Image: Wikimedia Commons/Sarah Jones
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Sarah Jones

How can we bring girls back to sport?

As with everything in life, not everybody has to enjoy or take part in the same activities. But a recent study by the charity Women in Sport revealed the worrying statistic that, of the 4,000 teenage girls they interviewed, 43% of those who used to consider themselves sporty, had disengaged with sport by the time they reached secondary school. With another 15% of those surveyed feeling they had never been or never will be sporty, it leaves us facing the concerning prospect that over 50% of girls are likely to shy away from engaging in sport and exercise.

Being someone who has always loved sport and has tried to play just about every sport you can imagine, with varying levels of success I should add, this statistic makes me sad. It says girls feel they are under pressure to maintain a certain standard, or femininity perhaps, which deprives them of the opportunity to enjoy the buzz sport and exercise can bring.

What’s more, this finding also comes at a time where exercise has become widely used as a release from the worry and isolation the pandemic has brought, for many people across society. It therefore leaves us asking what can be done to help girls feel they can continue to enjoy the benefit of sport through their teenage years and beyond. And for me, it’s all about finding a balance in how we present sports to teens.

Previously people have considered that girls priorities change when they reach secondary school, and they are simply engaged in other things aside from sport. But Women’s Sport found that ‘stereotyping, inadequate opportunities and a complete dearth of knowledge about managing female puberty’ are what really lie at the heart of this disengagement.

Stereotyping is a large problem throughout sport for women, on both a grass root, national and international level. ‘80% of girls feel they do not belong in sport’ because it is something uniquely for boys. But sport is universal. It rarely streamlines or restricts people to certain gender-based categories when it comes to choosing what activity they can do. That is except in school.

How well you do is unimportant – simply doing it is worth a medal on its own

We often find that the curriculum offers a very gender-based proposition of sport to teens. Girls often play netball and rounders, and boys, rugby, and football. However, this isn’t to say we need to completely change the current system, as it does provide some huge benefits.

Instead, it needs to be more widely recognised that having such a rigid gender-based structure around sport in the education system may only reenforce the stereotypes which girls hear from so many other areas in their life.

Therefore, like Women’s Sport have suggested, the current inadequate opportunities for girls won’t help them to find the sports they like, and they will therefore continue to struggle to rise above gender stereotypes. Once people leave school, they don’t only play netball, rounders, football, and rugby, but they go on to find different sports or forms of exercise which they enjoy, at the competitive level which best suits them.

Why, then, are we not presenting these opportunities to girls at a younger age? Perhaps if we could offer more ‘taster sessions’ for sports which are not on the curriculum, it could help bolster this more real-world approach to sport, which prioritises enjoyment.

And it is perhaps enjoyment which sits at the heart of the success with which giving girls more opportunities in sport will be received. Sport Scotland have noted that ‘many girls and women are turned off sport because it is competitive’.

Therefore, if this pressure is stopping girls from wanting to participating in and enjoying sport when they are younger, we perhaps need to rethink not only what opportunities girls have to try different sports, but also how they are presented. In trying to create a more relaxed environment to try and practice sports, it could help remove that pressure and truly open up a wealth of accessible opportunities to girls.

But of course, all of this has to come as a balance. Sometimes at school, you do all just have to run that one cross country race or play that game of football that you really don’t want to. But that’s also one of the great lessons that girls may be missing out on in not participating in sport: resilience.

Sometimes sport is tough and there is no escaping that. But giving girls the opportunity to tackle these obstacles together knowing that not liking one sport isn’t the be all and end all, it could help reduce the disengagement with sport.

This balance also has to come around girls’ health. Everyone has the right to maintain a level of privacy when it comes to discussing puberty and healthy, but the fact remains that we need to talk about it more. The topic needs to be normalised as it is such a big part of every teenagers’ lives.

There is more and more research being uncovered about women’s health and exercise and we need to start sharing this with girls as early in development as possible. In doing this, it will allow girls to better understand and work with their bodies as they change, hopefully encouraging feelings of empowerment, rather than disconnect.

After all, moving our bodies is natural, and sport is a great way to do that. Sport has become a construct which is seemingly reserved only for the strongest, or the most competitive, when in fact, anyone can play sport. How well you do is unimportant – simply doing it is worth a medal on its own.

Therefore, to stop this wave of disengagement growing amongst girls, we need to restore the truth about sport. It can be competitive, but it can also be leisurely. You can get very strong doing sport, but you can also do it within your own comfort zone. Like everything in life, it’s a balance. And that is what needs to be remembered.

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