bear on the trail three times and each time, the bear escaped quickly. If you have had a chance to face your fears and prepare mentally, you will be ready if you do encounter a surprise on the trail. It might seem scary at the time, but to see wildlife up close in its natural habitat is a rare event and one I will always remember.

The girls and women who were interviewed for the The Girl's Guide to Swagger in the Outdoors and Sports book mentioned fear of heights, of failure, injury, snakes, and just plain not being good enough as things they have had to overcome to play their sport.

It is natural to feel some fear when trying something new and it is probably smart, too. As Camilla Mason says about horseback riding, “Some fear is necessary; it means you have a sense of self-preservation.” So acknowledge that your fear is healthy and wise, rather than feeling shame about it. Then prepare both mentally and physically. Camilla says “For me, it is paramount to address my fears, before I even get on the horse. I consider the new challenge, weigh up the pros and cons, review past performances and experiences, and let my competitive spirit kick in a bit. When I am ready, I get on my horse and address the challenge at hand.”

Preparing ahead of time is referred to by some athletes as visualization. The process of anticipating how you will perform and how you might address problems or surprises can help improve performance and make you feel more confident about trying something new.

Another way of preparing is to get in shape and learn and hone the skills you will need to do well. A program in Colorado called Girlz on Edge, organizes small groups of women to ski together and improve their skills. Molly Waterman says she was a solid skier with confidence issues. But after one week-end session with Girlz on Edge, she said “It’s hard to explain how much my skiing has improved already. For the first time in decades, I am itching to get out and ski hard.” The program organizer Deb Benson says, “When a group of women get together and are part of Girlz on Edge, a wonderful camaraderie develops. This creates a comfortable and supportive learning environment. When you are relaxed and having fun, abilities you never knew you had come pouring out.”

Support to play your sport can come from programs like Girlz on the Edge, from a coach, your family, and friends. Each athlete I interviewed had a different way that they got support. In preparing for her first triathlon, Heather Pipkin took swimming lessons and had a friend show her how to manage the gears on a “grown up” bike. She says “My advice is to reach out and ask for help and have faith in yourself that you can do it. I was an overweight couch potato and now I’m an athlete who has finished eight triathlons!”

To be continued.....

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