When I was growing up I was very fortunate. I was encouraged to play sport, from a young age. It helped that Mum and Dad were playing sport (still is in the case of Dad who at 80 is still a bowls fiend!) My sisters and I did gymnastics, we played netball, basketball, softball and swam competitively. We even did ballroom dancing for a while! (Sadly, no footy for girls in those days, I had to be content with kick to kick in the street with the neighbours.)
When I had my own children, I encouraged them to get involved with sport early on. I knew the physical, mental and leadership development benefits that being involved in sports, particularly teams sports can bring. My daughter played netball from the age of 8 and because of that, I also got myself involved in the club and the sport again. So the benefits weren’t just for the kids!
One of the things that really concerned me, and other administrators in our club, was the attrition rate of young women from the sport, typically around 14 years of age. One of the other things that concerned me was how many of my daughters friends played no sport whatsoever. Now, with my work anchored in gender equality in sport, I want to start the conversation about the benefits of participating in sport for girls and young women, plus share my own experiences as a girl, young woman and parent.
Girls Leaving Sport
There are many theories and a lot of research as to why young women are leaving or never starting sport. I think it’s a shame, because sport became and is, a central point of my life and has helped me to be a better leader, be more healthy in both mind and body and has no doubt contributed to the successes I have enjoyed. It’s also fun! I’d love all young people, especially girls and young women, to fall in love with sport and to be able to express their love of sport in the way that I often do! The mateship, the friendships and the skills I continue to gain from sport will serve me well, right into my dotage!
I completely understand and am concerned that there are barriers to greater participation by girls and young women in sport. However, as a sports director, gender equality advocate, woman, parent and someone who has enjoyed sport almost all her life, I thought I’d share some of my own experiences in the hope that we can all encourage more girls to get involved in, and stay in, sport from a young age.
Teach Them Safely
My parents introduced me to swimming at the age of around 7. I remembered being quite terrified, as whilst I am now known for being outgoing and confident, I can assure you that at the age of 7 or 8, that was not the case. However, I loved swimming from the start. I think I loved the fact that there were different levels to start off at which meant I was learning with kids at my own level. I didn’t need to feel embarrassed that I wasn’t as good as some of the others. I also loved that we worked on skill and fitness, rather than the competitive element, which came later if you wanted it. When my daughter wanted to start swimming (coincidently at about the same age, albeit after we had spent a good amount of time watching the Olympic swimming!) I was all for it, remembering the benefits I had gained. So I researched where I could find swimming lessons near me and I took her along. Like me, in she jumped, started to learn and it helped to not only build her skills and fitness, but her self-confidence grew as well.
Let Them Be What They Now See
There are some amazing female athletes in the world that have achieved so much. the GOAT, Serena Williams, for example, just keeps challenging stereotypes again and again. Closer to home, the women who are playing Australian Rules Football are paving the way for not only the next generation of elite footballers, but for a generation of female footballers. The participation rates of AFL football have exploded with a 76% growth rate in two years. Now, 30% of all footballers in Australia are women. This is all because girls and young women can see what they can now be, And they are going for it!
What Sport is the Right Sport?
Everybody has a different sport that they’re best suited to. For some girls and young women it will be the mainstream sports and it will fit. But my advice is to give whatever piques your young persons interest a go. If they don’t know, check out the Girls Make Your Move website by the Australian government to help generate ideas and inspiration.
As an example, after a childhood and adolescence swimming, playing netball and softball, I entered my twenties and decided to play some different sports. I took up pennant squash and I started playing touch rugby. I kept playing netball for years (my first love) but I wanted to experience of team work, fitness and fun in other sporting disciplines, so I kept experimenting with other sports. Plus my mates were playing rugby, so I joined in as the after game socializing was ace!
I know too well the juggle of working, parenting and life. So to add sport into what may already be a very full life can seem daunting. But I reckon if I could do it, so can you. The benefits simply outweigh the downside, I promise!
It is just so critical that we encourage our girls and young women to get into sport, so if you’re in a position to do so, I say get your girls to make their move, today!