Have you noticed more girls and women taking to the tennis courts in Loudoun County? A new afterschool program called Girls Rule the Court™ at some of Loudoun County’s elementary schools could be responsible. Beyond a simple beginner’s tennis program, it represents a movement that is redefining youth sports, especially for young girls and women – not just here but nationwide.
According to research from the Women’s Sports Foundation, boys receive 1.1 million more sport opportunities per year than girls and only one-third of girls aged 6 through 12 participate in sports on a regular basis. Dig deeper and you’ll find disparities not only by gender, but by race/ethnicity, household income, and the inner city vs. the suburbs. Girls of color have the least opportunities to participate in sports of any demographic group of youth in the United States.
When I first saw this research, I was startled. We at the USTA Mid-Atlantic knew we had to do something and that we were especially equipped to change the trajectory for girls in our region. So, our women-led nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and growing tennis in the Mid-Atlantic, decided to go full-court on our program, Girls Rule the Court™.
In every leadership role we have organizationally at USTA Mid-Atlantic, a woman holds that position. Closing the equity gap for girls and introducing them to a sport such as tennis, which can deliver so many life-changing benefits, is a passion for us. It’s no wonder that a program like Girls Rule the Court is imperative to our mission and vision.
Essentially, GRTC is an introductory tennis program for girls between the ages of 7 and 12 to promote health, wellness and teamwork while building self-esteem through tennis. Led by female coaches, mentors and organizers identified by USTA Mid-Atlantic, the program focuses on serving girls from BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) and other underrepresented communities, and is open to all girls and non-binary persons. USTA Mid-Atlantic piloted the program for the first time in 2022 in three regional locations, one being Loudoun County.
We know that tennis can deliver important physical and emotional health benefits that are needed among today's youth and that the lessons they can learn through the sport now as they are developing will be beneficial later in life. This is why it is so important to give girls, especially those who may not have the means or opportunity, the chance to play.
GRTC isn’t like your average tennis lesson because it is geared just toward girls, and every session pairs instruction on the technical, tactical and physical performance skills of tennis with important social-emotional growth concepts. The program is designed to have dedicated class time for group discussion and workshop style activities among participants and their female coaches, volunteers and mentors.
Getting Girls Rule the Court off the ground and bringing it to Loudoun County took significant effort on the part of USTA Mid-Atlantic and our team of female organizers. Funding was not readily available, but, thanks to a few early supporters – many of whom were avid local women tennis players – USTA Mid-Atlantic began offering the program in the spring of 2022 in one Title 1 elementary school and added two more last fall.
GRTC is completely free for the participants and offered as an after-school program which made it convenient for parents and caregivers. All the equipment needed, including racquets balls, nets, curriculum for the coaches and workbooks for the participants in both English and Spanish, were provided at no cost by USTA Mid-Atlantic. Women subject-matter experts collaborated with us to write the curriculum and even to design the workbooks.
Another way GRTC is taking aim at inequities in sports is by putting women into coaching roles as an opportunity for girls to see someone that looks like them in leadership so they can visualize their own a future career path – something important to me personally as a former collegiate athlete and coach.
USTA Mid-Atlantic found a strong partnership with the Community School Initiative for Loudoun County Public Schools and we worked with them to offer Girls Rule the Court as part of their wrap-around services and resources for students and their families. Since launching in the county, the program has reached 146 participants across the three schools and our surveys indicated overwhelming satisfaction with their experience. The girls had a lot of fun, and everyone got a free, new tennis racquet to take home at the end of the program.
When some of the girls came to the Citi Open, a professional tennis tournament in Washington, D.C., they got to meet and walk professional women tennis players onto the court before matches and perform the ceremonial coin toss. These are special experiences that can leave a lasting impression.
The spring of 2023 proved successful with the program returning to all three schools in Loudoun County where the pilot began, and serving nearly 60 girls. As we look ahead to the new school year this fall, we aim to grow the program and continue to build the body of evidence for the importance of tennis to support community health and overall wellness, which is especially important to us as we work to bring a world-class tennis center to Loudoun County near Heritage High School in Leesburg.
At our future tennis center, we plan to provide daily tennis activities and instruction for the public of all levels, abilities and ages. Combined with tennis in school through PE classes and in after-school tennis programs such as Girls Rule the Court, this facility will give young tennis players a natural “next step” to improve their game, and ultimately enhance their lives. With nearly 50 courts, both indoor and outdoor, the tennis center is poised to bring a level of exciting and inspiring sports activities not currently available in the county. We estimate the center will contribute $8.5 million in economic impact each year.
Realizing those dreams and growing Girls Rule the Court will draw on more community support. We have volunteer and coaching opportunities available and are looking for even more partners interested in positively impacting the community through youth sport. Donations will widen the program for more girls to join GRTC and to pursue healthy, positive lifestyles. See usta.com/girlsrulethecourt to learn more and donate.