There Are Too Many Barriers for Young Girls in Sports—Now, Nike Wants to Change That

Girls have traditionally faced far more barriers than boys when it comes to sports participation. Lack of access, cost, and decreased quality of experience are just a few factors that contribute to many girls dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys by the age of 14, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. And the barriers continue on the professional level, as the lengthy equal pay lawsuit by the U.S. women’s national soccer team shows.

In partnership with a collective of female athletes from around the world, Nike is working to address this problem at its earliest stages through the newly launched Nike Athlete Think Tank. With the goal of creating a better future for the next generation of women in sport, the brand announced a $1.3 million donation geared primarily toward programs that increase access to sports participation for girls.

For over a year, Nike leaders asked for feedback and collaboration from 13 of the brand’s top sponsored athletes, including tennis star Serena Williams, swimmer Simone Manuel, sprinters Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Dina Asher-Smith, runner Shalane Flanagan, Paralympic track and field athlete Scout Bassett, basketball player Sabrina Ionescu, heptathlete Nafi Thiam, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, soccer players Deyna Castellanos and Ada Hegerberg, wheelchair fencer Bebe Vio, and track and field athlete Angela Davis.

“We opened up the conversation to hear their insights and help inform where we can be better,” Tanya Hvizdak, Nike’s vice president of women’s global sports marketing, tells SELF. “We specifically asked how they believe sport can move the world forward, how we can help break barriers to sport, and how we can better leverage their input and ideas.”

Over Zoom calls and through in-person meetings, the athletes shared the importance of bringing everyone, especially disabled athletes, into inclusion initiatives; the need for equal opportunity, pay, and support; respect for women’s bodies; and valuing purpose as much as performance through community efforts. They also emphasized the financial difficulties that play a part in preventing access to sport.

During Think Tank sessions, athletes shared insights on the barriers they faced in their respective journeys. In many cases, programs and scholarships helped aid them through the challenges.

For example, years before Fraser-Pryce became a three-time Olympic champion on the track, financial issues impeded the Jamaican sprinter’s access to sport. Growing up in Waterhouse, an impoverished area in Kingston, Jamaica, Fraser-Pryce, 35, would often run to primary school barefoot, according to the International Olympic Committee. When she started high school, the nine-time world champion received funding for her education, books, uniform, and lunch from a donor who believed in her potential. The act of generosity inspired Fraser-Pryce to pay it forward by creating the Pocket Rocket Foundation in 2013.

“I have first-hand experience with how the lack of resources and access to sport can be major barriers to participation,” Fraser-Pryce tells SELF. “I also know that where I am today is because of my community. Being able to give back with Nike and invest in the communities and the organizations that are helping develop the next generation of female athletes is truly a full circle moment for me.”