New report warns of alarming decline in girls’ participation in sport as they reach puberty

women participation in sports

New research indicates that nearly half of all girls may be disengaging from sport when they enter their teenage years. The Women in Sport charity calls them ‘the lost 43%’. It says that it is “deeply concerned by the number of girls who disengage from sport and exercise post-primary school. Many of these girls enjoyed being active when younger but have needlessly fallen out of love with it in adolescence. We need to change this.” Women participation in sports and physical activity is hugely beneficial to physical and mental health for women of all ages. We need to ensure that all children understand the importance of participating in sports and have regular opportunities to take part in physical activity. Not only is it good for them here and now, it will also help them learn habits that will serve them well throughout their lives. This means tackling whatever obstacles, attitudes and biases are directly causing or contributing to a reduction in participation levels.

The report, a survey of 4,000 teenage girls and boys published by Women in Sport, is called Reframing Sport for Teenage Girls – Tackling Teenage Disengagement. It found that 43% of female respondents who once considered themselves ‘sporty’ disengage from sport following primary school. This equates to around 1,300,000 girls across the UK. This figure compares with just 24% of boys of the same age.

The report talks of “complex barriers and deep-rooted negative attitudes” affecting girls’ enjoyment of sport. For those who claim to have fallen out of love with sport as they have moved into their teenage years, lack of self-belief appears to be a significant factor, as well as issues around body image and puberty:

  • 68% of these girls mentioned a fear of feeling judged by others
  • 61% cited lack of confidence
  • 78% said they avoid sport when they have their period
  • 73% said they don’t like others watching them take part in activity

Pressure of schoolwork (47%) and not feeling safe outside (43%) were also mentioned.

The need to engage girls in more active lifestyles has never been more urgent. This generation of teenage girls are experiencing worrying mental health issues and report being less happy, more anxious and increasingly dissatisfied with their appearance. The pandemic has, in many instances, simply amplified these issues for many girls.

An underlying narrative prevails; that girls are not as competitive; that sport is not important for girls; that they will never be as good at it compared to boys; that sport can be at odds with femininity. Add to that the harassment and unwanted attention teenage girls are subject to when exercising and quite simply, taking part becomes a burden, instead of bringing freedom and joy.

We have a significant opportunity to re-engage them and we must work harder to do so and to prevent girls from missing out. In particular, we are deeply concerned by the number of girls who disengage from sport and exercise post primary school (43%). Many of these girls enjoyed being active when younger but have needlessly fallen out of love with it in adolescence. We need to change this.

from the Women in Sport website

The Women in Sport charity was founded in 1984. Its vision, it says, is that “no-one is excluded from the joy, fulfilment and lifelong benefits of sport and exercise. Recognising that gender stereotypes and institutional bias are holding women back in life and in sport, the charity’s purpose is to give every woman and girl the opportunity to take part and inspire her to do so.”

Life Based Learning recognises the importance of participation in sport, physical activity and outdoor play in helping children to grow up physically and mentally healthy. The Body is one of nine learning themes that make up Life-Based Learning. Its approach to health and wellbeing combines a focus on children learning how to look after themselves with a coordinated, whole-school focus on physical activity.

In our blogs Encouraging diversity involves doing more to challenge outdated stereotypes and Lego’s Ready for Girls campaign challenges outdated gender norms and stereotypes we have also discussed the importance of inclusion and diversity, and the key role that schools can play.

…So diversity is good for business and the economy, in all sorts of ways. But it matters at a more fundamental level too: it is essential to enabling all individuals to realise their potential in life — to ensuring genuine equality of opportunity for all, regardless of who they are.

Teaching young children about the importance of diversity is, of course, hugely important. But that alone is not enough. Stereotypes are often deeply, if subconsciously, ingrained in the habits, impulses, thoughts, language and actions of many adults. It is no surprise, then, that — wittingly or otherwise — outdated attitudes are sometimes picked up by children. That’s why taking active steps to challenge outdated attitudes and to break down gender and other stereotypes is an urgent priority. Schools can play an important role.

Encouraging diversity involves doing more to challenge outdated stereotypes

More About Sport and Physical Activity

Image at the head of this article by Med Ahabchane from Pixabay.

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