Or, A Sport of One’s Own

Wednesday, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. This year Just Imagine is focussing on women’s achievement in sports and also looking at how books and reading might open up spaces for girls to think about the potential in sports and sport-related jobs. Roy Moss examines the state of play.

The United Kingdom has an impressive sporting tradition. Some of the world’s most watched and played sports were invented or popularised on these shores. However, the tradition doesn’t always stretch to winning. In some sports, in particular, there’s very little success. Nevertheless, we will cheer on the underdog until the final whistle, red tape, or checkered flag. But, there are still plenty of iconic achievements over the years by those representing the home nations. Ones which we can all celebrate and be proud of.

But our interest is not just about professional sports and careers. It’s Sunday leagues, local clubs, running, swimming… For some, it’s about exercise, but for others, it’s being competitive. The thirst to win, beating an opponent or personal best. And even though opportunities are there for everyone, the number of girls enjoying physical activity drops after primary school. Keeping girls doing sport is a challenge rivaling any sport.

This number could be as much as 1.3 million girls across the UK. This comes from research by Women in Sport via The Guardian, March 2022. I urge you to read the article written by Matthew Weaver. It makes for an interesting yet sad read. But, to sum up, “Teenage girls are not voluntarily leaving sport; they are being pushed out as a consequence of deep-rooted gender stereotypes.” Stephanie Holborne, Women in Sport.

“And getting girls active,” according to players and coaches, is key “if women’s sport is to continue and thrive.” (The Guardian, 2020). Adults in primary schools are in a good position to build on children’s love of sports, burst stereotypes, and be excellent role models. And OF COURSE books can be on the team… You didn’t honestly think this would be a blog on PE, did you?

Some titles in our special International Women’s Day (sport) pack

As well as smashing stereotypes, I wonder how many children might simply give up on a sport because they don’t think they’re good enough. The pressure of being the best is as much a mental struggle as a physical one. (See the Growth Mindset post from a few weeks back.) But careers in sports don’t necessarily mean competing. Making women’s sports thrive also means filling those other roles in the industry.

I’m a big fan of books about jobs and careers. I Like Sport… What Jobs Are There? by Steve Martin and Tom Woolley contains an arena of ideas for different paths in sports. And if you have a goal or can link passions, then that interest is more likely to persist. Someone who is active but also enjoys science might want to consider sports psychology or nutrition. And entrepreneurs may have ambitions of owning a gym. That sort of motivation, for some, is more powerful than the desire for an Olympic gold medal.

Run Like a Girl by Paralympic Archer Danielle Brown is equally representative of the wider world. I like nonfiction books that are the size of a standard paperback. I can imagine readers whipping this out at half-time. There are fifty (fifty-one including the author) profiles of “extraordinary and inspiring sportswomen” worldwide. Danielle covers pretty much every sport under the sun, even jousting! It is a very loose definition of the word ‘sport’ in some cases. But, they are all physically demanding activities. And this is what we want girls to keep doing, after all.

Managing a family and a sports career can be extra challenging. This book doesn’t ignore this and shows us those who paused their careers when pregnant. Then came back stronger than ever, like fencer Valentina Vezzali, twice winning championships just months after giving birth. Runner Allyson Felix shook up the way sponsors treat women. Nike wanted to pay her 70% less after having a baby. Valerie Adams, a shot putter from New Zealand, Danielle explains, shows how it’s possible to balance training with motherhood.

The education of some of the athletes gets a mention too. Some started off in different careers, some got a degree first, and others studied later in life. All our paths are different, and there’s never only one route to a destination. However, the English national squads of major sports have a greater proportion of players coming through the independent school system*. With the exception of the women’s football team, who won the European Championship. Although, this will likely change in the future. This information comes from an investigation by the Telegraph. If anyone needs more inspiration than ever before, it’s girls in state education.

From my experience, the majority of the girls in year 6 last year LOVED football. Or grew to love it. Every day they would have a match at break times and lunch. Watching their confidence grow was one of the best things about that year. I do wonder how many are still playing now they’ve moved on… Two books which might give them momentum are the Dick Kerr Girls series by Eve Ainsworth and Lily and the Rockets by Rebecca Stevens. Both of which are inspired by true events and real people.

The word ‘legendary’ is hyperbole which gets around quite a bit. But in the case of the Dick, Kerr Ladies, it’s entirely warranted. Many women and girls worked in munitions factories during the First World War. One group of ladies made women’s football the talk of the country. Even more than last year when the Lionesses won the Euros. The series covers everything from war, women’s rights, death and following your dreams. The Dick, Kerr Ladies did just this despite the FA later banning women’s football. The women and girls suffered terribly in the factories from chemicals and machinery. However, there’s no doubt they inspired, and continue to inspire, others. 

Lily and the Rockets takes place at the same time and also follows some ‘munitionettes’, but in London rather than Preston. Women’s football spread across the country, and thousands of people went to the games. I can only imagine the thrill of the cheering and chanting by seas of spectators. Then having to accept the possibility that you may have to give up your passion solely for being female. I hope those year 6 girls are still bruising their legs. Or they’ve at least now bought some shin pads.

Perhaps PE lessons should start with a story, anecdote or tale of heroism in sport… There are children who sprint to the library after school hoping to be the first there. Whirlwinds of both genders. And there are plenty of books which will be able to keep them active. Keeping girls doing sport long after the final page.

*The Telegraph also points out sportspeople in independent schools on bursaries and scholarships who don’t pay school fees.