Coaching girls in sport: What the research says

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.

Keeping Girls in Sport coach training module

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.

Role models

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.

16 responses to “Coaching girls in sport: What the research says

  1. We are currently having this exact same conversation in our Kayak Club. We have an open discussion next week about how best to support a girls kayaking program that will not only encourage participation but foster growth in the competitive world.
    In one of the conversations with parents leading up to this meeting, one of the biggest concerns from parents was the fact that from 12-14, the point at which we are all seeing a huge drop in female participation, girls usually get their period and see huge changes chemically in their bodies. This is a challenge in a sport like kayaking because our athletes are on water all the time and often in locations where there is limited access to facilities like restrooms with running water.
    I find it interesting that this isn’t really covered as an issue in these types of discussions. We talk about body image and group dynamics but what about the emotional ups and downs of our female athletes monthly cycles.
    Thanks for the great article and we will definitely be looking for the next Jumpstart session in our area.

    1. Hi Brendan,
      Thanks for bringing this up. You make a very important point. To be clear, among coaches and in coach education, there is generally a good awareness of the “changes” that are happening for girls at this age with menstruation etc., but you are right — the tendency is to talk “around it” and not directly about it. I think it is, in large part, a function of our general reluctance as Canadians to talk about body functions openly. It shouldn’t be like this. Also, there tends to be some apprehension when it comes to male coaches having “authority” to talk about female bodies and physiological changes. Again, it shouldn’t be like this. If there are physiological changes taking place that have a bearing on the development of our young athletes, female or male, it should be talked about (in the right contexts, at the right time, etc.).

  2. Great article. I have coached both youth and Senior’s I.e. aged 60 plus. It takes a long time for the older women new to sport esp. to a team sport to overcome some of their negative experiences as youth. As a coach I find both age groups very coachable and fun. I’m saddened though that some of my older athletes initially approach our sport with such angst.

  3. So true, and so important to recognize. Female athletes are truly powerful. Their will, their determination, and their focus is unparalleled by their male peers. Their drive is motivated differently too. Love the insight! Thanks Coach.

  4. Unfortunately one element that was not covered in this article pertaining to drop out is the demand of the sport organization. It is interesting the author chose a swim pic as Swim Canada is one of the toughest sport orgs in the country.

    Swim Canada influences both provincial and national standard times. These get faster and faster every season which makes them unattainable for the vast majority. Swimming is more about personal best improvement over winning snd if swimmers dont see personal improvement, good coaching and team aside, they become demoralized and depressed with the cons outweighing the pros.

    Swimming is already an expensive sport and not all have access or ability to obtain professional level coaching in home communities which then serves to increase the cost by requiring the athlete to not only travel for competition but also for advanced training but only if they are deemed worth the effort by the coach accepting them.

    Swimmers are among the youngest athletes at the Canada Games level. Females are 16yrs old max and have a very narrow window. Swim Canada seems like it is only interested in supporting and promoting the elite and those showing potential for the Olympics.

    Competition groupings are good until 15 when it becomes 15 and over meaning a physically immature 15 yr old girl is competing against 21+yr old uni students.

    We are in the demoralized state right now with a 17 yr old female who attended 2017 Summer Games, has plateaud and seems unable to overcome and achieve provincial or national times she desires. Swimming is no longer fun…has lost many teammates…despite great coach….afraid she may not persist as making Varsity where she wants to go is unobtainable at this time.

    1. So true! As a fellow swim mom, I echo your concerns. The post 15 year old drop out rate for girls is high in our club. In addition to Swim Canada/Ontario structure of qualifying times that get faster yearly even when they are supposedly set for 3 year re-evaluation intervals, top level performance coaches don’t seem to know how to support continued engagement of girls at this age. At least that is my experience over the past 10 years. Wishing my daughter chose a different sport to devote her time and energy to!

    2. Good point — some sport organizations are much more demanding than others, and this is definitely a factor. As for most community sports that girls enter into, it’s not generally the competition demands that drive them out of the sport, but the social and relationship aspects. Swimming is a bit of a different animal. Your daughter’s situation may be highlighting a more fundamental issue with the system of competition in her sport, and how it relates to “talent identification”. These are very complex issues and somewhat beyond the scope of the basic factors that I am presenting in the article above. I wish I could provide some advice in the swimming context, but again, it’s a different animal.

  5. Grew up with two older sisters who played sports, I have two daughter, one a soccer player and one a runner, and been coaching girls soccer for 12 years – you’re bang on Coach Jim.

    1. Thanks, Graham — I am glad that my comments resonate with you. I also have two daughters who have grown up in sport (badminton, basketball), and I have coached girls soccer for several years. I have had the chance to witness everything that the research talks about, so I find the Keeping Girls in Sport training module a very welcome resource.

    1. Ah, yes! Exactly. If we are serious about promoting physical activity — and this includes developing elite athletes as well — the secret is to know each individual and really address their needs and goals. Not the “needs” and “goals” of the adults.

  6. This article provides fantastic insight for anyone involved in coaching girls. I have two daughters and I encourage them both to continue in sports, however, we face many challenges, particularly with my oldest. We have found that pushing her in organized team sports doesn’t help us promote a love of physical activity. It sometimes has the opposite effect. We generally have better luck with individual-based sports without a competitive edge to keep her moving. Great article.

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