A League of Fans Special Feature
Barb Lazarus is the owner and co-founder of Game On! Sports Camps 4 Girls. Game On! is a unique sports-based experience for young girls ages 4-14. The camp focuses on building campers’ character, self-esteem, and a healthy lifestyle, while fostering a love of sport. The overarching goal of Game On! is developing healthy, productive children, students and athletes who become healthy, productive adults.
Lazarus earned a B.A. from the University of Michigan and a J.D. from Loyola University of Chicago School of Law. She served as an assistant United States attorney from 1986 to 1990. In 1991, Lazarus accepted the newly created position of Public Affairs Specialist/Press Secretary for the Department of Justice for the Northern District of Illinois and held that position until she opened what was to become a very successful media relations business in 1994.
Lazarus was a multi-sport athlete in high school and played a year of tennis at the University of Michigan. Sports and fitness activities have been a part of her entire adult life. She continues to play on a competitive softball team in Highland Park, Illinois that she first joined more than 30 years ago.
Appreciative of the important role sports have played in her life, and driven by a strong desire to “give back,” Lazarus created Game On! Sports Camps 4 Girls as a way to bring quality sports opportunities and experiences to young girls.
Barb and her husband raised two active sons. While immersed in the youth sports world in various capacities, she came to believe that young girls lack the same quality sports opportunities that young boys have in this country. She’s also long believed that young girls have unique developmental needs and can benefit greatly from sports camp programs that emphasize building strong bodies, developing high self-esteem and creating healthy lifestyles. It’s from those core beliefs that Game On! was formed.
Lazarus was interviewed by Ken Reed, League of Fans’ Sports Policy Director.
Ken Reed: What drove you to give up your successful legal and business career in order to start Game On! Sports Camps 4 Girls?
Barb Lazarus: The dream to give back. What sports did for me as a young girl is beyond description. You can’t put a price on it. The confidence they instilled, the values, the relationships that I formed, the life skills in general, and the appreciation for a healthy lifestyle is the short list of benefits that I derived from participation in sports.
So, I’ve always harbored the dream of giving back and when my two boys were old enough, and I had the support of my husband, I switched gears and pursued my dream.
This is a passion – not work – for me.
Reed: Why did you decide to focus exclusively on girls, given that all those benefits you mentioned apply to boys too?
Lazarus: Yes, however, there have always been those types of opportunities for boys. Many, many opportunities exist for boys to get involved in sports and there aren’t as many opportunities for girls to be part of quality sports programs.
My goal was to expand the number of quality sports opportunities that were available to girls, and to do it in a very unique way in terms of establishing multi-sport experiences as opposed to a sport-specific opportunity, emphasizing character and self-esteem development, and starting at a younger age than is common. Our camps go from age 4 through 16.
Reed: Studies have shown that childhood obesity in this country is often more of a problem with girls than boys. Why do you think that is?
Lazarus: It’s in large part due to societal and cultural attitudes. There are many socialization environments in which girls are subjected to stereotypes and different biases that really are contrary to the good health of girls and women.
With regards to Game On!, we work on that extensively. We’re about a lot more than growth as an athlete. In fact, we’re more about growth as a person. We focus on nutrition and talk about what society considers a favored girls body type and talk about what we call solid bodies, strong and solid bodies. And we talk about the importance of feeling good about yourself. This is all part of our “Healthier Me” program, which is about exercise, believing in yourself, and in the end, it’s about changing attitudes. It’s about teaching girls to lead healthier lifestyles with healthy attitudes, enabling girls to ignore some of the negative attitudes and beliefs surrounding gender in this country. And the younger you can start these programs with girls the better off they will be.
Reed: Have you found that you need to teach sports skills and fundamentals differently to girls than boys?
Lazarus: Yes, girls learn differently than boys. Girls can learn just as quickly but they often go about it in different ways. They may ask different and/or more questions. They may require more tough love. Sometimes you have to toughen them up but at the same time it’s in a nurturing environment.
We’re going into our 10th year now, and we’ve really studied through the years the ways that girls learn in general, and in particular, within a sports environment. In fact, we’ve developed tips on coaching girls for the Positive Coaching Alliance, which is an excellent youth sports initiative for boys and girls.
Reed: Your incentive rewards program emphasizes recognizing skill progress instead of just skill level. It also recognizes character traits like effort, sportsmanship, leadership, positive attitude, etc. How did you come up with this type of rewards program for your sports camps?
Lazarus: The most important thing at Game On! is effort. The overall goal is to teach girls how to feel progress. We want them to feel pride in their improvements.
We do a lot of encouragement at Game On! A lot of times, a simple “You did it!” from a coach is more important to young girls than dangling trophies or ribbons. Our goal with rewards is to mix them into the program to encourage additional motivation and fun. We love recognizing an attitude or behavior that we want to serve as a model for other campers.
We don’t give participation rewards and our campers are told that from Day One. Our campers are rewarded for working hard, putting in the effort and having good attitudes. Every time they receive an award from us they know why they received it.
An important part of our program is teaching young girls how to set goals. For example, “To get to this level, this is what I need to do.” When they reach those goals, we reward them verbally and/or with tangible rewards. Our incentive program is an important part of teaching girls to set goals.
Reed: The U.S. is considered a sports mad country. But in reality, we’re crazy about watching sports, not participating in them. How do we keep teenagers participating in sports as they enter their adult years?
Lazarus: What we try to promote with our campers are the joys of sports participation and living a healthy lifestyle. If you have the confidence to perform the fundamentals of a sport or exercise, and believe in yourself, you will get more enjoyment from participating in a sport and will do so longer.
What I think happens a lot, and why I believe girls in particular drop out of the sports arena, is girls don’t have the fundamentals in terms of being able to play the sport and they don’t have an understanding and appreciation of the sport itself.
Confidence, plus understanding, equals enjoyment, and that is going to keep girls, who mature into women, on the sports courts and sports fields.
Reed: Despite all the great progress we’ve made in the area of equal sports opportunities since Title IX was enacted back in 1972, the gap between males and females — in terms of sports opportunities and funding — has started to grow again in recent years. How can we reach the point of true equal opportunity in sports for females?
Lazarus: It’s not going to happen overnight. Believe me, I know changing attitudes isn’t easy. But at Game On! we have proven that it can be done.
I do believe that despite some of the drop offs you’ve mentioned that strides are continuing to be made. I think the government is trying when it comes to Title IX. But I don’t think there’s one specific solution. I think it’s going to come from a wide range of programming, policy, advocacy, and grassroots efforts.
I really think that the highest achievers in our country, men and women, have to become involved in the Title IX effort. And I mean the highest achievers in the professional and business worlds, in addition to those in the sports world. High achievers are going to be the influencers when it comes to public policy development. They’re the ones that get listened to.
In addition, I do believe that the advocacy for equal opportunities in sports, nationally and internationally, needs to start at younger ages. That’s where I’ve tried to make an impact on a national level. I want to make sure that when we talk about developing more quality sports programs for girls that we’re not just talking about at the high school level. This all has to start with the younger girls, as young as four years old. That’s where it has to start.
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