After leaving a career in sales and returning to school, Dia Syed unexpectedly discovered her true passion during a research class.
Syed completed a project which looked at why girls drop out of sports as teenagers, whereas boys typically keep playing.
“I knew that the stats existed. I knew that a lot of girls… are dropping sports and that the stats are pretty bad,” she said.
As a teenager, Syed lacked confidence and as a result she stopped playing her favourite sport.
“One thing that I lacked in my sporting experience was really building that confidence and being able to pursue the sport that I love, which is volleyball,” Syed said. “Due to me not being as confident as I would’ve loved to have been, I didn’t pursue university, I didn’t pursue higher sports, which with hindsight, I wish I would have.”
For her class research, Syed surveyed 99 girls aged 16-18 and found that 44 per cent of them stopped playing sports by that age. Syed felt motivated to develop strategies that instill confidence in young female athletes.
Moved to action
Inspired by these athletes, Syed created her communiry sport organization, Girls in Sports Alberta.
Girls in Sports Alberta offers a range of consulting and mentorship services to girls participating in youth sports, with various mentors who specialize in a variety of different sports.
Nine-year-old athlete Alayna Dominguez took part in Girls in Sports’ confidence-building training with her soccer team.
“[Syed] was a really good trainer. She built up my team’s confidence levels and that got us to do better in our games,” Dominguez said. “I’ve definitely learned to train with confidence, to communicate a lot, make friends with my team and become more social.”
Other research supports Syed’s discovery that a problem with confidence influences young girls’ involvement in sports. A 2020 study by Canadian Women & Sport found that 43 per cent of adolescent girls said the quality of their sporting experience was a barrier to them staying on a team.
The study also found one in three girls reported low confidence, negative body image, perceived lack of skill and not feeling welcomed as factors that prevented them from participating in sports.
Syed has spoken at many conferences and universities regarding the benefits of having leaders bring in professionals and try to retain girls in their programs.
In the case of individual teams, the services are custom to fit the squad’s needs. For Dominguez’ soccer team, they were instructed to think of the problems they are facing in their lives and scream them all out.
According to coach Luis Dominguez, Alayna’s father, the techniques from the program are working.
“You can see that there is a difference, a positive difference for sure,” he said.
Syed’s methods have not only rubbed off on the young athletes but the coaches as well. Luis has added some of Syed’s ideas to his coaching skill set as well.
“When we do our training sessions, I try to energize the girls and I try to develop confidence building with fun games, sporadic dancing. I bring music now,” he said.
Most of Girls in Sports Alberta’s funding is sponsored by government grants, Syed added.
She has found it hard to find funds due to a lack of a women’s professional sport structure in comparison to men. Boys sports are able to attract more commercial interest and funding from other avenues, according to Syed.
“You find in a lot of male sports or boys-funded programs, a lot more companies are able to jump on the bandwagon. If it’s not a grant, it’s a sponsorship or donations or whatever it might be,” Syed said.
In order to get more financial support, people have to start paying to watch girls’ sports, and this is another obstacle Syed wants to tackle.
“It’s like a circle. It has to start somewhere, but if it doesn’t start, it’s never going to happen,” she added.
Going forward, Syed is working with KidSport Edmonton on the Be HER Game Changer campaign, a fundraiser to help subsidize sports registration fees for girls.
Correction: This story has been corrected to better reflect the organization’s status, future plans and partners.