By: Alex Chiet, Sport NZ
I am very grateful to work in sport and in a role that supports organisations in providing positive sporting experiences for young people. Sport can be such a wonderful experience, and our relationship with sport adds significant value to our wellbeing in many ways -physical and mental health, relationships, connections and overall happiness.
In this article I am going to share what we know based on evidence about young women and what they want from their sporting experience, and perhaps more importantly, what is getting in the way. I’ll then put on my dad (to a daughter), husband and volunteer coach hat to discuss practical tips (or hacks as my daughter tells me) to help anyone interested in ensuring young women have great sporting experiences.
Let’s start with what we know. The evidence tells us the following about young women:
- 9/10 want to be active
- 96% know that sport and physical activity is good for them
- 70% participate for fun
- 68% avoid participating when they do not feel confident about their bodies
- 60% state they are too busy to participate by the time they are 17
These are powerful insights. We also know young women state the 3 main barriers to participating are being too busy, too tired or lack of motivation. Young women also tell us they want to have fun and socialise, to feel safe to participate without judgement and to feel confident in what they do.
We currently see young women’s participation in sport decreasing rapidly from 12 to 17 years. Our responsibility and our opportunity is to turn this story around. So let’s strip back the jargon and look at practical tips to ensure young women get what they need and want from their sporting experience.
Keep sport fun and social for young women
- Let’s just start with being happy, friendly and interested in the young women we coach. That may be how we greet them when they arrive, knowing a little more about them as people and what their interests are. It does not take much and it makes a huge difference.
- I have a few questions I ask about the players themselves. I ask questions about why they are playing sport and what they want from the season. I use this to build a connection and understand what they want to achieve.
- Create time for a chat and a laugh before practice or games. I plan for it. I see a lot of coaches ensuring there are fun warm-up activities before practice and games that allows the young women to chat, laugh, compete in a fun way as they warm up.
Ensure sport feels safe and young women are not judged
- For me this is more about physiological and emotional safety as opposed to physical safety. The language and words we use as parents, coaches and volunteers are very powerful. They can have significant positive or negative impact and being aware of this is the first step.
- I have found reinforcing effort, acknowledging growth and development as a player and how they treat their teammates and opposition as great things to focus on. Keep those things front and center when you are talking to young women before games or at half-time
- I avoid comparing players. Speak about things the team can do better vs an individual. And if you know your players well, connect on an individual level. For me this starts with something that they are doing well followed by a constructive tip.
- To help a team connect, create safe participation environments and create a season focus, I always try to establish a team culture. This is developed by the young women (I facilitate the process) and is all about what they want from the season. We usually land on things like, having fun, being good team mates to each other and trying their best. This is what is most important for me during the season, not the wins and losses.
- Many of the sports I am involved with have team uniforms. What I feel is more important is how the young women feel. When it comes to training, I just let them wear what they want (as long as it is safe, i.e. skin pads and boots for football) regardless of any preconceived conceptions I may have for what I feel is right. When it comes to matches, if players have beanies or sweatshirts under tops or bibs because it is cold, that is all good as long as the they feel comfortable and confident in what they are wearing. The fact they are there is what is most important.
Help young women feel confident playing sport
- In most teams I have coached there has been a complete mix of ability - from having played the sport for 5 years to only just starting. It is important as a coach to ensure you are aware of this and don’t expect unrealistic things from the young women.
- I have found that it is not what is happening in sport that impacts on confidence, it is what has happened at school, or with a peer group, that could affect the mood or happiness of young women. Being in tune with this and being sensitive is so important. I once noticed one of my players was a bit down and did not have their usual bounce and energy. In speaking to her, I found out her pet cat had passed away and she had just buried it before practice. Knowing that helped me as a coach, allowing myself and the team to support the player.
- Acknowledging special moments of effort / development can have a profound impact on confidence. That may be mentioning a shot, tackle or run. When young women do good things let them know, shine a light on them or recognize via an award system.
You may have heard of Balance is Better, I hope you have. Balance is Better is a philosophy towards driving change in youth sport to ensure all young people receive quality experiences. There is a direct correlation between the themes of Balance is Better and the insights around the motivations and needs of young women. Perhaps the most important take-out is not to focus solely on competition and winning. Quite often this takes the fun out of the game and results in factors like friendship and social enjoyment being overlooked in pursuit of outcomes.
Ultimately all people are different and these are just a few ideas around working with young women in sport to give them great experiences. If I could sum things up, I would just say, be a good person. As my mother told me - do and say things that you would like said to yourself!
The last word
I checked with my daughter Billie to see why she plays sport and her words reinforced the messages of the #itsmymove campaign - “because it is fun, I meet new people and it keeps me fit”. Let’s keep sport that way for our young women.
About the author:
Alex Chiet has spent over 20 years working in the sports system in New Zealand and overseas. He is currently a Sport Development National Consultant for Sport NZ. His current role focuses on supporting National Sporting organisations to lead change to traditional competition and pathways opportunities to ensure they meet the participation and development needs for young people today and into the future. A big part of his current role is to develop staff capability and build systems that support the ongoing development of people.