Whether in the United States, South Africa, the Philippines or Saudi Arabia, I have witnessed how sports not only breaks down barriers, but is also a powerful tool to build young women up. The ball in and of itself has no bias. It knows not the hands or feet by which it is being guided. The rules of engagement are without prejudice or partiality. Sports simply set the stage for girls to gain confidence and develop leadership skills. Young women had for generations been excluded from performing on this stage, not because the script was only written for their male counterparts, but because men were the only ones allowed to try out for the part. Be it culture or custom, blatant inequality or narrow-mindedness, girls and women were relegated to the sidelines for far too long.
In the United States, arguably one of the most progressive nations in the world, it took the legislative measures of Title IX in 1972 to establish the athletic framework that girls and women experience today. The ramifications of this extend well beyond the enjoyment of participating in a particular sport; they are being played out in the boardrooms as well. We have seen a direct correlation between the benefits of girls and women playing sports and success in the business world. A recent EY/espnW report shows that 94% of senior women business executives played sports and more than half of the women in C-suite positions played at the university level.
Over the years, I have traveled to 42 different countries where I have witnessed the sport of basketball being played from the Olympic level to a grassroots orphanage in the Philippines. Through organizations like Peace Players, conflict zones are using sports as a vehicle for peace. The developing world serves witness to how sports can be an equalizing force and a much needed platform for inspiration and empowerment.
My recent trip to Ethiopia allowed me to work with over 80 young girls who exhibited an infectious energy and passion to learn. Their daily struggles were beyond what most of us can comprehend, yet their joy for playing the game of basketball seemed to transcend them from the hardships of their reality to a place where small seeds of hope could grow. As I shared my journey with them, I could see the paradigm of what women are capable of in the world expand right before my eyes. It was as if I validated the dreams they had dared not verbalize. Beyond any skill that I could teach them on the court, I wanted them to leave with an unwavering belief in the potential that lies within each of them.
Confidence is defined as: sureness, freedom from doubt, belief in yourself and your abilities. Regardless of age, socio-economic status or ethnicity, the reality is that we all have insecurities. They serve as our ever present shadows, waiting for opportune times to convince us that some misguided allegation is truth. So many young girls today are fighting messages of unworthiness, be it their body types, intellect or passions. Sports provide a vehicle to combat these messages by building their character and teaching discipline, perseverance, teamwork, and, yes, confidence.
Cover photo: Ruth Riley playing basketball with young girl in South Africa while working with her nonprofit Inspire Transformation.