These 6 Women are Transforming Their Communities Through Sport
By Melissa Wickes
February 2, 2024
Alejandra Ng grew up in NYC—a low income, Latina who loved to read books. Sports were not something she ever thought she’d go out of her way to play, as she knew many programs would be inaccessible to her family.
When her mom told her she wanted to sign her and her siblings up for tennis, she was surprised.
“We were always just taught soccer, and I didn’t like soccer,” she says.
Tennis is historically a sport serving white, upper class communities—and 66.5% of all tennis professionals are white. It’s no surprise Alejandra didn’t envision herself participating.
New York Junior Tennis & Learning, which offers free tennis programs for kids, changed that expectation for her.
When Alejandra started playing, she was exposed to people from different backgrounds, different parts of NYC, and eventually began traveling for tournaments. This gave her a newfound sense of confidence that she still carries with her in her current role as the Program Manager for the NYJTL Community Tennis Program.
Kris Mallett grew up an only child whose family moved six times before settling in Duluth when she was seven. When she finally found her way to the basketball court, she found a sense of sisterhood that she had never experienced before and it changed her life.
“I had a couple of really great coaches. The ones you hear about in movies. They get you so believing in the system, the program, and each other that you’d run through a wall,” she reminisces. “There was a kind of team cohesion and camaraderie that was just unbeatable and it really shaped me to be who I am.”
When she began volunteering at Duluth Rookie Basketball in high school, she had the realization that “you could do basketball as a job.”
Kris decided to get her sports management degree, and a few years later started coaching. As fate would have it, that’s when Duluth Rookie Basketball asked her to step in as interim director. That was almost 12 years ago, and she continues to run the program today.
Stories like Alejandra’s and Kris’, while different in their own right, are not few and far between. In fact, so many of the incredible youth sports programs that are shaping the adults of tomorrow are being led by strong women who are former youth athletes themselves.
For Girls and Women in Sports Day, we wanted to speak with the women who are spearheading impactful, grassroots youth sports programs across the country to see what they’re doing to successfully lead these programs and keep girls in sport. Here’s what we learned.
The Importance of Mental Health Support
Theresa Sherry, founder of the Tenacity Project played a multitude of sports as a kid, and is a big advocate of the multi-sport athlete—for reasons like self expression, exposure to different people and environments, and reduced risk of injury. While one of the goals of the programming at the Tenacity Project is to develop lacrosse players and help them get in front of colleges, she says it is equally as important to them to provide mental health and fitness tools to their players.
When Theresa battled with her own mental health off the field, she reflected on the words of encouragement and resilience from her coaches and teammates so she could get better. As a result, she wanted to implement these same important lessons in her “Pursuit of Better” programming through routine, intention setting, mindfulness, breath work, visualization and response tools that can be used on and off the field.
“We can’t prevent some of the things that statistically happen to [girls], but we can help them move through the hard things—the adversity that happens off the field.” she says.
Youth Sports Creates Healthy, Lifelong Habits
A survey in 2022 found that almost 38% of women had done no exercise in the last year. Similarly, a 2019 study found that 1 in 4 women avoid exercising at the gym due to a phenomenon called Gymtimidation—otherwise known as gym anxiety.
Girls who play youth sports develop the habit of daily movement from a young age—one that becomes harder and harder to develop as you get older.
Suzie Clinchy, the founder of Fast Feet NYC, discovered her competitiveness through involvement in multiple sports as a kid—but she really took off running when she began…running!
Through track, Suzie learned discipline, diligence, how to take care of her body, and how to be a healthy person. She credits her healthy lifestyle today and love for exercising and movement to the habits she built training everyday as a kid.
“My high school coaches used to say to everyone, if you can learn to make exercise a habit now, in 10, 20, 30 years you’re going to have this awesome instilled habit that so few people have and it’s going to help you have a more active life, a healthier life, a really exciting life,” says Suzie. “You’re stacking habits that you will fall back on in times when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.”
Fast Feet started as an afterschool running program at the middle school she was teaching at, and is now an adaptive running program serving individuals of all abilities.
One of the ways Theresa—who was Positive Coaching Alliance’s National Coach of the Year in 2022—helps girls build these healthy habits is by giving them the tools to train themselves, so they know how to self-motivate and get reps in on their own when they don’t have a coach breathing down their neck.
“I know a lot of athletes who played at the highest levels who are completely incapable of self motivation as adults. It’s really hard because they’re not over-scheduled anymore,” she says. “Was that ever a good thing? You didn’t build good abilities to initiate yourself and do things in a balanced way.”
She thinks taking some of the pressure off of championships, scholarships, and admissions to college and putting more of it on the value of moving will help.
Helping Girls Navigate Puberty in Youth Sports
1 in 3 girls will participate in a sport from age 6-12, according to the Aspen Institute—but nearly 1 in 2 will drop out during puberty, according to the menstrual product manufacturer Always.
