Cracking the confidence code with Girls on the Run

Claire Shipman & Katty Kay
Happy cheering woman in New York City enjoying view and sun on B

Poppy is not naturally athletic and she really hates waking up early. But every Tuesday and Thursday morning she sets her own alarm for 6.45am, pulls on her shorts and sneakers and hurries her sleepy parents to get her to running practice on time.

Unlike Poppy, 9-year-old Della loves sports, but she’d never been sure about the value of running. If it wasn’t a team, and ideally soccer, was there much point? But she too grew to relish her early morning runs, testing her limits and learning her strength.

Our daughters are just two of the hundreds of thousands of girls who have benefited from the incredible training of Girls on the Run. We all know running makes them physically stronger, but what we’ve come to realize from our work on confidence, and from watching Poppy and Della, is how much more Girls on the Run is giving them.

What girls learn from athletics is an invaluable lesson in building confidence. This is where we learn to face hurdles but keep going. It is where we learn to support each other, but push each other to go further too. It is where we learn to win, but also to lose.

Confidence, our research shows, comes from taking action, and risks, and going outside your comfort zone. And it just doesn’t seem to come as easily to our girls as it does to our boys. Of course, boys have the benefit of all that testosterone, which spurs them biologically to take risks. Boys are the ones who rough house in the playground and jump in loudly with half formed ideas in the classroom. And they still do more team sports than girls do.

Today we tell our girls they can be anything, Presidents or Olympians, but yet we still encourage them, subtly and without malice, to behave like “good girls.” Somehow we still seem to expect our daughters to color in the lines, answer when called on and be somehow quieter and calmer. The trouble with this is that, without even realizing it, we are setting off a pattern of perfectionism that doesn’t do much for our daughter’s confidence later in life.

What we need to do is encourage our girls to take risks, do hard things, and be strong, mentally and physically. That’s why Girls on the Run is so important.

Girls on the Run is not just about building muscles, it’s about meeting a challenge and overcoming obstacles and learning that you can succeed. This is what they learn in practice and in those invaluable discussions with their fantastic coaches. Psychologists call this process mastery – it comes from sticking with something you find hard and learning that you can make progress. It doesn’t matter how fast they run that 5k – what matters is that they try and get better and complete the course at all.

Mastery is perhaps the single most important building block of confidence and it’s what they get from Girls on the Run.

We saw mastery in action when our daughters signed up for their first 5k. They were slightly scared, they weren’t sure they could make it (in all honesty, their mothers, who aren’t runners either, were terrified that they would humiliate themselves too and not be able to run the whole the course!) And when race day dawned, freezing cold, they were still nervous.

But all that training and hard work kicked in and although we walked a few yards a couple of times, our young girls, and their not so young mothers, completed the run – a whole 5 kilometers! They have never been so proud of themselves. They had got up early, braved the cold and their own sore muscles and kept going. They had achieved their goal.

And, here’s the real beauty of building confidence through taking action – the next time around, they both knew they could complete the course, because they had already done it once. Running a 5k race still took work, but it didn’t scare them anymore.

Our daughters had built confidence; no one could take that achievement away from them because they had done it by themselves. And, having mastered one hard thing and succeeded at it, they now look at other challenges with more confidence too. It’s a virtuous circle.

Poppy came home the other day after one practice with a careful account of the discussion they’d had with their coach about how to stand up to bullies. “You know, Mom,” she said, “Girls on the Run isn’t just about our bodies, it’s about our minds too.” And their minds are stronger for it.

If you want to help your daughter crack the confidence code, sign her up for a 5k and watch her run.


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