Support from family, community helps female athletes overcome obstacles to participation | CBC Sports

Love what you do. Learn from your failures. Believe in yourself. Keep a positive mindset.

It may read like a valedictory address or counsel from an inspirational quote calendar, but it’s advice some prominent Canadian Olympians and Paralympians hope will help keep young girls in sport. 

“I think when we’re kids and think about why we start getting into sports, why we start getting into activities, it’s really about having fun because you enjoy what you’re doing,” said Canadian hockey star Sarah Nurse. 

The 2018 Olympic silver medallist was part of panel hosted by Canadian Women & Sport to address the recent findings of The Rally Report, a national study on sports participation for girls aged 6-18. The stark statistic: Of girls who have participated in sport, one in three leave sport by their late teens. By comparison, the dropout rate for teenage boys aged 16-18 is only one in 10. 

“Sports have been so important in my life since I was very young. I think the biggest thing it’s provided me with is that support system and the willingness to reach out and ask for help,” Nurse said. “It’s just been a great vehicle for connection.” 

WATCH | Sarah Nurse says sports should be fun:

After a Canadian Women and Sport study found one in three girls drop out of sports by their late teens, Canadian hockey player Sarah Nurse says she hopes young female athletes get back to their roots to enjoy whatever game they play. 1:21

Nurse was joined on the panel by teammate Brigette Lacquette, the first Indigenous woman to play on the Canadian women’s hockey team; two-time Olympic champion in trampoline Rosie MacLennan; professional skateboarder Annie Guglia; Kayla Alexander of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx; and Paralympic sprinter Marissa Papaconstantinou. 

According to The Rally Report, 43 per cent of adolescent girls said the quality of the sport experience was a barrier to staying in sport, whether it be a lack of programming or qualified coaching. Living in a rural area, having a disability, cost, and religion and culture were also cited as obstacles. 

Nothing was going to stand in the way of Lacquette achieving her dream of one day playing on Team Canada. Not living in Mallard, Man., a small community of 150 people four hours north of Winnipeg. Not being the only girl on the hockey team until she was well into high school. And definitely not her heritage. Her father Terrance is a Métis from Mallard, while her mother, Anita, is from Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan. 

Lacquette is hoping her story can inspire other Indigenous girls. In the report, girls self-identifying as Indigenous reported the lowest participation in sport at 24 per cent. 

“I’m very proud of who I am and where I come from. There are definitely some obstacles that I had to overcome and I think that’s what holds a lot of First Nations kids back is that they reach an obstacle,” she said. “I was fortunate to have support from my parents, my grandparents and uncles and aunts, but not a lot of kids have that as well. 

WATCH | ‘Your teammates become your sisters’:

Athletes Kayla Alexander and Brigette Lacquette compare playing a team sport to family, share experiences on panel hosted by Canadian Women and Sport. 3:13

“My main goal after the Olympics was to go and share my story and show the kids that there is hope. That you can come from a small community, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s your passion. I did everything I could to get to where I am today and my parents have definitely helped that.” 

She cites the Tony Cote Winter and Summer Games in Saskatchewan as being a big influence on her and other young Indigeonous athletes. Founded in 1974 by Chief Tony Cote of the Cote First Nation, the multi-sport competition gives First Nations youth who may be excluded from mainstream sports systems the opportunity to participate in sports that they love. Lacquette played hockey in winter edition and softball in the summer. 

One in three girls in the study reported low self-confidence, negative body image, perceived lack of skill and not being welcome as factors preventing them from participating in sport. 

The panelists’ experiences could be a checklist of what helps keep girls in sport. Though they’ve faced setbacks and obstacles in their careers like injury, race, geography and being cut from teams, they also cited welcoming environments, parental and family support, encouraging coaches, friendships, love for the sport and role models as reasons why they stayed in the game. 

Had it not been for a chance meeting with a group of female skateboarders at a Montreal park in 2006, Guglia may not have found her passion. 

“They were called the Skirtboarders, so I just started skating with them,” she said. “That was really important for me as a teenage girl to meet another group of girls who skated. I realized 10 years later that there were no groups like that anymore in Montreal, so I started a monthly meet-up for girls to come to different skate parks in Montreal and just skate together, learn, try skateboarding for the first time.

“I think as an athlete it’s really important to be a leader in your community and try to get teenage girls or girls in general to try sports.” 

Canada’s Marissa Papaconstantinou, right, made her Paralympic debut in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. (Getty Images)

Growing up with a disability, Papaconstantinou never doubted herself or her abilities thanks to an encouraging environment. She grew up playing multiple sports like soccer and basketball before focusing on track. 

“[Sport] always created a space for me to believe I could do anything I set my mind to,” said Papaconstantinou, who made her Paralympic debut at the age of 16 in Rio 2016. “I was really fortunate to be surrounded by so many people who enabled me to feel that way … I think it’s really important to create those environments for kids who face different challenges.” 

Alexander, a six-foot-four forward with the Canadian Olympic squad, said sports have challenged her to be the best version of herself.  

“I was such a shy kid growing up, but through my teammates, I found my voice. You learn to speak up and stand up for yourself,” she said. “You learn communication skills that are important not only in sports but in life as well. And just the opportunities, to go and get an education, the work opportunities.”  

Many sports fans have heard the story that Michael Jordan was once cut from his high school basketball team, well, MacLennan has her own version of that story. She didn’t make the provincial trampoline team the first time she tried out. She’ll now be going for her third straight Olympic gold medal in the sport next summer in Tokyo. 

Bet on yourself. Be your own biggest cheerleader.– Sarah Nurse

“Initially it can be really disappointing, that feeling like you’re not good enough, but you can either use those opportunities as a chance to learn and kind of dig in and get to work or you can let it defeat you,” MacLennan said. “I think it’s a choice that you’re always going to be confronted with whether you’re in sport or elsewhere. The obstacles, that’s when you learn the most and gain the most value out of the sporting experience. It’s not standing on top of the podium.” 

The six athletes on the panel beat the one in three dropout statistic thanks to support and their love for their chosen sport. They’re hoping their voices and visibility will encourage young girls to stick with their passion even when roadblocks get in the way.  

“Bet on yourself. Be your own biggest cheerleader,” said Nurse. 

Added Alexander: “It’s okay to fail. Too often when I was younger I got so caught up in trying to be perfect. Step outside your comfort zone, do things that scare you because the things that scare you are going to get you where you want to go in life.”

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