By: Hannah Malus, InternPosted on February 3, 2016 Issues: Athletics Education & Title IX

While I admittedly was not the most athletic high school student in my hometown, my family recognized the importance of young women playing sports and encouraged me to try out for my school’s tennis team during my freshman year. I joined the team for a new hobby and friends, without realizing the life lessons I would receive in the process.

February 3, 2016 marks the 30th annual National Day of Women and Girls in Sports – a great opportunity to reflect on the importance of making sports accessible to all girls and women!

The Unintended Benefits of Playing a Sport

Besides the obvious health benefits, being on my high school’s tennis team provided me with excellent lessons that I continue to apply in my personal, academic, and professional life.

Confidence. It’s no surprise that girls who participate in sports have increased levels of self-esteem. I quickly learned that when I focused on pursuing something I wanted (at that time, qualifying for the state tennis tournament), my goals could become realities. In the three and a half years following my high school tennis career, I have moved almost two thousand miles away from my hometown for college and spent a semester studying abroad in South Africa.  In order to excel in a sport and achieve personal growth in high school, I had to be willing to leave my comfort zone – a lesson clearly learned through athletics.

Teamwork. It feels cliché to bring up that playing sports improves a person’s teamwork skills. But it’s more than that: being on the tennis team taught me about the process of group goal-setting, and furthermore, what it means to be held accountable to a group for achieving a collective goal. I have used these skills in settings ranging from university classrooms to professional office spaces. Recognizing my accountability to others was introduced to me through sports, and it has become crucial to my success as a dependable student and employee. That’s why it makes sense that being a high school athlete is associated with earning 14% higher wages for women.

Role Models. I was fortunate enough to be coached by an incredible woman who taught me how important honesty, courage, patience, and professionalism are in playing sports (and beyond). Other young women on the team reinforced these concepts by example, both on and off the court. Playing tennis provided me with the opportunity to learn these lessons from not only my coach, a trusted female role model whom I greatly admire, but also from a network of other young women who were learning and growing with me.

The Problem with Access

I’m certainly not alone in claiming that participating in sports has made me a better friend, student, and professional in my adult life. In fact, more than four out of five executive businesswomen played sports growing up, and most say that the lessons they learned from sports contributed to their eventual success in the business sector.

However, only 42% of African American girls participate in sports, compared to 58% of white girls. Research shows that this disparity isn’t because African American girls lack interest in sports, but rather, African American girls are more likely to attend poorer and more racially segregated schools with less access to athletic opportunities than the schools white girls largely attend. When African American girls do have access to athletic opportunities, the impact is profound: African American female athletes are 27% more likely than students overall to graduate college.

This National Women and Girls in Sports Day, we should celebrate the women and girls who are currently dominating the world of athletics (including my personal hero: Serena Williams), but also focus on expanding opportunities for women and girls of color to access athletics. By denying girls and women the opportunity to play sports, we are unfairly denying them the incredible personal and professional benefits that could help them succeed.