Girls’ participation in sport

Girls’ participation in sport

In recent news we have heard that more than 1 million girls who consider themselves ‘sporty’ at primary school lose interest in physical activity as teenagers. This is according to estimates based on a new survey carried out by Women in Sport. In its poll of more than 4,000 teenagers, 43% of girls no longer considered themselves as engaged in sport after moving to secondary school. This is a worrying statistic not only for engagement in sport but also for the health of our future generations.

Two young girls standing by a sports fence
"Having more female coaches in school sport can only offer an advantage for participation levels." - James Stirling, Fellow

Mental health research confirms that 1 in 4 people experience mental health issues in the UK each year. Exercise is an important preventative tool to help improve self-esteem, confidence and mental health. Post-pandemic, I feel there is an even greater need to retain young people in sport and exercise. More needs to be done to address the apparent retention issues demonstrated by Women in Sport.

In 2015, I undertook a Churchill Fellowship researching how Sweden, Denmark and Norway achieve their high engagement and retention rates for young people in sport. Since undertaking my Fellowship research, I have worked for a professional football club’s charitable arm to increase participation in sport for young people across south-west London and Surrey.

There are many complexities as to why young people drop out of sport, ranging from socio-economic difficulties to accessibility issues. However, recent studies have found it has become increasingly common for girls to disengage from sport due to fear of being judged. This accounted for 68% of girls surveyed, demonstrating the need to work at breaking down gender stereotypes in sport. It has been encouraging to see the success of women’s sports teams, such as the Lionesses’ 2019 World Cup, inspiring more young people to participate in sports. However, it seems retention is still proving to be challenging, which perhaps calls for a need to look at how models of retention are working.

One of the biggest contributors to retention is, unsurprisingly, enjoyment of sport. According to a recent survey by Women in Sport, among respondents aged between 11 and 16, “just 37% of girls enjoyed physical activity compared with 54% of boys. By age 17 to 18, just three in 10 girls would describe themselves as sporty, compared with six in 10 boys”. Ultimately, I feel this presents two questions. How can we retain enjoyment levels in sport? And, for those who fall out of love with a sport, how can we re-engage them into an alternative?

Reflecting on my Fellowship, one way that Scandinavia has achieved this is by offering taster sessions for young people across a variety of sports. The principle is based on engaging young people through taster sessions known as ‘roadshows’ and then signposting individuals into local, casual play clubs, which are free of charge. Sessions are centred around teaching the fundamentals, but focusing on participant enjoyment as a priority.

As children move into secondary school, perhaps this could be seen as an opportunity for school sport to consider ‘enjoyment focused’ sessions that remove some of the inter-school competition. This could prevent a pathway into competitive play for some, but also accommodate girls who want to enjoy the social, fun aspect of sport, such as they experienced in primary school.

Taster sessions across a wide variety of sports also present an opportunity for girls who disengage in sport to try something new. I feel it’s crucial for school networks to work with National Governing Bodies to deliver a variety of school sport.

In addition to judgement, concerns about self-belief and body image are found to be issues that all girls struggled with, and this was especially true for girls who had stopped taking part in sport and physical activity as they grew older, according to Women in Sport. Of previously ‘sporty’ girls, 73% said their dislike of others watching them was an obstacle to their taking part in exercise ­- which emphasises the importance of female-only clubs or private sessions. When providing after-school clubs, the environment should be tailored to accommodate girls who may feel self-conscious during exercise and participation in sport.

An interesting finding from my Fellowship was the pathway for young people into coaching or volunteer positions in sport. This presents an interesting angle for sport participation, and asks the question - how likely are young people to carry on practicing in sport, if it also becomes a place for volunteer work? Having more female coaches in school sport can only offer an advantage for participation levels. As seen with the Lionesses, seeing role models in sport encourages participation, which perhaps can also filter through the school system. By providing opportunities for pupils to volunteer in school sport, we can showcase positive role models for those in younger years to engage and participate.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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