This morning, I watched the teaser video for the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign being launched by Sport England as part of efforts to increase exercise participation levels amongst women. The advert will be released in full on prime time TV tonight, but you’ll find a link to the teaser at the bottom of this entry.
‘This Girl Can’ has the potential to have a hugely positive effect on participation, because it is trying to tackle the biggest obstacle for many women: themselves. Sport has always had a huge impact on my lifestyle, my time, and my self-image, but it’s obvious (even to someone who loves it) that getting girls active is now a major issue. ‘This Girl Can’ is trying to reduce the ‘fear of judgement’ that seems to be the main factor discouraging women from participating in sport. In my role as a hockey coach, I’ve seen clear differences between the approaches that boys and girls seem to take in sessions (although this obviously isn’t the case for 100% of the kids!). The influence of perceived social judgement seems to manifest itself differently: boys tend to try harder because they don’t want to make a fool of themselves in front of their mates; girls seem to try less hard for the exact same reasons! There’s no doubt this is largely down to generalised social perceptions about men and women in sport.
Having more ‘realistic’ role models – i.e. ordinary women – is a sensible and powerful force behind this campaign. Whilst the Jessica Ennis-Hills and Victoria Pendletons of the world are of course phenomenal athletes who are actively involved in trying to encourage women to exercise, it is understandable that their physiques and physical capabilities do seem unattainable to most ordinary women. Even when I was training as a full-time athlete I’m not sure I ever got close to a sixpack like Jessica Ennis-Hill’s! By using realistic role models, women are more easily able to identify with real feelings and challenges involved in sports participation… but it also highlights how easy it is to enjoy yourself and get a huge sense of achievement.
Although this isn’t the driver behind the campaign, ‘This Girl Can’ could also have a powerful effect on wider inequalities in women’s sport. In building models for success at World and Olympic level, UK Sport (and the governing bodies it funds) typically endeavours to increase the talent pool by investing in grass roots sport. Getting girls and women active at the most basic level is a major factor. The knock-on effects could be huge: more women participating provides more competition, more opportunities for coaching and more elite female athletes. Perhaps most importantly, it could force the media to speed up the process of generating fairer levels of female sport coverage, which in itself could encourage further participation.
There is no doubt that social expectation has led to a generalised antipathy towards the physical ‘side effects’ of sport amongst many women. Getting hot and sweaty, pulling strange facial expressions and activities that aren’t exactly compatible with make-up gives many girls the impression that they will be negatively judged by anyone who sees them. We must challenge this belief, and for me this requires several things.
Firstly, we need to reduce the stigma that sport makes us unattractive: A dirty, sweaty woman on a sports field should be seen as just as normal and acceptable as dirty, sweaty man! When I completed a Tough Mudder last summer, we were all head to toe in mud and I can honestly say it was one of the highlights of my entire year. Embrace your inner child, ladies: getting muddy is fun!
Secondly, we need to make exercise seem accessible and fun. This means women trying different things and trying to be open minded. In exactly the same way as non-sport hobbies, one person’s fun is another person’s idea of a nightmare; the point is, try something before judging it, and if you don’t like it try something else: don’t just give up! Since being outside the international hockey set up, I’ve definitely had two challenges in thinking about my own training: finding a balance between enjoyment and maintaining fitness, and training on my own. This means I have to use my brain as well as my body to figure out the best ways for me to train.
I think men also have a significant role to play to help this campaign work. There’s no doubt that realistic role models and girls telling other girls about it is a powerful medium for change. But I also believe that we need men to reinforce the idea that it’s ok for women not to look like they’ve walked out of a photoshoot 24/7. We need men – in the media and the ones we know – to actively support women’s participation in sport.
As ever these days, harnessing the powers of social media may be a key factor in whether this campaign is successful. However, as always, it’s not just about raising awareness, it’s about making change happen. So if you’re a girl who does some sport, goes to the gym, jogs, or actively gets off the couch in any way, don’t just be someone who shares the ‘This Girl Can’ video on Facebook or Twitter. Help a friend or relative to realise they can do the same as you! Encourage them to do a few lengths with you (ladylike breast stroke where you don’t get your hair wet is fine!). Go to a Bikram yoga sweatfest together. Instead of sitting in Starbucks, grab your trainers and have a good old gossip whilst jogging in the great outdoors. And if you’re a boy who does some sport… there’s no reason why you can’t do the same!