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Beyond Traditional Sport:

The Benefits of Informal Sports for Young Women

Beyond Traditional Sport:

The Benefits of Informal Sports for Young Women

By Professor Holly Thorpe, University of Waikato

The physical and social benefits of participating in organized, competitive sports are well known. Not only can a young person develop physical skills and competencies, but also important social skills such as teamwork, leadership and work ethic. My research over the past 15 years, however, clearly shows the many benefits of informal sports participation, including action sports such as surfing, skateboarding, climbing, mountain biking, BMX riding, and parkour.

In my book co-edited with Dr Rebecca Olive, Women in Action Sport Cultures, we brought together 30 international researchers, with the various projects highlighting the many social and physical pleasures, skills and competencies of girls and women participating in informal action sport cultures and communities. Yet many sports organizations and parents continue to lean on familiar arguments about the ‘benefits’ of organized sports, without fully considering or understanding the value of girls and young women’s participation in informal physical activities. Here I offer some key reasons why sports organizations, providers and parents should reconsider informal sports as highly beneficial for girls and young women.

In contrast to organized sports such as soccer and basketball, many informal and action sports are not based on head-to-head competition. Rather than winning, the core motivation is participation and individual skill development, whether this is learning how to ollie a skateboard, paddle into and glide across the unbroken face of a wave, navigate a Grade 3 mountain bike trail, or finishing a complex breaking (break dancing) sequence in your backyard with the music blaring. In this way, these informal sports offer unique opportunities for girls and young women to gain a sense of achievement without having to compete against, and beat, another opponent. Rather, participants can learn alongside one another and gain a sense of accomplishment based on their own skill development. When appropriately supported, informal sports can offer ample opportunities for individual empowerment through skills mastery (e.g., co-ordination, balance), as well as valuable social skills (e.g., communication, sharing of social space, understanding difference, social connection and belonging).

Another key difference is the organizational structures within informal sporting cultures. Many traditional sports have coaches that organize training, motivating players and providing feedback. While coaches are becoming more common in some action sports in response to recent Olympic inclusion of surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing (and more to come), peer mentoring remains the most common mode of learning. In this way, the peer group provides important feedback, support and motivation as girls and young women learn new skills together. The peer group organizes times to meet and participate together, and there is much joy for young women in having autonomy over their own sporting and fitness practices in terms of when, where and with whom they participate.

Group of rangatahi women doing a dance on a court

Most organized sports also require referees to control the play and discipline the players on the field. In contrast, many informal and action sports are self-regulating, and thus participants often quickly develop an implicit understanding of the cultural etiquette for sharing the space. In so doing, young people learn to respect and understand difference through everyday interactions in shared spaces (i.e., a skatepark, a mountain bike trail, in the line-up at a local surf break) with participants of different skills levels, ages, ethnicities and genders. These are all opportunities for shared experiences based on non-competitive achievement that respect individual differences, celebrate creative self-expression and embrace peer-mentoring rather than hierarchical coach-athlete relationships in competitive environments that clearly distinguish the winners and losers and those with power/knowledge and those without.

There is also a celebration of play, self-expression and creativity in the use of space and movement in many of these informal sporting cultures, which may offer unique opportunities for girls and young women to find their own versions of empowerment. As well as expressing themselves through movement practices, they are also able to wear what they want and in ways that they feel best express their sense of identity. Research has consistently shown that young women are put off by the limitations of many sports uniforms, so the lack of uniforms and the flexibility and autonomy in participating on their own terms can be very appealing for young women. Participating in informal action sports also help young women to learn to navigate risk on their own terms. Through their participation in action sports, girls and young women are constantly reading the dynamic sporting, social and physical environment, and navigating their own space in ways that feel right for them. These are all important skills for young women in the contemporary world.

Rangatahi woman holding a skateboard on walkwayIn contrast to many traditional, organized sports that were designed by men for men hundreds of years ago, most informal and action sports developed in a different gender context. As such, women have been active participants from very early in the development of many such sports, thus offering opportunities for alternative gender relations. While most traditional sports divide men and women into two separate and distinct groups, in many informal sports, girls, boys, men and women often share the same space (e.g., the waves, a skateboard park, an indoor climbing facility), participating alongside friends and/or family members from both sexes and of varying ages and ability levels. Moreover, many informal sports (e.g., skateboarding, parkour) do not so explicitly privilege the male body (e.g., speed, upper body strength, physical force) as sports such as rugby. Rather, the gender-neutral traits of balance, coordination, personal style and the creative use of space are highly valued, such that boys and girls do not need to be separated in the learning experience and can learn to respect one another and enjoy participating together.

My research in New Zealand and around the world has clearly shown that informal, action sports offer girls and young women empowering learning experiences, encouraging self-expression, creative thinking and developing a different set of physical and social skills among youth from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. These activities are often referred to as ‘lifestyle sports’ because when participants fall in love with these activities, they often shape their relationships (i.e., friendships, community connections) and their routines. These activities can facilitate active, healthy lifestyles where girls and young women get a sense of belonging, identity and connection with place, people and their communities. For many, their participation also facilitates relationships with the natural environment (i.e., care for beaches, oceans, mountains, trails) and the communities who share these resources.

Today, girls and young women also have incredible role models in these sports (i.e., 13-year-old surfer and skateboarding Olympic bronze medallist Sky Brown), that motivate the pursuit of healthy lifestyles through these activities. Girls and young women are increasingly turning to social media to find inspiration and learn new techniques and skills from their favourite athletes. And finally, these activities can drive lifelong passions. Participation can be a year-round pursuit, not based on the beginning and end of a sporting season, and can be done in their own time, and organized around busy school, work and social lives. And while the love for these activities may begin during youth, we are increasingly seeing girls and women taking these sports with them through various other life stages; many mothers are sharing the joy of informal sports with their children and partners, actively participating together as a family, and we also seeing more and more older women enjoying these activities. So, if a young woman in your life is no longer excited about participating in organized sport--perhaps they are put off by the pressure, the competition, or the uniforms--it may be time to encourage and support her in exploring the endless possibilities of informal sporting opportunities.


About the author:

Holly Thorpe Profile image


Holly Thorpe (PhD) is a Professor of Sport, Gender and Youth Culture at the University of Waikato.



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