New to the sports team at the Winnipeg Free Press, I thought I should first introduce myself. My name is Andrea Katz, and I have a long-standing passion for the topic of girls and women in sports. Growing up I participated in martial arts, a heavily male-dominated sport that taught me so much about life and myself. It truly helped shape the person I am today by giving me an undying spark for health and fitness, which has led me to become an advocate for girls and women in sport in our province.
As co-founder of FIT Women and Girls with my sister Allison Gervais, we have been on a mission to grow participation rates for girls in sport in Winnipeg for many years. This column will be dedicated to the events, stories, ideologies, athletes and coaches that are doing incredible things when it comes to females in sport both locally and nationally.
The issues facing girls and women in sport are real, and I’m here to talk about it one boxing ring, hockey rink and football field at a time.
I recently participated in a virtual conference series that brought together leading experts on girls and women in sport to discuss some of the issues that face this demographic as it relates to sport in our country.
Staying involved, or participating at all, was a top topic. One in three girls drop out of sport by the time they reach their teenage years, compared to one in 10 boys. Sixty-two per cent of girls don’t play sports at all. And if by the age of 10 a girl is not involved in sport, she has less than a 10 per cent chance of being an active adult.
So, why play? When we look at the statistics around girls in sport, those who play do better in school, have higher self-confidence, are healthier physically and mentally both short and long-term, and have higher levels of success professionally as adults. Girls also learn how to win and lose, how to be a part of a team, time management skills, adversity, and the list goes on for real world skills.
But when you ask girls why they play, you hear the same answer over and over and it has nothing to do with the list of transferable adult skills. It is simple — because it is FUN.
Simple enough, and isn’t that what the goal for kids should be when it comes to sports and activity? But if it is so fun, why are girls leaving in droves before they reach the age of 13? Unfortunately, the conversations and language we use around sport participation for girls is much different than we do for boys. According to Addie Miles, manager of female player development with the Rink Training Centre, this is part of the problem.
When we speak to girls about sport, we talk about sport being "just for fun," ‘to get an education" and to "stay fit and make friends." While all of these statements are true and great for kids, they miss the net when it comes to talking about competition and progression in sport. That seems to be reserved for the boys.
What can we do as parents, coaches and role models to increase participation and continue the pursuit of sports for girls? We need to start acting like they are never going to leave. Let’s start talking about progression in the sport, what the next level looks like, what an action plan looks like to pursue their goals. Let’s stop talking about boys’ programming as the level up from girls’ when it comes to both athletic play and coaching. Let’s learn the names of a few female athletes we can throw into the next water cooler chat when talking hockey or basketball. Let’s rewrite the terminology to encourage growth as an athlete and that it’s not "just for fun."
With all of that said, it is also important to really listen to the girls when they tell us why they are there and what they want. We know that girls are looking for a social piece when it comes to sport participation. Girls want to be respected before they compete, whereas boys compete to be respected.
If we want to grow the game, we have to have women in leadership roles for girls to see in the arena. According to Jon Rempel, head coach of the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey team, each individual sport needs to make a conscious effort to be better at this. Making a more inclusive environment for the girls to come to at every practice and every game is key.
Jennifer Botterill, who was a member of the Canadian women’s hockey team for 14 years and played in four Olympic Games, knows full well the strength it takes to be in a male-dominated sport. She stresses how important it is for girls in sport to feel connected with their team, but also finding that self-connection and pride. Ensuring girls understand this and feel that sense of connection is key to increased participation and lowering dropout rates in sport.
Miles, Rempel and Botterill all discussed the need for unconditional support to girls from parents and coaches when it comes to sport participation longevity. This means providing opportunities in a variety of sports, making it fun, keeping them engaged and honing in on the concepts of progression and competition.
Competition doesn’t have to always mean being the alpha dog on the team or even the best on the team. What’s most important is striving for your personal best every time you walk onto the court, step in the ring or jump on the ice.