Iffat Ara Parveen shouted at her fellow male team member to kick the soccer ball high and far, and headed the ball just outside the goal line to score a goal.
Then she gleefully ran around to do a series of high-fives with her other sweaty and grimy teammates (a curious mix of girls and boys from different parts of the country) on the playground. Iffat is among 15 young women, doing their Master’s programme, who were part of a sports education course at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru last year.
One of the key objectives of this course was to evaluate the impact of sports on socio-emotional skills, a sense of self-efficacy of the participants — especially uninitiated girls who hadn’t or couldn’t participate in sports meaningfully in their pre-teens or adolescent years. Getting to play did not come easy to many of these young women when they were growing up. They had to face plenty of resistance and prejudices at home and outside to be able to continue to play. Many of them also came to believe erroneously that they were not meant for sports, or worse still — that they can never learn the fundamental skills enough to be able to participate in sports meaningfully.
A recent finding indicates that over 75% of school children in the country stop participating in any organised sport or physical activity by the time they enter middle-school or adolescent years. The data is more acute for pre-teen and adolescent girls, even as global participation of young women in sports is increasing. There is enough research around the world affirming what we already know: girls who play, grow up healthier, stronger, and more confident. Sporty girls can handle their emotions far better and have a stronger sense of self than their peers who do not play. They also have a far better chance at staying fit as they grow older, or being a late mother if they so choose, and starting healthy and physically active families.
The sharp decrease in the physical activity levels of adolescent girls has serious implications not just on their individual long-term health and emotional wellbeing, but also on the health and resilience of our society as a whole. So why do girls stop playing — especially as they enter adolescent years? A study that has been has done with over 1,50,000 girls across the country in the past 7 years observed that there are three main factors that inhibit or constrain participation of girls in sports: Gender scripts: As girls get older, they tend to identify more rigidly with the stereotype that ‘sports is not feminine’. Lack of appropriate role models in their close proximity (mothers, older female siblings), and misplaced beliefs such as: “if girls played in the sun they will get dark” or “getting sweaty and messy is only for boys”, add to this scripting.
Social conditioning: Many of us do not involve girls proactively in watching, talking or celebrating sports at home — and it’s not a surprise that many of them grow up without feeling the excitement of sport in their hearts and minds. Also to blame are the kind of gifts we buy for our girls (in contrast with boys) and the lifestyle we offer them through our mostly sedentary family events and outings.
Inadequate sporting skills: It is a fact that most of our pre-teens grow up without learning fundamental sports skills in a structured fashion in the school system — unlike Maths, Science or English. Lack of fundamental skills creates a feeling of ‘ineptness on the playground’ in the minds of these children — which inhibits their participation in sports in the middle-school years or limits their ‘play’ or physical activity to private confines with a very limited set of friends.
If you noticed, the first two reasons outlined above are largely cultural and require slightly broader course correction — perhaps at a societal level – while the third is technical, and can be fixed relatively easily as part of our education or school system. Accordingly, I would like to offer a few actions or ‘fixes’ from experience that have made significant impact in getting girls to play:
Positive sporting experience
Getting a positive sporting experience is a pre-requisite every time a child steps out to play, for her to sustain the idea of sport. Creating a structured fundamental skill building programme (which is an essential part of the school curriculum, especially in early and primary years), playing with friends with equitable skills, and lastly, inclusive ‘play sessions’ that leave the child with the feeling that they are ‘improving’ with each passing session builds an ongoing engagement with sport. Socio-emotional skills
Focussing on the competitive part of sport, especially early on, could bring disenchantment in many children. It is far effective to position overall socio-emotional development of the child as a broad goal (and competitive sport becomes but one part of this plan, which can be pursued whenever the child is ready) in any physical activity or sports programme.
Providing a familiar and encouraging context around sports right in our homes helps overcome gender-related stereotypes. Dinner table conversations that include sports, watching, talking and celebrating sports in our homes, family outings and birthday parties anchored around physical activity for all, offering sports equipment or relevant props as gifts — all help reduce gender stereotypes.
Iffat was lucky to get a positive start by getting to learn fundamental sports skills in her early years due to a highly supportive family and positive role models at home, which made her confident enough to get out and play more, realise how sport was helping her become stronger and socially confident — and more importantly — to overcome the prejudices and adversities that only a girl can face on the playground. And end up with a lifelong love for sport.
(The author is co-founder & head of business, EduSports)