Puberty—which occurs for most girls between the ages of 11-17—is when girls feel the most pressure to conform, and how girls feel about their coaches is a determining factor in whether they continue to play. Not to mention, this is the time when girls get their first period, which can be an uncomfortable time to be playing sports due to the adjustment to menstruating, learning how to use and feel comfortable with menstrual products, cramping, hormonal fluctuations, the development of breasts, and other unfamiliar bodily changes.
For boys, on the other hand, puberty can be a great thing for sports participation. They gain muscle mass, get taller, and stronger.
Caroline Foscato, the president and founder of Soccer Unity Project, matches her actions with the mission of the organization to use the power of soccer to build community, connect people from diverse backgrounds, and promote equity.
Caroline says the team works “very hard on representation” for girls. They have worked with a number of entities to hold girl-focused clinics and sessions and they have at least one female coach on every girls travel team. Her team is intentional about asking girls what would make them feel more safe or comfortable—and then acting on it.
For example, no white shorts. Similarly, they’ve worked with organizations like Good Sports to give out free sports bras.
“It was even surprising to me how young the girls wanted them,” she says. “To not feel uncomfortable when you’re participating in something is so important—because your body is just your body. We have to normalize the language, this is biology.”
Help Girls Make the Choice to Stay, Don’t Force it
When I asked all six women how to keep girls playing, the consistent theme in their answers was agency. If at any point we’re forcing any child to participate in something they’re not excited about, they’re not only going to resent the activity but they’re going to inevitably quit anyway.
It’s no surprise that girls tend to want a break from youth sports when they hit puberty—after all, it’s a time when your body and mind are changing, and the idea of having to go to practice everyday while figuring out how to navigate this is challenging.
On the other hand, the benefits of participating in sport, especially for girls, are endless and sometimes young kids don’t know how to push past the everyday struggles to reap the rewards.
Helping girls walk through the choice is always the better option than giving them no choice at all.
“We’ve had plenty of girls, especially when they hit puberty, pause and come back. Create that safe space to be like well, if you feel like you need a pause, that’s fine. We’ll be here when you’re ready and you want to come back, there’s no judgmentment,” says Caroline.
Suzie also reminds us to recognize that sport is not always for intense competition—and that’s okay.
“My best friend and I had a pact that we would do field hockey in the fall, track in the winter, and softball in the spring,” she says. “Some of the sports I played, I may not have had high aspirations, but I played because my friends were on the team. It was a wonderful social experience for me. Recognize that!”
Alejandra says similarly, “If you want to be the best, then you have to push yourself to be the best. But if you’re just there for the social aspect, people will understand.”
Brianna Thomas, a Bronx native and head coach of Play Rugby USA’s Girls’ high school team, grew up playing flag football and running track with the Police Athletic League (PAL)—and she didn’t actually find the “love of her life,” rugby, until her freshman year of high school. She then went on to play D1 rugby in college. Her story reiterates the importance of trying different sports until you find what’s right for you.
“If a girl is discouraged, I would tell her that things may seem challenging right now, but it will get better and if you don’t believe in yourself, I will believe in you until you start to,” she says. “And if this sport is not for you, that’s okay and you still have my support.”
The Responsibility of Being a Woman in Sport
Alejandra knows her role at NYJTL is a big responsibility, especially because she is a woman of color leading kids in a white, male-dominated sport.
“We’re able to connect with the demographic of New York City. I understand your background. I speak your language. I look like you,” she says.
In Theresa’s pursuit of mental health support through sport, she makes it a point to pursue a “better her” everyday so she can be good enough and healthy enough to care for her girls and provide what they need as far as coaching and mentorship.
“Shoutout to other women and girls in sport. It’s not easy to lead and push change in the sports world, but the rewards are so great,” says Caroline. “There are plenty of days that I want to give up, either because I’m the only woman in the room or because I have someone who does not respect what my knowledge and experience is. But one of the things I always say is, if we dont start and end the meeting with ‘it’s about the kids,’ then you need to go somewhere else.’”
At Play Rugby USA, increasing girls’ participation is a priority and they accomplish this by way of recruitment events. Brianna and her team’s responsibility is a big one, as only about 23% of rugby players are girls. She and other coaches go to schools and demo their program so girls can see that rugby can be for them too.
“Working in youth sports as a woman has its challenges. I do know that it is a predominantly male field, but I know that representation is important,” she says. “For me, it means to continue to do my best to push past the stigma that woman shouldn’t be doing it or that they can’t. Being a woman coaching girls, I try to lead by example and advocate for them and let them know that women deserve same respect and acknowledgement as men and that we are 100% capable of doing what we want to do.”
“It’s a privilege and it comes with a lot of power. So, we have to balance that power in a way that isn’t transactional, but is transformational in our youth,” says Kris. “For me, it was never a question of, could a woman do that? I had women in my life who were strong role models and I never questioned whether or not I had a place at the table.”