Girls who play sports have a more positive body image, an increased ability to manage stress and enjoy a better mood overall — but if it’s so beneficial, why do so many girls drop out, asks
WHEN we look at primary school children, we can see that there are equal numbers of girls and boys playing sports. There are many occasions within organisations, like the GAA or the FAI, where primary school girls and boys play together on mixed teams.
However, by the time girls reach the age of 14, research done by the Women’s Sports Foundation in the US shows that girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate that boys are dropping out. Furthermore, by age 17, over half of all girls will have given up sports.
Research carried out jointly by the Irish Sports Council and the ESRI, reported on in 2013, showed the same pattern of greater dropout by girls, and showed that school sports are more likely to be given up than extra-curricular sports. Girls give up on team sports sooner than they might give up individual sports like swimming or cycling.
Indeed, there seems to be a strong gender divide showing that girls are more likely, in the first place, to have been involved in individual sports than in team sports.
We know that participation in sport is really beneficial for all children. The 2013 study, referred to above, shows peaks in the dropoff from sports, for girls, in exam years during secondary school. Ironically, though, general research shows that girls who play sports do better in school. This is probably because exercise improves memory, concentration and learning.
We take for granted that playing sports is a healthy thing to do, because it improves fitness and helps to maintain a healthy weight. But there are hidden health benefits too. Girls who play sports are less likely to smoke, for example. Girls who continue to play sports have a reduced chance of getting breast cancer later in life.
Sports are also a great way to learn about teamwork. We know that girls’ groups, or “cliques”, can be difficult environments for many youngsters. The skills of teamwork that sports provides can cut across some of the more negative aspects of this, as girls learn about problemsolving and working with others.
Playing sport competitively gives girls opportunities to learn about goal-setting, dealing with disappointment and enjoying success and the feeling of achievement.
In this way, it is very linked to an increase in self-confidence in girls. The direct experience of achievement, allied with feeling fit, making friends and being part of a natural social group, leave girls who play sport feeling better about themselves in terms of their self-esteem. Teenage girls who play sport have a more positive body image than those who don’t.
A final benefit of sport is it’s ability to help girls to deal with pressure and stress. Exercise has long been linked to a more positive mood overall and is a known way to relieve stress and help combat things like depression.
So, if sport is so beneficial then why do so many girls drop out? The Women’s Sports Foundation has put forward several suggestions.
Girls have less access to play sports than boys. If we look at the sports facilities that are available, they are often prioritised for boys’ sports, with girls sports having less time allocated and at less favourable times of the day.
Linked to this issue of accessibility is the physical travel involved. In the States, where things are more urbanised, there are concerns for many girls that getting to the places where their sports are held might involve travelling though unsafe neighbourhoods. This may be less of an issue in Ireland, but lack of public transport, outside of cities, might be more of a barrier here.
Social stigma is still a big barrier to continued participation in sports for girls. There is a perception that an athletic build is less feminine. Discrimination on the real, or perceived, sexual orientation of female athletes persists. The fear of being called “gay” is strong enough to push some girls away from sports.
Girls’ sports are not as well funded as boys’ sports as they get older. This can lead to there being fewer quality, well trained, coaches available. The status of girls’ sports is lower and, at a general level, they are not as valued in society as boys’ sports. Think in Ireland of the four main team sports children play: gaelic football, rugby, hurling and soccer. Then think about the visibility of the girls’ versions of those sports.
A final reason given for girls dropping out of sports is the lack of positive role models. Most of the media images of girls and women focus on physical beauty, not strong, confident, athletic women. When there are breakthrough female athletes, like Katie Taylor here in Ireland, it leads to a whole new generation of girls who can see an alternative sporting future for themselves.
Keeping girls active in sports then requires a complex series of targeted initiatives. The role modelling for playing sports can start early and can start at home. There’s no reason that girls can’t be encouraged to come out and kick a ball, or play basketball, or swing a golf club, with a parent joining in.
As parents, we have to show girls that sports are fun and we have to lead by example, playing sports ourselves or having an infectious enthusiasm for sports, even if only as a spectator, coach, or washer of the team kit. We want to give the message that our daughters playing sport is valued and supported in this activity.
While we may have to rely on Government initiatives to try to improve facilities for girls’ sports and to increase accessibility, we can begin to challenge the stereotypes about athleticism and girls.
If the core message, which girls receive about sports, is that it is healthy, fun and a great way to make and meet friends, it might counter some of the negative views those “cliques” can spread about “girls who play sports”.
We need to incorporate positive images of female sports stars and to talk about the value of sports, such that our daughters see sports as a natural part of their growth and development and an opportunity to build their selfesteem and their self-confidence.
Starting next week, I will address how to achieve some of these goals, and aim to help you understand and communicate with your teen daughter in a series of articles. Next week, cliques and their function for teenage girls.
Keeping girls in sports requires a complex series of targeted initiatives