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“Girls Get Strong” at CAC
By Becky Riddle 07-Dec-16
The students of Cairo American College (CAC) live in a culture where girls are not always encouraged to be physically active. Adolescence is a critical time for developing healthy habits, including a positive self-image. An overwhelming amount of research supports the notion that participating in sports and being physically active helps with emotional and behavioral wellbeing. CAC has a strong athletics program that offers a wide variety of sports to all middle and high school students. The school values fitness, provides a wide extracurricular program, encourages healthy eating habits, and supports student emotional wellbeing. However, as CAC adjusted after two revolutions and an enrollment that dropped from 1,430 to 815 students, the school has been challenged to field strong athletic teams. Last year, the girls varsity basketball and volleyball teams played in the relegation matches in their division with teams struggling to field a full traveling varsity roster. In 2006, Donaldson and Ronan conducted a study to determine how sports-related competencies affected behavior (2006). The researchers found that adolescents with higher self-perception of sports competency had fewer emotional and behavioral problems compared to those who, by external standards (outside evaluation), are actually competent in sports but do not feel confident in their abilities. Donaldson and Ronan concluded that if an adolescent’s “self-perceptions of athletic competence can be enhanced, then not only will more of them participate in sports and for a longer period, but they may improve their emotional wellbeing.” CAC 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 professional counselor—Becky founded Girls Get Strong (GGS). Its mission was simple: to utilize community resources to empower girls in health, fitness, and athletics. Beyond encouraging students to be physically active, GGS seeks to increase self-perception of sports competence by improving fitness and skill and encouraging multi-sport participation. GGS wanted to educate the CAC community on current health and fitness trends 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. The results revealed 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, that turn such static exercises into dynamic exercises engaging multiple muscle groups. These exercises often simultaneously improve cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility through total body movement patterns. In May 2016, CAC’s GGS 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 mental and physical strength and showcased health and fitness experts from the community. Joining the conference were experts in personal training, psychology, and nutrition, along with an Egyptian National Track and Field team member and an ambassador to the local Nike+ Training Club. The day-long conference brought together students of different age levels, athletic and fitness backgrounds, and nationalities to build unity and support in empowering girls to be healthy and strong. The conference kicked off with a large group session in which guest speakers shared their fields of expertise in psychology, strength training, and nutrition, educating the girls about the importance of being physically and mentally strong. The afternoon consisted of three fitness sessions led by female varsity athletes, coaches at CAC, and fitness experts. The girls had eight different options during each session, including: barre, Body Attack, Bollywood, kettlebells, plyometrics, TRX, weight training, and Zumba. At the conclusion of the conference, 94 percent of participants felt the conference improved their understanding of topics in health and fitness. Students particularly enjoyed the presentation The Power of Perception by Cathy Okeson, who explored how internal beliefs, mental representations, and behavior affect brain structure, self-image, and athletic performance. The girls also liked the barre, Body Attack, and Zumba sessions and expressed interest in attending the classes on their own time. For the next conference the girls expressed interest learning about 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 GGS as a platform that regularly uses health, fitness, and athletics to unite the girls on campus for physical and emotional support. Next year, CAC plans to invite other schools within the community to the conference and hopes it will grow into a model that encourages other schools to utilize the resources in their community to empower girls in health and fitness.
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