Historically, the phrase, “you play (run, throw, hit) like a girl” has been hurled as an insult on school yards and sports fields. In recent years, a movement has ensued to flip the script and empower young women to redefine what it means to play like a girl. Karlie Mintzer, Recreation Assistant Supervisor at the Westchase Recreation Center, is introducing her own movement to the girls in the Rec Center’s after-school program with her #LikeAGirl initiative.
Mintzer admitted that in her five years with Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation she had often heard kids say, “you run like a girl” or “you play like a girl,” but the effect those words were having on the girls didn’t really register until recently. It was during tryouts for the Rec Center’s soccer team that she realized something needed to be done. The after-school program has 197 elementary-aged kids enrolled. Of those, 37 are girls. When soccer tryouts rolled around, only one girl went out for the team and Mintzer knew there were other girls with stellar soccer skills. She approached one of them and asked why she hadn’t tried out for the team. “She told me it was because it is all boys and they won’t play the same with her or pass to her,” Mintzer explained. “That really hit me and changed my perspective of this whole ‘like a girl’ thing and made me want to encourage the girls that they can not only make the team, but they can be an All-Star on the team.”
Mintzer developed a curriculum and then began reaching out to every contact she had at the University of South Florida. That search led her to Skyylar Muehleisen, USF Student-Athlete Enhancement Coordinator. Muehleisen handles community outreach opportunities for Enhancing U, the Student-Athlete Enhancement program at USF dedicated to preparing student-athletes for life after their collegiate sport. “We implement programming on career development, community engagement, leadership advancement, and personal enhancement,” Muehleisen explained. “I was excited to get our female student-athletes involved to empower young girls! These skills start at a young age, so it’s important our female athletes are utilizing their leadership skills to positively impact future generations whether they play collegiate sport or not.”
With female athlete mentors in place, Mintzer presented #LikeAGirl to the parents of the girls currently enrolled in the after-school program as an optional activity. Of the 37 girls, 25 chose to participate. Mintzer kicked the program off by asking the participating girls to share what they think it means to run like a girl, hit like a girl, kick like a girl, etc. As she expected, the responses were mostly negative. On March 1, they had their first session with a visiting athlete from USF. Each session begins with the athlete introducing herself and then answering some preplanned questions. Mintzer then opens the floor for the girls to ask additional questions.
Following the question-and-answer portion of the program, the visiting athlete teaches the girls a bit about her sport and runs them through some drills to practice what they’ve learned. Next, Mintzer and the Rec Center staff present a character-building lesson that relates back to sports with themes like “Be Your Own Cheerleader” and “Be a Better Teammate.” The session ends with the girls engaging in a craft or teambuilding exercise to reinforce the lesson.
USF is also helping to raise awareness of the importance of programs like the one Mintzer has put together. On March 19 USF Softball dedicated their game to the #LikeAGirl program and invited the girls from the Westchase Rec Center to attend as guests of honor. Frankie Fowler threw out the first pitch, and Pepper Archer and Taylor Bader announced the USF starting lineup from the broadcast booth. “Everyone was so kind and asking the ladies questions about our program,” Mintzer said. “I loved seeing how proud they were while answering everyone’s questions.”
USF also handed out 600 #LikeAGirl T-shirts to the spectators. “Everywhere we looked someone was wearing their #LikeAGirl shirt,” Mintzer said. “It was awesome to see our program be recognized and I know that it will be something that the ladies and I will always remember.”
Gauging the Program’s Impact
On March 28, WOW sat down with several girls taking part in the program to get their thoughts on what they had learned. USF Track & Field athlete Shaniya Benjamin was the first athlete to visit the girls and she made quite an impression. “She raced one of our counselors and she beat him!” exclaimed Brooklyn Rhoads (10). “And she said she wasn’t even trying!”
“I learned from Shaniya that you can prove people wrong,” added Kendall Henry (10). Henry was also impacted by the “Be Your Own Cheerleader” character-building exercise. “I learned you can be your own positive light!”
Pepper Archer (9) said she has learned that girls have certain advantages when it comes to sports. For instance, they are more organized and they talk more. “They communicate!” she exclaimed with a wisdom well beyond her nine years.
And Macy Turtle (10) has seen an overall shift in the dynamic at the Rec Center. “I have noticed the girls have more confidence to play sports with the boys,” she said, adding that the boys even seem to be passing to them a bit more.
“Playing like a girl is a mindset,” Mintzer said. “You can either look at it as a negative or a positive.” Mintzer added that the USF student-athletes have been instrumental in encouraging the girls at the Rec Center to embrace playing like a girl. “The girls will ask the athletes how they feel about playing like a girl and they’ll say things like, ‘It’s awesome! I play like a girl and I’m a D1 athlete!’ and then they’ll ask what some of the negative things are about playing like a girl and they’ll reply, ‘Nothing!’”
Muehleisen noted that the USF athletes are gaining something from the program as well. “All our female student-athletes who have been involved have loved the experience. They speak highly of the activities that Karlie has organized each week and have even asked if we could facilitate similar workshops for their teams,” she said. “It has been a rewarding experience for our student-athletes to participate and help get rid of the stigma surrounding females in sports. It is truly fulfilling and inspiring.”
Mintzer plans to continue the #LikeAGirl program in partnership with USF in the fall, which will afford more opportunities to attend some of their fall sporting events. Her goal is to eventually open the program up to girls outside of the Rec Center’s after-school program. She is also hoping to create a template so that other recreation centers can adopt the program and reach even more girls.
Feature photograph by Heather Bossowskik.