By Jessica Pinchbeck
‘I used to love playing netball at school’ is the standard response I get when I happen to mention to a female friend or colleague that at the age of 34 I still play netball. This response is typically followed by a few minutes of reminiscing about their school experiences and what position they enjoyed playing. However when it is suggested that they join a local club or come to a training session, among the all too familiar barriers of time and family commitments, I have frequently observed a lack of confidence and even fear of taking the plunge to return to sport . For many women I talk to there appears to be something scary and intimidating about playing competitive sport and it is possible that this mind-set is contributing to the current figures and insight on female participation in sport. However, where does this ‘mind-set’ come from and what else might hinder a woman’s involvement?
It is quite well known that there are fewer women participating in sport in the UK. Indeed, the latest Sport England (2015) research shows that 40.9% of men play sport at least once a week, compared to 30.3% of women, but 75% of women would like to participate more, so what might the barriers be and how can we increase the number of women playing sport?
Campaigning and role models
Sport England are investing £10 million in national campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’ and £2 million to extend local campaigns such as ‘I Will if You Will’ to attempt to close the gender gap that exists in sport participation. Close to my own heart is the ‘Back to Netball’ campaign where over 60,000 women have taken part since 2010. Netball has seen increases in participation in England each year in all age groups of the Sport England Active People Survey, showing a more positive outlook moving in the right direction. The weekly TV coverage of the Netball Superleague on Sky Sports has helped to raise the profile of our top netballers such as Pamela Cookey and sisters Kadeen and Sasha Corbin to provide positive role models for women, but its reach is limited to those who subscribe to Sky. With the growth of netball and England’s recent Europe Championship win more media attention needs to be given to women’s sport to promote these positive female role models more widely.
Not only do national campaigns and media coverage need more development and attention to raise the profile of women’s sport to inspire participation, there is also a need to address the logistical, financial and emotional support required for many women to play sport at any level. Family responsibilities can often take precedence because women are still typically regarded as the main caregivers.
The importance of family
Parents provide the early opportunities for children to be active and a child’s experiences of sport and their enjoyment of it are often shaped by the family influences which determine participation later in life. In a research project on 1507 pupils aged 8-16 years the influence of the family played a central role in the children’s attitudes towards sport and physical activity. There are also certain stages in life where participation is most vulnerable. For teenagers family support is essential to maintaining participation at what are termed ‘key transition phases’ with the transition from childhood to adulthood being a crucial risk time for dropout. In a study investigating girls and young women’s participation in physical activity the majority of participants who always played sport lived in households where parents and siblings also regularly participated in sport, with many examples of family members acting as role models. Therefore the importance of the family in encouraging and supporting girls to play sport is a key strategy to ensure the future generation of women continue to participate into adulthood.
Similarly at certain phases during adulthood participation is ‘at risk’ such as moving into full time work and having children. At times such as this encouragement and support from family to help balance work and life commitments is essential to being able to maintain participation. Playing competitive sport is less flexible than other fitness pursuits such as going to the gym and so an extra layer of organisation and commitment is often required. This is where a good support network is invaluable to maintaining participation.
So for me encouraging more women to play sport requires two key strategies in addition to the national campaigns and media hype. The first is to educate parents on the importance of providing opportunities and positive sports experiences for their daughters growing up to ensure continued participation later on in life. This will ensure that women’s sport plays a key part in future generations. The second is to inspire and empower women to seek much needed support to help overcome the barriers of work and life commitments that often prevent competitive sport participation. If we get both of these right then surely more women will feel inspired and supported to play competitive sport throughout all of life’s more difficult transitions.