Research shows that on average young women are more likely than young men to quit their sport of choice before the age of 14. But Evanston Township High School has reversed this trend, according to recent data. One reason for the strong showing among female athletes at ETHS is the existence of Girls Play Sports (GPS), a program designed to build confidence in young female athletes. Since 2015, the percentage of female athletes at ETHS has topped that of male athletes.
The idea for GPS took shape in 2012, when Chris Livatino, Athletic Director at ETHS, and his wife, Megan Livatino, noticed their daughter was being left out of sports because of her gender. They partnered with fellow parent Liz Brieva – who also coaches volleyball and teaches special education at Haven Middle School – to develop Girls Play Sports, the soon-to-be answer for gender-based sports discrimination that female athletes may face.
GPS teaches 16 different sports to girls, grades three through six, at different park locations in Evanston during the spring and summer. Each sport is also offered through ETHS to allow athletes to smoothly transition as they age. Other activities offered throughout the year include bowling competitions, tennis skills and drills, and fencing.
By focusing on the younger grades, GPS prepares athletes with the skills they need before they enter middle school. “In middle school, girls tend to drop out of sports and not want to be involved in things,” said Ms. Brieva.
Athletes may participate in GPS camps to gain exposure to sports they are interested in but have not yet tried. What differs from other athletic programs is the all-girl space, which is more conducive to inclusion and empowerment, according to Ms. Brieva.
“It’s so important to reinforce ideas of being a strong woman, standing up for each other and empowering each other,” Ms. Brieva said when describing the core values of GPS. “They can be themselves, and they can focus on what they’re working on and make friendships.”
By removing young male athletes from the picture, GPS creates and maintains a space conducive for athletic success in young women. Yet, Ms. Brieva said, she recognizes that GPS currently runs in the gender binary with its all-girls platform, although transgender, non-binary and gender-fluid young athletes are permitted to participate.
“Just the name is already excluding people,” Ms. Brieva said. “We are having conversations about how to be more inclusive. We want everybody who would like to be a part of our program to join, as it’s all about giving young athletes the space to be themselves and build confidence.”
Even during COVID-19, GPS adapted to encourage skills and expand their inclusivity, continuing to address the gender gap for young athletes in the community.
The co-founders questioned how to continue GPS through a more inclusive lens, whether that meant expanding their name, mission statement, or more. In the last year, GPS has offered webinars for young athletes about health, careers and more.
During one webinar session, a participant said they would not feel comfortable being a member of GPS because of the gendered nature of the program. This led Ms. Brieva to have more conversations with the people around her, including her children, on how to foster better representation for young athletes. She said she wants to see more gender-diverse coaches, so potential members see themselves in leadership positions, giving them more confidence to participate.
Discussions are held every month for members on topics such as body image, nutrition, and bullying. High school female athletes who volunteer their time to teach and mentor younger athletes drive much of the program’s passion.
Middle school can be a challenging time for young girls, but GPS members can confide and communicate with the high school volunteers to build healthy relationships. “They are the key to the success of the whole program,” Ms. Brieva said about the high school volunteers. “I can’t thank them enough; they are the true role models for the girls.”
GPS summer sports camp runs 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, during the weeks June 8 to 10, June 15 to 17, and June 22 to 24, at parks around the community. Ms. Brieva encourages those wanting to participate to register for the remainder of the camp even if they have missed the first week. Those interested can sign up at this link.
This summer, Sarah Stein will take over as Executive Director of GPS from Megan Livatino, who recently stepped down. Other summer activities can be found on the GPS website and Instagram.