After many years in fitness, sport and coaching it has become apparent to me that there is still inequality in the uptake and retention of young people in sport. Sport and fitness are much more available to girls in Britain today, including traditionally male-dominated sports such as boxing and rugby, so why is this the case? It seems that the situation is more complicated than just allowing girls to play and participate in sport.
Evidence suggests that very young boys and girls enrol in sports at the same rate but once they reach upper primary school age and adolescence the drop off rate for girls is much higher.
I’ve done a bit of research and combined with my own experiences as a girl who participated in sport all through my school years and teens I’ve focused on what I feel are particularly relevant areas to address. These are self-esteem, body image, feeling unwelcome and role models.
There seems to be more of a perceived lack of skill amongst girls than boys and more of a fear of being judged. A study by Women in Sport polled more than 4000 teenagers and found that 43% of girls saw themselves as sporty in primary school but no longer saw themselves this way in high school. The survey suggested that this equated to 1.3 million girls across the UK.
68% of girls said that a fear of being judged prevented them from taking part
Although I participated heavily in athletics as a young girl and woman I know that I didn’t take up other sports, even though I would have loved to, because I feared being judged as weak or incompetent. So I can relate to these findings.
Girls can be heavily influenced by imagery and what is perceived as a culturally acceptable female body and physique and this is no different in sporting and fitness culture. When sport is no longer compulsory in education by late teens, and body image concerns are very prevalent at this age, there is a significant drop off in young women investing in their health and well-being through fitness and sporting activity.
I’ve written a previous blog about how body image affected my enjoyment of competitive running in my teens and I think it’s tragic that young women and girls are feeling pushed out of vital activity on such a scale. We need a variety of real-world body types being advertised as role models for girls in sport. Unrealistic physiques are clearly putting our future women off and they are being let down by unhelpful stereotypes of what sporty and fit women should look like.
My youngest daughter came home from school recently quite annoyed because she had been made to feel unwelcome playing football with the boys because she was a girl. I was bullied by some boys in high school because I beat them in the cross-country race.
I think there are many more clubs and institutions welcoming girls now but there is still work to be done. Boys need to feel comfortable playing sport with girls and not feel threatened, because boys can be a victim of this inequality too. Whilst I agree with the need for separation of boys and girls competition in adolescence due to biological strength differences I do wonder if there could be more mixed team opportunities. Mixed relays for example can be great fun and foster a healthy team spirit between the sexes.
This is a really important aspect of the problem I think. Whilst males coaching girls teams and vice versa is fantastic and brings benefits to all involved there is a lot of evidence that same-sex role models play a big part in inspiring young people and keeping them motivated. This is the same for girls and boys.
Some of the biggest inspirations and influences in my life have been male leaders and coaches but I know it’s female role models that have kept me going too and without them I’d have felt a bit lost. Girls who have a positive female role model to look up to are more likely to take part in sport and fitness and experience the many benefits that this brings for mental and physical health. Of course, this can come from the home with family members but I think we need to go bigger and wider and have more women in prominent positions in sport and fitness. I also think women’s professional sport needs to be shown on the television more and of course this means more money in women’s sport is needed too.
UK Sport’s People Development Team suggest only 10% of coaching positions within the high-performance community in the UK are held by women
If we want to inspire the next generation of girls let’s see more female coaches. More referees and commentators,
more managers and leaders. Let’s see real female physiques of all types being positively showcased for what they are achieving. Let’s have girls feeingl comfortable and welcome in fitness and sport because their coach understands female bodies.
This isn’t just for the benefit of girls but for the whole of society. If girls and young women are keeping fitter and healthier, if their mental health is better and if they develop confidence in what their body can achieve then future generations will be more equal in sport and this can only be good thing for us all.