In 2012, for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, all 205 participating nations entered female athletes and women competed in every sport. Female athletes were thrust into the public eye, and many people hoped this would create a legacy at a grassroots level, spurring more girls to get involved in sport. However, the record turnout of female sportswomen at elite levels has not yet trickled down into schools and wider society. Across the world, the figures show that almost without exception that women and girls are less likely to participate regularly in sport than men, and are missing out on numerous health benefits and acquiring vital life skills. According to the United Nations, girls who play sport are more likely to participate in school and society. When women and girls get used to winning on the playing field, they are more likely to step up in the classroom, the boardroom, and as leaders in society.
Playing sport develops strategic thinking, teamwork, self-confidence, and a sense of etiquette, as well as decreasing the risk of mental illness and use of drugs and alcohol, among other benefits. Girls need be nurturing these life skills through sport, just as boys do. So why is it often so difficult to get them to join in? While lots of girls are naturally sporty and love games, others admit to feeling hampered by insecurities such as a fear of being judged, which prevents them from exercising. Being the wrong size, the wrong shape, or not being fit enough, or skilled enough. Fear of becoming too muscular and looking unattractive to boys are all things that teenage girls worry too much about. We need to teach them to stop thinking like this, and to overcome these fears, so they too can reap the benefits of regular exercise from a young age and into adulthood. With renewed confidence in their abilities in sport, they can take on life’s challenges with more energy and reduce the risk of falling behind their male counterparts.
Sport provides girls with role models promoting valuable life lessons on and off the court. Compared to some of the vacuous celebrity images we see in today’s media, these strong women offer refreshing alternatives for young girls making sense of the world around them. The tennis players Maria Sharapova, Serena and Venus Williams (and Billie Jean King before them) all campaign for equal prize money for women in the game. Serena Williams, who has netted the highest amount of prize money in women’s tennis of all time, is refreshingly vocal about these issues, saying “I don’t deserve less because I have boobs” – a valuable statement for girls in all areas of life to hear. Female football (soccer) players such as Abby Wambach, two-time Olympic gold medalist and star player of the US Women’s National Soccer Team, have been debating with FIFA over whether the women’s World Cup will be played on turf like the men’s or on the less suitable AstroTurf, which they argue hampers the quality of their game. FIFA continues to act unreasonably on the issue, but the debate has drawn attention to sexism in sport at the highest levels, with politicians, lawyers and players demanding equal playing rights for men and women.
Girls involved in sport at lower levels are more likely to look up to these women and see examples of fighting spirit and real passion, talent and commitment. As a result they are more likely to tackle their own issues with more self-assurance and less timidity.
Creating strong role models for girls is important in the face of the image of the ‘perfect’ image of femininity that it makes them feel insecure about their own appearance. Girls who aspire to be stick thin with pretty makeup and hair, rather than exhibiting defined muscles and a red face, are unlikely to be turning up for field hockey practice. With appearance being one of the main reasons cited as to why teenage girls are slacking in sport, some campaigns are tackling these issues head on, debunking the traditional ideas about femininity that often hold girls back. The UK Lottery-funded“This Girl Can” campaign, showing girls working up a sweat cycling, dancing, running, spinning, climbing, orienteering, swimming and playing a whole array of sports with captions such as “Hot and not bothered”, and “I swim because I love my body, not because I hate it”, has been incredibly popular with young women, and is a refreshing new development. Another campaign, LikeAGirl from a feminine hygiene brand tackles similar issues about female self-confidence and women as traditionally weak. Some female celebrities are peddling the Twitter hashtag #FitNotThin to try and encourage girls to change their desire to be skinny to being healthy.
While all these battles around equality and appearance are being fought in the public eye, there are some great opportunities for girls to get involved in sport here in Switzerland. Holiday camps are a fantastic way to get girls running around in the sunshine with their friends. Often camps also employ older girls to help the professional coaches teach the younger girls, providing a good opportunity to mingle with different age groups. Girl-only sports camps can also be a good environment for girls to feel uninhibited and to work on their sports skills. At the same time, schools have a role to play. Often it is all too easy for girls to make their excuses and sit out P.E. lessons. There needs to be less tolerance for this at school, at the same time as offering a range of activities to suit girls at all levels of activity, so that they are not deterred from joining in. While we should be encouraging girls to get stuck into traditional field games, it may also be useful for schools to provide other options such as dance, cycling, or aerobics, so that they can try lots of different types of exercise and actively choose what works for them.
The earlier girls get involved in sport and the more enjoyment they gain from it, the more likely they are to keep up the habit later on. It is important to build physical activity into their lifestyles, both at school and in the holidays, as well as to tackle the potentially negative insecurities that can prevent them from playing. There is really no need to choose between being girly and attractive or powerful and ambitious – girls can be both. After all, in their spare time, Serena Williams is a qualified nail technician and Maria Sharapova designs Sugarpova sweets.