Women's Sport: Meet the charities engaging girls in sport

Girls In Sport

It’s no secret that there aren’t the same sporting provisions for girls as there are for boys, but even still the figures can be jaw-dropping. The Women’s Sports Foundation, for example, say that girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play sport a school than boys.

Their research also shows that by the time girls reach the age of 14, the sporting dropout rate is twice that of boys.

Figures like that seem insurmountable, but there are initiatives in place to try and eradicate some of the barriers to entry girls might face. 

A question of gear

In America, Good Sports are working to give all children the benefits of sport through providing equipment and kit to those who need it – they also have a dedicated campaign called She Who Plays with $1 million dedicated to supporting girls in the US.

Christy Keswick is one of the leaders for the She Who Plays campaign, and she says one of the main challenges that Good Sports face is that girls can see that they don’t get the same opportunities.

Unsurprisingly this has a negative effect. Keswick says: “Combine that with programs already struggling to provide boots, sports bras and jerseys – girls begin to feel they don’t belong in sports. And those from high-risk communities are already finding youth sports too expensive, keeping even more girls on the sidelines. Quite simply, girls are not getting the level of investment they deserve.”

It’s not just about relieving financial burdens – either for the organisation or individuals receiving the gear. Keswick says it has a wider impact: “Being the owner of a brand-new sports bra or pair of boots brings an unbeatable level of confidence to the field. By providing girls with the proper equipment, Good Sports can help to level out the playing field.”

"We have to remind girls that they are capable of powerful moves and that the right gear is a necessary tool to create that power.”

The impact of gear can’t be underestimated, after all, with the wrong gear injury risks are increased and it can be prohibitively expensive.

Keswick recalls how one Wyoming-based softball team told Good Sports the story of one of their players who had been working a part-time job to cover her league fees after one of her parents was laid off. She was 14 and was also unable to afford the right gear impacting her ability to play her best. 

Girls In Sport

Keswick says: “With a donation, the softball league was able to reduce these fees, and this girl finally got sliding shorts and fitted cleats. And she was able to quit her part-time job and focus more on school and sports.”

In fact, says Keswick, 70 per cent of the organisations that they work with can increase the number of minutes of play on offer: “For a girl, this means there are more opportunities for her to experience new sports and activities, as well as immerse herself in the community around her.”

“We hear from schools in particular that with more equipment to go around, more girls are daring to come off the sidelines,” says Keswick. She gives the example of an elementary school in California that had so much extra gear after a donation they chose to create separate teams for girls instead of mixed teams.

Keswick says: “The school immediately saw the number of girls participating jump by 50%. Right here is a sense of community. These girls will grow up playing together and staying active. From there, they’ll return that sense of pride and determination when the next generation comes along.”

Back to school

If Good Sports tackles some of the practical barriers to entry, the Youth Sport Trust is taking a different approach in the UK with their Girls Active campaign. The initiative is committed to working with schools to increase girls’ PE participation tackling inclusion and confidence.

Wendy Taylor is the lead for the programme, and explains that they have six key principles; taking a long-term approach, developing self-confidence, making PE and sport relevant, harnessing the power of friendships, developing role models and empowering girls in the planning process. 

The reason that the Girls Active encourages PE teachers to put girls front and centre and find out what they’d like from PE is simple. Taylor says: “A significant percentage of girls don't see the relevance of what they're doing within sport in the context of their own life. There's a real disconnect between what they're doing in terms of sport and physical activity and the things that are important to them in life.”

The charity encourages reframing the discussion so that sport is defined not in terms of competition but what it can give them – whether that’s developing life skills, benefiting their wellbeing or building friendships. That way, says Taylor, “girls will then begin to buy into and see the value of it much more”.

Adapting the lessons to take into account girls priorities can have a knock-on effect. Taylor says: “It can create an environment where they feel confident, and that confidence is built.”

Tailoring lessons in this way is challenging in the current school set up, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. After all, as Taylor points out, girls aren’t homogenous and everything from age to ethnicity to affluence can impact on sporting participation and the students’ priorities.

That’s why starting conversations between the teachers and pupils can help identify what each group needs. 

Girls In Sport

Taylor says: “We encourage schools to work with girls that perhaps aren't engaged or work with girls that used to enjoy PE but no longer do or with girls who are lacking confidence and to encourage that as a group, working with a teacher, to consider what would make a difference to them and what opportunities would they like.”

It's an approach that works. Taylor gives an example of a school that was taking part in the Daily Mile challenge where students run or jog for 15 minutes each day. One group of girls didn’t feel comfortable joining in, so their PE teacher worked with them to develop a challenge of their own.

Instead each day they would go to the gym and collectively work towards their own goal, to reach the distance of a marathon on equipment like the running machine, rowing machine and bikes.

Other sports that tend to turn out as popular, says Taylor, are less common ones like dodgeball, ultimate frisbee, and cheerleading, creating a more equal playing field as they are new to everyone.

Even if not all the changes the students would ideally like to be made can be implemented, having the conversations can still have a huge impact: “It’s so important their views are heard. It might not be possible to be able to act upon everything, but meeting them halfway can help massively in terms of that relationship they might have with physical activity.” 

Surprisingly, Taylor says that they’ve found that elite athletes don’t tend to be the same sporting role models for girls as they are for boys. This is because “for some girls, they feel like they're a million miles away from that”. She cites This Girl Can as a crucial movement showing what normal women in sport look like.

As a result, Girls Active encourage PE teachers to work out the best role models for their students. Taylor says: “We encourage schools to think about friendship, and to think about how girls who perhaps are influential could make a positive difference with that peer group.”

Ultimately, Girls Active focus on PE because it can have repercussions long after students leave school. Taylor says: “Everything tells us that there's a positive association between physical literacy and levels of engagement and mental wellbeing and other skills.

“If we can make that a positive experience from a very early age then that continues through the likelihood sustaining their engagement.”

This is a shared ethos with Good Sports. Keswick says: “To keep them present on the field, we all must remind girls at an early age, that they are good enough to play."

Both women also agree that the changing landscape of women's sports could help reach more and more girls. 

Keswick says: “The impact from a group like the USWNT, or someone like a Serena Williams or a Sloane Stephens, creates these never-ending ripples.

"The power of the girl is growing, so we have to feed it.”

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