How an Olympic legend helped to empower a generation of young females

The inspirational basketball coach, former player, and Olympic medallist Pat Summitt passed away last week, but leaves a legacy of success and female empowerment, with women’s basketball transformed.

In the 1976 Canadian Summer Olympics, women’s basketball was introduced for the first time. The Soviet Union took gold, with the USA and Bulgaria taking silver and bronze respectively. Pat Summitt was a player on the USA team in 1976, and in 1984 she returned to the Olympic stage (held in the USA) as head coach of the US national women’s basketball team, where they won gold.

Young female participant on the Play for Change: Slam Dunk basketball and inspiration programme. 

Young female participant on the Play for Change: Slam Dunk basketball and inspiration programme. 

Pat Summitt began her coaching career at the age of 22 when she coached the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers. Across a 38-year association with the club she had 1,098 career victories, and is the most successful coach in Division 1 college basketball history between both men and women. Summitt was named the 'National Collegiate Athletic Association Coach of the Year' seven times, the 'Naismith Coach of the Century' in 2000 and received a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

Kara Lawson, a player for Dallas Wings in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), two-time Olympic medallist and current basketball analyst for ESPN, paid tribute to Summitt. Speaking to BBC’s Sportshour (2016), Lawson remembers how tough but rewarding it was to train under Summitt “the hardest thing I’ve done… she pushed you to be the best … she was someone that built strong women … being able to invest in you as a person and help you grow off the court”.

While the WNBA grows in America, with Summitt’s and now Lawson’s high-profile influence felt strongly across women’s basketball, female participation in sport more broadly across the globe is decreasing. In the UK, research highlights that female participation in sport is less than male participation, so much so that there are two million fewer women who regularly play sport, with only 31% of women who complete 30 minutes of moderate exercise once a week compared to 41% of men (Sport England, 2015).  

There are a number of obstacles preventing female participation in sport and physical activity; the cost of participating, lack of childcare options, lack of role models, body image issues and cultural attitudes can all contribute to lower female participation (Women in Sport, 2015). Such obstacles are felt more deeply for women who face multiple forms of disadvantage, including disability, social-economic class, and minority status (Women in Sport, 2015). Dove’s The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report (2010) revealed that over 60% of girls said they avoid particular activities because they feel bad about their looks.

Redressing the lack of female participation in sport is a challenge, but the potential benefits of girls participating in sports are well documented. In the USA, the Women’s Sport Foundation (2008) found that girls who play sport report to having a better body image, compared to girls who don’t play sports.

High profile, female role models, like Summitt and Lawson, are fundamental to increasing female participation in sport and to the development of young girls and women. For Kara Lawson, as she spoke to BBC’s Sportshour (2016), the long-lasting legacy of Summitt is “her teaching me the game of basketball, her empowering me as a leader, her building me into a strong independent woman”.  

Written by Rory Anderson

To learn about how Play for Change and Bonita Norris are inspiring young females, read: 'Sport Changes Lives, says Bonita Norris, Play for Change Ambassador and Youngest Female to Summit Everest'

External article links:

Sports England: https://www.sportengland.org/research/who-plays-sport/

Women in Sports: https://www.womeninsport.org/resources/barriers-to-benefits/

BBC Sportshour: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p040303v

Dove: http://www.clubofamsterdam.com/contentarticles/52%20Beauty/dove_white_paper_final.pdf

Women Sports Foundation: https://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/home/research/articles-and-reports/mental-and-physical-health/go-out-and-play