By Emily Leiker, USA TODAY
Elena Delle Donne knows the impact sports can have on a girl’s life. Taller than most of her peers and struggling with her sexuality at a young age, Delle Donne wasn’t comfortable in her own skin. She was embarrassed by the things that made her different and didn’t have role models to show her that what she was experiencing was normal.
Playing sports helped Delle Donne realize the power she had as a teenage girl, and she’s doing everything she can to help today’s youth realize that as well.
“I can’t even imagine where I would be if I didn’t have sports to help me come into my power and come into my confidence and learn just so many life skills that have taken me into adulthood,” Delle Donne told USA Today. “It doesn’t even matter that I’m a professional athlete because sports did far more for me in the life aspect of things.”
The former WNBA Rookie of the Year and two-time MVP recently partnered with Always and Dick’s Sporting Goods to work on campaigns focused on keeping young girls involved in sports. Delle Donne also serves on Gatorade’s Women’s Advisory Board, aimed at addressing barriers contributing to the decline of female participation in sports.
In 2017, Gatorade’s “Girls in Sports” study revealed that girls drop out of sports at 1.5 times the rate boys do by the time they’re 14. More than half of all teenage girls stop playing sports by 17.
There are four main reasons girls drop out of sports, according to a 2015 report from The Women’s Sports Foundation. The leading cause? Girls don’t see a future for themselves in athletics.
“Oh my goodness, the visibility is crucial,” Delle Donne said. “It’s something that we’re always talking about. I think a big reason for girls dropping out of sport is that they often probably feel that society doesn’t see long-term value of her continuing to play.”
Women’s sports account for less than 6% of televised sports coverage, according to a study by the University of Southern California. Though the number has been on the rise in recent years, it’s still startlingly low considering the success and popularity of the WNBA and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team.
Combating drop-out rates of girls in sports starts with increasing visibility both on television and social media so girls can see what the future holds. It’s also important to show what girls are achieving in sports at a young age. Delle Donne said the recent coverage 14-year-old basketball prodigy Zaila Avant-Garde received following her win at the Scripps National Spelling Bee made her “so happy.”
“It’s so important, especially for young girls who can look and be like, ‘Hey, that can be me. That’s literally my peer,'” she said. “So, to be seeing the change in just my lifetime has been humongous. It’s been massive to see the young women come in and use their voices and their platforms in a way that can inspire so many others.”
A former Olympic gold medalist herself, Delle Donne sees the Tokyo 2020 as a prime opportunity for young girls to witness female athletes in action. She said inspiration can come from athletes in any sport regardless of which ones young girls play themselves.
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