Why the ‘This Girl Can’ Campaign CAN work!

Tough Mudder - This Girl Can

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!


‘This Girl Can’ video teaser


New Year’s Aspirations


So, 2015 is upon us. Now you’ve finished unwrapping presents, bickering with relatives and eating your own body weight in Quality Streets, perhaps you’ve begun to think about a few New Year’s Resolutions. 

I’ve made New Year’s resolutions before, but it isn’t something I do every year. I’ve kept some, broken some and forgotten most of them either way. I understand the reason for making them, but to me a resolution often ends up being an objective that is measured in a very black and white way: Have I run a mile every day? Have I gone to bed earlier? Have I lost x-amount of weight by the end of March? Have I overhauled my diet, raised a million pounds for charity and travelled to twenty five new countries (…and have I achieved all this in the inordinately small amount of time I predicted it would take me when I was chatting at a dinner party during the festive season)? Some people manage to stick to their resolutions. The vast majority don’t. The problem with most resolutions is that one slip, one mistake, one bad day and it usually makes us feel like we have failed, so we give up completely. 

Maybe it’s all just semantics. I was talking to a friend a couple of days ago and she asked me what my aspirations are for the year ahead. I was struck by the idea of ‘aspirations’ – it makes me think of hope, positivity and striving for something. It doesn’t necessarily follow that aspirations are something you succeed or fail at, as long as you are trying to make something happen. I think that’s a good way to think about what you want to try and do, change or achieve. I may not complete my list, but if I have backed up my intentions with effort and some kind of action in the right direction, I won’t have failed. 

The list below is very much made up of personal aspirations that will (if I stick to them) impact on my own life. You might read them and think I am being selfish – there isn’t anything about volunteering to help others or charitable donations. I don’t want to publicly state my intentions on those things. I have a pretty good idea of the people I would like to be better at supporting and helping. You’ll just have to trust me that I’ll be trying to do just that as well as trying to challenge and enjoy myself.

My Aspirations For 2015 and a little bit about why I have come up with them:

1. ‘To get something published’
I got the ball rolling on this last year… I started this blog, I embarked on a Masters in English Language and Creative Writing, I entered two writing competitions (I didn’t win in case you were wondering) and I have tried to be braver about asking people other than my immediate family to read things I write. The next stage is finding the courage to submit my writing to publications. And to write something I think is actually good enough to submit… obviously!

2. ‘To get 20,000 blog hits by the end of January 2016’
It’s been just over 11 months since I started the blog and I’m almost halfway there. The next phase of this aspiration is partly down to me – write more blog entries, write better blog entries… and partly down to you – read the blog, share the blog! The one thing I have learnt so far in my brief writing career is that you have to swallow your pride and put yourself out there. So this is a shameless plug. If you enjoy reading something I’ve written, please tell someone else to read it too!

3. ‘To have fun at hockey’
I have spent a lot of hours of my life on hockey. The last few years have been pretty mixed as far as the ratio of good:bad hours is concerned. I know it is just chasing a little white ball around a field… but it is important to me. When I enjoy hockey and when I feel like I’m making a positive contribution to my team, this generally has a reasonably big impact on my overall happiness and wellbeing. The last few months have taught me that my hockey performance and experiences are generally summed up by a simple formula: having fun = playing well. And for good measure: playing well = having fun.
This season, my team is trying to defend a national championship and going on a European adventure at Easter. I intend to enjoy this experience as much as possible.

4. ‘To undertake at least five new / physical challenges’
Last year, I completed my first Tough Mudder and bike sportive, I jumped out of a plane in New Zealand, I hiked up a mountain in St Lucia, I started a Masters and a blog. All of these experiences – some of which were scary, some of which hurt, some of which were tiring, some of which just made me smile (and not necessarily in the order you’d assume) – made 2014 very memorable. It’s probably really self-important to quote from my own writing, but I’m going to do it anyway: “Suck it up and breathe it in… Not every moment in life is perfect, but every moment is unique.” I’m going to try and remember that.

If you’ve made it this far, you now know my aspirations for 2015. My question to you… what are yours?