With the rise of social media and female empowerment, high schools across the country have seen a spike in female participation in sports.
When junior Armelle Oliantus first arrived at Dr. Phillips High School, she saw an opportunity in athletics.
Growing up, she remembers people telling her she was fast, and from there, an interest in track was born. It was an undertaking she believed would be worth the time she devoted to it.
Fast forward three years, and Oliantus has dabbled in multiple sports — specifically track and weightlifting — and it’s all because of the inspiration she felt when she first stepped on campus.
“Lately, the girls sports have dominated more than the male sports in almost everything,” Oliantus said. “So when I first started high school and I saw that, it made me more passionate, and I had more of an urge to do it.”
More opportunities — and getting the chance to see girls show that they were just as competent in sports as the boys — led Oliantus on her path, and she is not alone.
Despite overall participation numbers declining across the country’s high schools, girls sports are thriving.
According to the annual High School Athletics Participation Survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, of the 7.9 million athletes competing during the 2018-19 school year, more than 3.4 million were girls.
In general, girls sports across the board have seen an uptick in participation, with volleyball (6,225 more participants), soccer (3,623 more participants) and lacrosse (3,164 more participants) seeing the biggest jumps. Meanwhile, girls wrestling jumped 27% and now has almost 22,000 participants.
There’s no definitive answer as to what led to this jump in girls sports at the high school level, but there are a few trends that local coaches, trainers and athletes have noticed.
The rise of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has changed the world in many ways, and that includes athletics.
Years ago, all the public could see about athletes came from television and in news articles. But now, it sees everything — including how they work out, said Micah Kurtz, director of sports performance at Windermere Prep.
The influence of social media has been prominent — especially as it relates to the growth of young female athletes looking to work out.
“People are posting their workouts, and social media gives you more of an inside look at these athletes’ (lives) like never before,” Kurtz said. “So now you’re seeing so much of their life. … More people are seeing what they are doing behind the scenes. They want to be like them, so they want to train like them.”
Instagram stands out the most for athletes such as Oliantus. There, she can see photos and videos of athletes going through their training routines and workouts.
“I literally just typed a weightlifter named Stefanie Cohen, and I looked her up, because my anatomy teacher — he does CrossFit — was telling me about (her), and I looked at her Instagram, and it was cool to me,” Oliantus said. “And now it’s like every time I go to Instagram, bodybuilders pop up, and then I’ll also look up track runners. So it’s like every time I open Instagram, the stuff I looked up comes up — I don’t even have to search for it.”
Along with social media, a big part of the rise of sports has been television — especially organizations such as ESPN. Budding athletes can stumble across a dozen-plus channels — all dedicated to sports. With such a selection, there now is far more access to sports and games than there was 15 years ago. During the 1990s, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team won two World Cups (1991, 1999) and included some of the greatest female players in the history of the sport. Still, once the tournament was done, they went back into a general obscurity.
Things have changed dramatically. The women’s team has won multiple World Cups since 2015, but now they’re in daily conversations and at the forefront of the sports world while the men’s team lags behind — why? It’s a combination of winning and exposure, and it’s in turn helped grow the girls game at the high school level, said Foundation Academy girls soccer coach James Grosshans.
“Mia Hamm — who was probably one of the best women’s soccer players — she didn’t have access to the majority of being put out there and getting her story put out there during that time,” Grosshans said. “Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo — all of those women are huge. People are not only following their careers, they’re following their life now.”
When the Education Amendments of 1972 were passed by Congress, Title IX was among one of the statutes established.
The federal civil rights law was put into place to protect people from discrimination based on gender in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance — which includes high school and collegiate athletics.
“Now that we have things like Title IX — and Title IX might be a pain for some people — but it really protects female athletics and makes sure that we do have a somewhat, not completely, fair playing field,” Dr. Phillips girls volleyball coach Emily Loftus said.
Unlike in the past, many prominent female athletes are now vociferously sharing their concerns regarding issues such as equal pay and body shaming.
“Not everybody agrees that the (female) empowerment should be as strong as it is, but it is — in turn — affecting female athletics,” Loftus said.
There’s no denying that female athletics is in better shape now than it was 30 years ago, but it’s still not where many believe it should be, Loftus said. There’s a lot of work to be done, and one way is to continue to promote women’s athletics on the national stage by sports platforms like ESPN.
“I see more female news reporters, and we now have ESPNW as a social platform,” Loftus said. “It needs to become more common to see female athletics in the forefront, and female athletes being successful.”
Other means of promoting female athletes is just by simply having athletic departments and schools support their athletes, Loftus said. And then there’s the most basic option: inspire girls and women to just work hard and do what you have to do.
“If you want females (athletes) to get to the levels of the boys, or you want the boys to get to the levels of the girls, it’s hard work,” Oliantus said. “ I feel like if you truly want it in your heart, you should put hard work into it, and your hard work will pay off in the end.”