UF Researcher: Participating In Sports Gives Girls Strong Self-Images

November 18, 1998

GAINESVILLE — Participating in sports can have benefits for adolescent girls that reach beyond simply staying physically fit, a University of Florida researcher has concluded.

Participants in athletic activities have better images of their own bodies, higher levels of self-esteem and more trust for others, said Heather Hausenblas, an assistant professor in UF’s department of exercise and sport sciences.

“Whenever you’re dealing with involvement in some type of activity like sports where you’re interacting with other people and exercising, there’s so many positive benefits beyond physical fitness,” she said. “All of the psychological variables in regard to sports participation and exercise promote psychological well-being, such as increases in self-esteem and decreases in stress and anxiety.”

In a study to be published in December’s Journal of Sport Behavior, Hausenblas gave 10 self-report tests to 114 female participants, most of whom were in high school. The participants comprised three groups: non-athletes as the control group, general athletes in sports such as volleyball, lacrosse and soccer, and elite competitive divers.

“We chose divers because they compete and train in revealing attire that places their physiques on evaluative display,” Hausenblas said. “There is a high aesthetic quality to their sport, so we hypothesized they might be more prone to experience higher anxiety about their physiques.”

Included in the testing were eight subtests in the Eating Disorder Inventory-2, which is designed to detect indicators of eating disorders, such as low levels of trust for others, body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. The inventory has been used consistently by sport psychology researchers and is accepted as one of the best measures of eating disorder indicators in the field.

The participants also were tested for social physique anxiety, or anxiety over what other people think of our bodies, using the Social Physique Anxiety Scale, which also is widely accepted as a reliable test. The higher the participants’ scores, the more likely they were to suffer from eating disorders, negative body images and decreased self-confidence.

On the Social Physique Anxiety Scale, the divers had a mean score of 30.8, while the general athletes had a score of 37.7 and the non-athletes had a score of 39.3.

“We found that the divers had the lowest social physique anxiety compared to the other groups,” Hausenblas said. “From these results, we can say that athletes in general are not a high-risk group, compared to non-athletes, for eating disorder correlates, and maybe sport even protects the athletes from eating disorder correlates and social physique anxiety.”

In fact, participation in athletics also may increase positive emotions in other ways, too, Hausenblas said. The Eating Disorder Inventory showed athletes felt they had control over their lives 53 percent more than non-athletes and that they had 31 percent less body dissatisfaction than non-athletes. Hausenblas also found that athletes had 22 percent more trust for others than non-athletes.

“Through participation in sports, girls can come to appreciate their bodies and the fact that strength and endurance are assets,” said Mary Wise, the head coach of UF’s volleyball team and the only female in NCAA history to coach more than one Final Four team. “Those aren’t always the messages society sends little girls.”

Sports are the best way to help girls grow up stronger, both mentally and physically, Wise said.

“Participation in sports teaches us not just how to win, but how to lose,” Wise said. “Girls would take greater risks and reach greater goals if they didn’t fear failure. Sports can also teach girls how to work with others and set goals. It could be one of the greatest things they do.”