Sport

With the number of young girls dropping out of sport already alarmingly high, will the impacts of the coronavirus lead to even fewer female participants? By Linda Pearce.

Teenage girls quitting sport

Girls from the Melbourne Tigers under 16s/15s basketball team watch their teammates on court.
Credit: Melbourne Tigers

As Australian states gradually sanction a return to organised sport – with New South Wales announcing a full resumption at community level from July 1 – frustration is growing among those whose competitions remain in limbo due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Coupled with the obvious financial impact on clubs and associations are the potential social and health consequences, including among a segment of society with an already low retention rate: teenage girls.

Research shows about half of all females in their teens taking part in sport will drop out by the age of 15 – and that was before coronavirus became an unwelcome new player in the participation game. With the impact of the pandemic on activity levels and numbers still as uncertain as restart dates in Victoria and other states, will young women be the biggest losers as resources dwindle? And how many teens whose commitment was already wavering will take this enforced break and then run, or at least walk, the other way?

“It’s a big risk, because you get out of the habit,” says Netball Victoria chief executive Rosie King, whose organisation is among those agitating for a return to play at community level as the Super Netball national league prepares to resume on August 1. “The risk of not running a competition or keeping them connected to your club is that you just may lose them out of sport forever – and that age group in particular.”

Dr Helen Brown, a senior lecturer at Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition who has devoted much of her research focus to girls in sport, shares the concern. “It’s going to have a big impact,” she says of the Covid-19 fallout. “I think every club is going to have to think of strategies to bring girls back into the fold and hope that they’ll continue.”

Brown’s fear is not so much for the welfare of those at the pointy end, as the cynic within the Melbourne-based academic insists that the AFLW, for example, has invested too much in its four-year-old national league to allow it to fail. The “subelite” level is a greater concern, she says, as the effects of job losses and straitened financial circumstances pinch. “We’re going to have to think carefully,” warns Brown. “We’re going to have to consider reducing costs of registration and membership. Uniforms, for example. Why not just wear $10 Target leggings instead of having to buy expensive uniforms? These are all things we’ll have to think about.”

Of course, as Brown points out, the problems will exist for boys, too, yet the reality of pre-Covid life included a comparative quitting rate of closer to 30 per cent for 15-year-old boys than the 50 per cent for girls. According to last year’s Suncorp Australian Youth Confidence Report, 17-year-old males also played an extra hour of organised sport each week than females of the same age. The silver lining: girls’ activity overall was superior due to exercise preferences such as walking, fitness workouts at gyms, Pilates and yoga classes.

Even the statistics are problematic, though, according to Brown, given the dependence of major Australian surveys on the relevance of the questions, and whether parents or children answer them. “The [study] percentages [for sport and physical activity] are not great and, unfortunately, they’re actually a lot higher than what they might really be,” says Brown. “There’s just this blurring of the lines, so I would say that we’re over-representing the number, which is even more of a concern.”

The decline begins even earlier than the end of the primary school years – both here and abroad. Sport England’s 2018 Active Lives survey reported that girls as young as seven were already reporting less enjoyment and positive attitude towards physical education and sport. That study mirrored the AusPlay findings that females in this age bracket feel less competent and confident; perceptions that become even more entrenched by adolescence, where there are additional and complex social, cultural and biological factors influencing activity. And this diminished involvement comes with both a health and a social cost.

“Many girls have a lack of confidence, perceive that they have a lack of skills in playing, and very very poor thoughts about their body image – they’re the three biggest factors,” says Brown. “The worst day in netball was when they said, ‘You all have to wear bodysuits.’ So we set up a lot of barriers to these poor girls.” Another study of year 7 girls exposed a lack of fundamental motor skills, such as throwing and catching, which Brown blames on negative attitudes during formative years, and the entrenched stereotype in many Australian households that, really, sport is something boys play.

 

A Friday night at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre in 2016. A selection trial for the 14-and-under Melbourne Tigers’ representative girls’ teams to contest the upcoming Victorian Junior Basketball League season. As the wannabe Lauren Jacksons and Penny Taylors gather with their parents for an address by club officials, it’s clear the numbers are not adding up.

A shortage of courts and coaches means there will be a maximum of six 14-and-under teams – that is, places for 60 players. More than 80 have registered for the tryouts, with those already at the club given priority. Thus, at a critical age and stage to try to retain teenage girls’ interest and participation, 20-plus will miss out, and perhaps be lost to basketball forever. Already there are disgruntled parents. Soon there will be tears.

Three-and-a-half years later, the same club has managed to provide a seventh team at 14-and-under level, to add to a record sixth in the 16s age group. Yet that is where the participation dropoff really begins. In the 18s cohort, which includes my own sports-obsessed daughter, there are just three teams. The equivalent Tigers boys’ number is steady at 10. No surprise there.

Still, the contrast is something that regularly exercises the mind of Tony Jackson, director of coaching at the Melbourne Tigers Girls’ Basketball Club. From the four- to six-year-olds in Tiny Tigers through to the members of the NBL One (formerly the SEABL) team, there are about 270 girls and women involved in the program, for which limited training recently resumed. So, even acknowledging the impact of study demands, part-time jobs and the like, why, in their mid-teens, do so many more girls than boys drift away?

Coaching has a lot to do with it, Jackson believes, and providing a safe place in which girls are encouraged, supported and given the chance to make mistakes. If self-esteem is waning outside the court/field/pitch, it tends to be exacerbated inside a competitive training and playing environment, says Jackson, who has noted how few girls enjoy being singled out among their peers, even as the subject of praise. He says different approaches depending on gender are needed. “Boys need to do a new skill or shoot a three-pointer or hit the game-winning shot or whatever, and that will make them feel good about themselves,” says Jackson. “Girls need to feel very very confident and good about themselves first before they’ll even try anything new and step out of their comfort zone to where they’ll be exposed or highlighted and put on display.”

Jackson also notes that poor behaviour by others, both on court and off, can have an impact. “When I talk to girls who don’t play basketball anymore, they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t really enjoy it because the coach yelled and screamed a lot, or all the parents were yelling and screaming, or the girls were always arguing with the referees.’ ”

Yet the former WNBL assistant coach, state-level head coach and international-level referee also fears what the bigger financial picture for women’s sport will look like post-pandemic. It was barely three months ago that the advances at the elite level were amplified by the noise of a record-breaking 86,174 spectators at the MCG for the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup final. This reflected the increased interest in, and media coverage of, leagues such as the WBBL, AFLW and Super Netball. But if the AFL is crying poor, will those who have traditionally been sport’s poor relations also be reaching for the tissue box?

“As cost-cutting comes into place, I think a lot of women’s sports are going to be casualties,” says Jackson. “It’s taken two decades for women’s sport to attract sponsors and for the general mass media to take a risk and punt on it, but I think that will probably go right back to ground zero.” The priority, he thinks, will and should be to rebuild playing numbers from the base back up. That will include teenagers, for whom the normality of declining participation continues to be nothing new.

Commonwealth Games gold medallist Bianca Chatfield, who at age 32 retired from international netball in 2014 with 59 Test caps, is quick to recognise the benefits of pursuing sport during her teenage years. “Playing a sport distracts you from being bored or potentially getting into environments that aren’t safe or aren’t good for you,” she says. “[As a teenager] you certainly aren’t thinking about going out drinking on the weekends, because you’ve got sport, and that’s your main priority.”

Fortunately for Australian netball, Chatfield didn’t call full-time on her sporting career in her early teens. An age when, unfortunately, so many girls do.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 13, 2020 as "Not going the distance".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Linda Pearce is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.