Girls are leaving sport behind

A growing number of girls are giving up on sport, reports Felipe Mennucci Wasserstein.

It appears that girls, particularly during fourth grade, are abandoning sport. The results of the 2016 Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge show a significant gap between the fitness of boys and girls during the first four years of secondary school. 

It is true that biological differences between the bodies of males and females exist. According to The Irish Times, male athletes who run over distances between 200 metres and 10 kilometres are 10 per cent fitter than female athletes. But still that is not enough to consider the Irish Life Health results as normal.

The trend is worrying. Lack of exercise can lead to other health problems, such as high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and heart conditions. We cannot ignore the psychological benefits of sports either. Exercise helps to combat depression and to avoid habits such as drinking and smoking. It is also a social activity, where we can meet people and make friends.

For Dr Kate Kirby, head of performance psychology at the Irish Institute of Sport, the moment where girls quit sport is after the fourth grade, a period that marks the beginning of adolescence. “Girls are giving up on exercise mostly due to gender-related issues and social expectations.”

“Girls are giving up on exercise mostly due to gender-related issues and social expectations”

At this stage, female teenagers will prefer other activities rather than sports. Teenagers will follow the same trend, in order to be part of a group and not be excluded. They are also more conscious of the changes in their bodies and faces, and might consider exercising to be something unfeminine.

Research was conducted in 2010 in Australia to determine the reasons why teenage girls between 13 to 15 years old withdraw from sports. The research conclusions and results were very similar to the situation in Ireland. The project was conducted by Amy Slater, a psychologist in the School of Psychology at Flinders University (Australia), and Marika Tiggemann, a psychology professor at Flinders University.

The main reasons for quitting sport included: concerns about teammates and teasing; concerns about appearance and image; some felt that they were crossing gender boundaries when playing sports that are traditionally considered “male” sports; insufficient time and loss of interest. Most of these motives are gender specific.

Female teenagers tend to have low self-esteem. A survey in the USA involving 1,800 people and sponsored by Always, showed that 89 per cent of girls aged 16-24 felt gender-related pressures. They were expected to correspond to certain types of behaviour and actions.

Sometimes the prejudice starts at home. Parents can consider certain sports to be unfeminine, which creates more pressure for girls to quit sports altogether. Parents should get involved in the sport their children like, and also play this sport with them. 

Sport can help girls to build confidence through teamwork and learning to win and lose. It can also be beneficial to their professional life. A study from Ernst & Young (EY) Women Athletes and Entertainment and Sports Programming Networks Women (ESPNW) revealed that 61 per cent of female executives considered sports to be important for their professional success.

Sports are also positive in terms of sexual health. Female athletes are less likely to become pregnant at a young age. They also have fewer partners, which reduces their exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. 

Children and adolescents have several reasons for playing a sport but most are doing it because they want to have a good time. The coach, however, might have other reasons in mind when training a team. If the coach’s main goal is winning rather than “having fun”, he/she can contribute to the lack of continued involvement of the athletes.

Thus, the correct professional preparation of coaches is very important. They need to know the factors that motivate athletes to keep practising sports after the initial contact.

In 2000, researchers Joan Taylor and Craig Stewart conducted a study in the USA to investigate the participation habits of female athletes. They also looked for coaching behaviours that, if changed, could reduce the number of female athletes quitting sports. The main goal of the study was to prepare coaches to recognise their roles in the continued participation of athletes.

The study used a questionnaire to collect data. Part of it asked players to detail the attributes of their favourite and least favourite coach. The participants were junior and senior high-school female athletes from Montana (USA).   

The results showed that 45 per cent of the girls were currently involved in a team sport, and 18 per cent in an individual sport; 44 per cent were not in any sport at the time of the survey because they were “out of season”. Most of the girls (58 per cent) said that “having fun” was their main reason for practising sport; 83 per cent listed “having fun” as one of their five main reasons for playing sports.

The main reasons listed by girls who had abandoned sports included: injury (26 per cent), time conflicts (18 per cent) and coaching issues (16 per cent). Minor reasons included “ceased being fun” (14 per cent), “cut or not good enough” and other motives (17 per cent) such as involvement with other activities and social obligations/pressures.

The favourite coaches were fun, nice, fair, encouraging and knowledgeable. The least favourite were rude, mean, unfair, negative and too strict.

The researchers argued that coaches and administrators can use the results to create an awareness of the needs of female athletes. Girls might have different reactions than males to the traditional ways of coaching. They might have a negative reaction to a coach’s emphasis on competitiveness. Coaches must have the proper training and supervision to avoid negative behaviours. Positive coaching behaviours can be useful to keep girls playing sports.

The study concluded that this knowledge should be part of the curricular strategies of physical educators in order to prevent further withdrawals of female athletes. It seems things have not changed much since then.

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