What we can do to promote women’s sport

We all know the many benefits of exercise for girls and boys. The Women’s Sports Foundation recently reported that girls who play sports are more likely to have better grades and better psychological wellbeing, and the article even went as far as linking active sporting habits with lower teen pregnancy rates.

And, in terms of gender, it has been most heartening in recent times to see the growing profile of women’s sport in our community. All Saints’ College’s Head of Health and Physical Education, Oliver Beath, has been coaching top level women’s Australian Rules Football for many years and welcomes the launch of the first season of the AFL Women’s Competition (AFLW), but says it’s about time!

 

Oliver Beath with an All Saints’ College female football enthusiast

 

I love sport and my favourite is Australian Rules Football. I played from five years old, right through until I was 18, however being 4 foot nothing tall, and not the quickest player going around, I didn’t think I had a big future as an AFL star!

Instead, I turned to coaching as it allowed me to combine a love of sport with my experience as a teacher, and I have enjoyed this direction for more than 17 years. I love coaching both sexes, however I have been fortunate enough to be selected to coach representative female football sides over the past 10 years, including the Western Australian State 15s Female AFL Team.

Young women have always been involved in football, however until recently they have never been recognised as ‘real’ players. It was looked at by most as a novelty and something they could do just for fun. While other high level sports such as basketball, tennis, soccer, cricket, hockey and water polo (to name a few) have recognised high-level female athletes for some time, football has been afraid to do so. Here I was, coaching young females who had elite skills for their age, yet there was no elite future for them to dream about. How was this fair, I often thought? It was a travesty that young people who were so passionate about their chosen sport, working incredibly hard on their skills and understanding of the game, had no room to showcase their abilities on a national stage.

This problem is part of a wider and complex issue regarding girls and sport. We know that participation rates for young women drop at approximately two to three times the rate of males, once they hit the age of 14. There have been numerous studies dedicated to understanding why this is happening, however from my experience there are four key reasons:

  • Competitive sport is still seen as ‘unfeminine’ or ‘un-ladylike’ by some sections of the community.
  • Coverage of female sport in the media is abysmal compared to their male counterparts, so role models can often be hard to find.
  • Girls often need encouragement to play organised and competitive sport, whereas boys seems to get involved without prompting. Also, young women will sometimes need a teacher or trusted adult to encourage them to give it a go and to let them know that they are capable of playing and enjoying it.
  • Girls usually want to be more social and feel a connection with their team mates, so will often struggle to join teams unless their friends or social group is involved too.

We understand the health benefits of physical fitness and how positive being involved in a team activity can be, so it is important that we look at the issues facing young women when wanting to get involved in competitive sport. It might seem hard to imagine how any one individual can help do this when it appears to be a broader societal problem, however, we can all support this change in three key ways:

  1. Reducing the stigma associated with girls being involved in competitive sport.

We must break these barriers down and this needs to occur right from when girls start playing sport. Sport teaches people to be strong, confident and resilient and helps them develop skills of communication, cooperation and leadership. What difference does it make which sex is playing? We need to look at the benefits of our girls playing sport and celebrate them wanting to play, not judge them. This can be done at school during Physical Education (PE) classes – especially when the classes are coeducational. Ask the PE staff at your child’s school how they are helping to promote more inclusiveness in their sporting curriculum. If they aren’t, then get it on their radar!

  1. Raising the profile of elite women athletes.

Elite women athletes do amazing things. Watching Erin Phillips play during the AFLW Grand Final was awesome. It doesn’t matter that she is female – what’s important is that she is talented. Many Australians remember watching Cathy Freeman win the 400m gold medal – how inspiring! We need to promote these female athletes and get as many role models as possible to visit clubs and schools to inspire the next generation. Each of us can play a part in this by simply taking the time to ‘like’ or ‘share’ stories about successful female athletes on social media. Seek out some of their team pages and share their successes with your friends. You can help to ‘normalise’ competitive women’s sport.

  1. Encourage our girls to get involved.

From my experience, girls often need a positive word or a gentle push to get involved in competitive sport. Give the girls in your life that encouragement and support them to be engaged in competitive sport. Show an interest in their sporting life, as females tend to need more positive reinforcement to take the plunge at competitive sport than boys. Expose them early and often to a range of sporting pursuits and, as they mature, only push them towards something they enjoy. This will create longevity.

 

I have loved watching the AFLW and it has been rewarding to see many former girls that I have coached now playing for the AFLW teams. Speaking to them about their experiences has confirmed for me how right the decision to fast-track the AFLW has been. These young girls now have more role models to look up to and if that helps keep girls in sport, with all the benefits that come with that, then that is a huge tick.

If we collectively take the time to do these three important but simple things, I am certain that we will see more young women forge a path ahead in their chosen sporting field. I also have no doubt that this will have positive outcomes for society as a whole.

 

All Saints’ College male and female students sharpening their football skills.