Becky Riddle – Published in The International Educator Magazine (Fall 2016)
The students of Cairo American College live in a culture where girls are not always encouraged to be physically active. Adolescence is a critical time period for developing healthy habits, including a positive self-image. An overwhelming amount of research supports that participating in sports and being physically active helps with emotional and behavioral well-being.
Girls at CAC are lucky. CAC has a strong athletics program that offers a wide variety of sports to all middle and high school students. CAC students attend a school that values fitness, provides a wide extracurricular program, encourages healthy eating habits, and supports their emotional well-being.
As CAC adjusted to life after two revolutions and an enrollment that dropped from 1430 students to 815 students, CAC has been challenged to field strong athletic teams. This school year, the girls varsity basketball and volleyball teams both played in the relegation matches in their division of ISST; at times Girls teams struggled to field a full traveling varsity roster. The athletic department wanted to address the challenge and ensure a positive experience despite having fewer females to join teams.
Cairo American College coach and physical education teacher Becky Riddle felt that even with the opportunities the school provides, more could be done to support girls in athletics. Collaborating with the athletic department and two parents, Chris Christie, a licensed personal trainer, and Cathy Okeson, a licensed personal professional counselor, Becky founded Girls Get Strong. Its mission was simple: to utilize community resources to empower girls in health, fitness and athletics.
In 2006 a study focused on understanding how sport-related competencies affected behavior using the Perceived Competence Scale for Children (Donaldson and Ronan, 2006). Students with high sport competencies do well in sports, learn new games readily, and prefer to play rather than watch. They found that adolescents with higher self perceptions of sport competencies had fewer emotional and behavioral problems compared to those whom, by external standards (outside evaluation), are actually competent in sports but don’t feel confident in their abilities. Donaldson and Ronan concluded that if adolescent’s “self-perceptions of athletic competence can be enhanced, then not only will more of them participate in sport and for a longer period, but they may improve their emotional well-being”.
Beyond encouraging students to be physically active, Girls Get Strong wanted to increase self-perception of sport competence in the girls at CAC by improving fitness and skill levels and encouraging multi-sport participation. Furthermore, Becky wanted to educate the CAC community on current health and fitness trends and topics by drawing in outside resources to help the girls become mentally, physically, and socially strong.
To gauge what challenges and barriers female athletes and their coaches faced in empowering girls through athletics, all female athletes in grades 6-12 were surveyed. Survey results revealed the following barriers to better fitness and self-image: a lack of female role models in athletics, poor nutritional habits, and limited knowledge of fitness and strength training activities.
The survey also showed that few coaches and athletes were offering variation in fitness training beyond push ups, sit ups, lunges, and squats. Currently trending in the fitness community are functional strength classes such as Body Attack, Crossfit, and TRX. These classes tur static exercises (squats, lunges, and push ups) into dynamic exercises that engage multiple muscle groups, while often simultaneously improving cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility. Functional strength training develops total body movement patterns to improve stability, posture, and coordination; it also helps prevent injuries.
In May, CAC’s Girls Get Strong hosted its first event, a health and fitness conference attended by 95 CAC girls from grades 5-12, as well as 10 girls from Schutz American School in Alexandria, Egypt. The conference emphasized mentally and physically strength, and showcased health and fitness experts from the community to share their expertise with the girls. Experts in personal training, psychology, and nutrition as well as a member of the Egyptian National Track and Field team and an ambassador to the local Nike+ Training Club participated in the conference. The day-long meeting brought together students of all different age levels, athletic and fitness backgrounds, and nationalities to build unity and support in empowering girls to be healthy and strong. The first half of the conference was a large group session in which the guest speakers shared their fields of expertise, educating the girls about the importance of being physically and mentally strong.
The afternoon consisted of three fitness sessions; girls had 8 different options during each session, including: barre, body attack, kettlebells, plyometrics, TRX, weight training, and zumba. The sessions were led by junior and senior student athletes, coaches at CAC, and fitness experts from the community.
At the conclusion of the conference 94% of participants felt the conference improved their understanding of topics in health and fitness. Students particularly enjoyed the presentation The Power of Perception by Professional Counselor, Cathy Okeson, who explored how internal beliefs, mental representations, and behavior affect our brain structure, self-image, and athletic performance. The girls also liked the barre, body attack, and zumba, sessions which are not currently part of the PE program at CAC. They expressed interest in attending the classes on their own time. When asked what topics they would like to see covered in the next conference, the girls expressed interest in more support in being active on their menstrual cycle, body shaming, how skinny does not always mean healthy, and how to overcome gender profiling in athletics.
While the conference was a great success, we hope the concept of Girls Get Strong will grow beyond a single event. Becky envisions Girls Get Strong as a platform that regularly uses health, fitness and athletics to unite the girls on campus for support and fitness. Next year, CAC plans to invite other schools within the community to the GGS conference. Girls Get Strong hopes to grow into a model that encouraged other schools to utilize the resources in their community to support girls in health and fitness.
Donaldson, S. J., & Ronan, K. R. (2006). The effects of sports participation on young adolescents’ emotional well-being. Adolescence, 41(162), 369-389. Article Link