From a sporting standpoint, the thing I enjoy most about coaching girls is the fact that they listen. They listen because they want to get it right. Getting it right is important because they want to be socially accepted, and in their early years of participation, social acceptance is their number one reason for getting involved in a sport.
I have observed this for the past 20 years. And you know what? This is precisely what the research says.
Recently I completed the Keeping Girls in Sport coach training module from Canadian Tire Jumpstart so I could share information about it. The program quoted a lot of research as to why girls play sports, what makes them stay, and why they quit. I’m going to outline some of the research because it’s good stuff to share with all parents and coaches.
Girls drop out in grades 6-8
By age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at approximately twice the rate of boys. According to data from a study published by the Women’s Sports Foundation, the dropout rate for girls sharply increases between grades 6-8. The dropout rates equalize again for boys and girls afterwards, but unfortunately, most of the damage has already been done. This is why parents and coaches need to recognize this time as being critical for keeping girls in sport.
Why girls drop out
According to Keeping Girls in Sport, the four main reasons that girls leave sports are the time commitment, cost, injuries, and not having fun. Coaches and parents don’t necessarily have control over the time commitment and the cost to play a sport, but they certainly have some control over mitigating the injury risks, and they have a lot of control over whether or not a sport or activity is fun.
What makes sport fun for girls?
As reported in the Keeping Girls in Sport program, the top three factors that make sport fun for girls are positive team dynamics, trying hard, and positive coaching. Winning hardly rates. Positive team dynamics are about camaraderie and feeling a sense of acceptance and belonging. When girls feel less than accepted or supported, they drop out. Conversely, when girls feel accepted and valued, they try hard and perform well. This is more or less the opposite of boys, who generally aim to perform well so they can gain social acceptance. Positive coaching is basically about creating a welcoming, supportive, and even inspiring sport environment.
Understanding positive coaching
According to girls, what are the components of positive coaching? The research says that girls value coaches who treat them with respect, encourage the team, communicate clearly, and know a lot about their sport. This includes allowing girls to make mistakes, staying positive, listening to their opinions, being friendly, and providing positive feedback. Girls also enjoy when coaches joke around and participate in the practice activities. Coaches and parents who are consumed with winning, please take note.
Coaching that isn’t positive
In light of what makes up positive coaching, it’s not hard to understand what positive coaching is not. Showing favouritism to some athletes, ignoring others, and shaming individuals to motivate them to perform are big mistakes. Demanding perfection with no tolerance for error or failure is another. If these things seem obvious to some readers, understand that a lot of coaches still behave this way. Hopefully they’re not coaching your daughter (or your son either).
Struggles with body image and identity
Is it any surprise that body image is another reason that girls drop out of sport? Keeping Girls in Sport points out that girls are constantly exposed to sexualized media images of women, including women in sport, and it impacts their perception of themselves as athletes. There’s a long history of sports encouraging female athletes to look sexy, and while progress has been made in rejecting these types of pressures, the tendency to sexualize female athletes remains. All of this puts pressure on girls who might not have the type of body that conforms to media images of what constitutes an “attractive” female athlete.
The Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) also maintains that “discrimination based on the real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity of female athletes persists.” As a consequence, some girls may experience bullying and social isolation simply because they choose to play a sport. That’s patently wrong.
The WSF points out that positive female athlete role models can make a big difference. To help girls stay engaged in sport, researchers and women’s sport advocates agree that we need to provide young girls with more images of confident, strong female athletes who are finding fulfilment and success in sport regardless of their sexual orientation or whether or not they are “sexy.”
This is what the research says about keeping girls in sport and physical activity. The data is solid, and it deserves to be understood by everyone involved in youth sports. If you are a club or organization that provides programs to girls, I encourage you to check out the Keeping Girls in Sport online training module and think about mandating it to your coaches and leaders. If you are a parent with a daughter, read more tips to help her develop a love of physical activity.
Here’s to keeping more of our girls happy, healthy, and active.