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by Kathryn Heathers
As a girl with a passion for sport, it has always been a key part of my life from an early age, but it’s always interested me as to whether that’s the same for everyone else and, if not, why not.
To me, sport seems to provide just about everything: enjoyment, physical activity, a sense of belonging to something and working with others to achieve a common goal. Obviously it’s not always perfect and there are plenty of occasions where things don’t go to plan, but learning those lessons is, in itself, an important part of the journey.
Whether it’s as a participant or a spectator, I think sport has the power to unite and create opportunities for just about everyone.
Like a lot of other people, I’ve been following the success of the England women’s football team in recent years. In just the last ten years, the team has gone from being regularly eliminated at the group stage of tournaments to reaching three major semi-finals and building steadily to hosting the European Championships in 2022 (after being postponed from 2021 due to the pandemic).
At the same time, women’s football in England has boomed – the establishment of the Women’s Super League has created a sustainable professional league in this country at last, which has allowed girls from this country to play against and alongside some of the best in the world, helping accelerate their own development.
This has finally provided girls and women from England with actual idols and heroes they can look up to, role models they can follow in the footsteps of and believe genuinely that they can chase their dreams.
With that in mind, I’ve really enjoyed following the England Women’s team in their build up to the 2021 Euros (in 2022) and qualifying for the 2023 World Cup, to the point where I’ve even been able to take my two young daughters to a live match, which ended up in an impressive win for England.
However, this got me thinking about the impact of women’s sport and how much it actually reaches people – just how visible is female sport and how much has it improved over the years?
Taking an admittedly small sample size, if I asked my daughters how many sports they have watched on TV, I think they’d probably only be able to name one – football – which is because, as a fan myself, I’ve encouraged them to watch it. In my opinion, this gives them female role models playing a sport that they can actively participate in.
But how much does this connection stretch to other sports and activities? How much focus and attention does female sport get and is it something that is widely available to all?
There’s no doubt that in recent years, mainstream broadcasters like the BBC, ITV and Sky have taken steps to show more women’s sport and to make it more accessible with primetime slots.
Returning to the example of football, coverage of the England team’s recent qualifying campaign and the landmark deal to bring the Women’s Super League to terrestrial TV has created a spike in interest and encouraged girls to try out the sport for the first time. I can include my eldest in those figures, as it was after experiencing a live football match that she made the decision to start training with our local under-10 team.
But what about sports with less coverage available and those which are underrepresented that girls may prefer to participate in or watch? Do we – and they – even know what they are?
During the summer, the Olympics and Paralympics were fantastic for shining a light on a whole range of exciting and engaging sports for all kinds of people. A couple of my personal favourite moments were watching Charlotte Worthington win gold in the BMX at the third and final attempt after a couple of dramatic falls as well as 13-year-old Sky Brown’s bronze medal in the skateboarding – the main highlight of which was seeing the competitors, all young girls, supporting each other and celebrating together despite competing for the honours.
Add to that British success in more ‘traditional’ sports, such as cycling, swimming and athletics, and it’s easy to see that female sport has huge range of opportunities for just about anyone with the interest, passion and energy – girls just need a way in or an introduction.
And then there’s the sports or activities that we might not even know about yet – all the action sports that recently became part of the Olympics started somewhere. It’s tempting for those of us who are parents, teachers or working in education and sport to try and prescribe something to young people because that’s what we know or trust, but how about empowering the girls themselves to find out what they and their peers want to do for sport, for fun and let them run with it?
To get the most sustainable and all-encompassing programme for girls and young women to participate in competitive sport, it makes sense to throw it to the girls themselves. If we can give them the encouragement and the tools to learn why there aren’t more girls taking part in sport, then they can also take the next step and start to develop opportunities and events that appeal to their friends and peers.
At SLQ Sports Leaders, we believe that girls should be given more of a platform to express their views about sport, which should then be acted on to create more opportunities. As these chances grow, we can then go to greater lengths to celebrate participation and representation, developing role models and ambassadors for female sport. It’s a virtuous circle that encourages girls to look up to those icons and believe they can follow in their steps.
If you can see it, you can be it.
Kathryn Heathers is the Market Development Manager for SLQ Sports Leaders and leads a number of our projects and programmes aimed at developing the skills of young people and encouraging them to participate in sport at a variety of levels. Get in touch with Kathryn via Twitter: @SLQskillsKH
Categories for this post: Female Sport
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