New Generation of girls' sport

Finding the memories behind a new generation of girls’ sport

The dirt and gravel driveway where Clare Hanlon rode her bike went for 1.5km, leading from the farmhouse, to the school bus stop. Clare, her sister and their two younger brothers, would ride it to the end, park their bikes in the bus shelter, hop on the bus and head off to school in nearby Benalla, in north-east Victoria.

“If we were running late, the driver would see us wildly riding our bikes and would wait for us…but not always,’’ Clare recalls. If they missed the bus – or the driver kept going because they were not at the bus stop – Clare would have to ride back up the road and get her Mum to take them to school. “And that wasn’t good either because we knew we were putting Mum out,’’ she says.

It’s an intriguing vignette of what seems like a different era, where kids rode bikes without helmets, spent time in the open air, made their own fun with their siblings and somehow seemed to be routinely fit and healthy. Putting aside the nostalgia attached to such a memory, there seems, particularly now, still plenty to recommend it. And Professor Clare Hanlon, the Susan Alberti Women in Sport Chair at Victoria University, is drawn back to her childhood memories on the family farm as she contemplates the next stages of engaging more young girls in physical activity.

“Traditionally, what used to happen was that we thought everyone does the same thing: we play the same sport. We’re told the same thing. However, that’s not the case. Everyone’s not the same. So, what do girls and women want to encourage them to be physically active and how can we create that environment for them?’’ Clare asks.

These are questions that are becoming increasingly relevant, but it has taken years to get there. Some of the answers are simple, others are more complex. For instance, it could be easy to overcome some girls’ anxiety about their school sport uniforms if they were required to wear something comfortable and practical, rather than the often distinctly unsuitable and uncomfortable physical education clothing that was a feature of school sport. It’s also clear from research that girls and women are more likely to take part in physical activity if it has a social element, rather than a purely competitive focus. All of this was clear, in its way, during Clare’s formative years.

“Dad was encouraging me with athletics, and I think it comes back to what you enjoy most – and athletics for me was fun. However, once I started to realise what my friends were doing, I then changed from athletics to tennis – because back then tennis was more interactive. It’s more social and for a teenager, particularly for a girl, not only does it need to be enjoyable, it needs to be sociable,’’ Clare explains.

But the next part of the equation is translating that in to teacher training so that school students can feel the difference and feel more like they are enjoying sport. “We have to ask teachers: how is physical education being delivered in schools? Have they listened to what girls want? Perhaps the girls want active recreation rather than traditional sport. Have they looked at the sports uniforms the girls are wearing? Are they having more girls sit on the sidelines and talk rather than play the activity? If that’s the case, what does that say about the activity? If so, turn that around so it becomes a social activity everyone wants to do,’’ Clare says.

“Here again, you’re talking about the connection, the social aspect, and bringing those important aspects that make girls feel confident and there’s no fear of judgement in the game.’’

Clare admits she was one of the lucky ones at school – she was sport captain and school captain. “When we’re young, there’s nothing worse than lining up and being selected for a sport activity, always anxious about not being picked. What about the girls who weren’t picked? How confident were they? So, let’s make sure that we don’t have situations in schools that put girls off sport for life,’’ Clare says. “But we can only do that if teachers themselves feel confident that they can teach it.’’

The result is that Clare, a former physical education teacher, and VU have joined with AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) Australia to lead what is an international first. The initiative is a professional learning program that connects secondary school teachers with local sports coaches to help improve the teaching and coaching of adolescent girls in disadvantaged locations. AVID Australia is set up to support disadvantaged and under-performing students with the skills to make their university study a success. The collaboration is aiming to deliver a common language and consistent approach from school to sports clubs that encourages and supports adolescent girls’ participation in physical activity and organised sport.

“Physical literacy is the key to life-long learning,’’ Clare says. “If children aren’t learning physical literacy when they’re young – how to balance, how to roll a ball, how to hit a ball – then they’re not going to feel confident taking part in that later. The environment we create must be in schools but also sporting clubs, and there has to be a strong link between both.’’

The challenge has been there for years and the need to change it has become urgent. “There’s been a lack of understanding about the benefits of girls and women participating in sport and physical activity. It’s about them being involved as leaders,’’ Clare says.

“But it’s also about the lack of understanding from media about the visibility of girls and women because if they were more visible, it would encourage more girls and women to take part or lead. And in the end our society becomes better and that’s what we must focus on.’’

The statistics provide a powerful evidence base: female sport has only 10 per cent visibility in the media. In other words, you cannot be what you cannot see. And only eight per cent of corporate sports sponsorship goes to women’s sport. On the flipside, an international poll of 821 female business executives found 90 per cent claimed previous involvement in sport had played a part in their career success. The conclusion is that the potential upside to getting this right is significant, across the nation.

Clare is still active: she’s been running with a group of women every Saturday morning at 8am, for the past 12 years. “We just do 4-6kms, and then we catch up afterwards. We talk all the way through the run. The group has been running for 22 years they’ve been running with prams and now we’re going to their daughters’ 21st birthdays. So that’s really powerful in itself,’’ she says. It’s not quite running down the driveway to catch the bus, but it’s still a memorable experience.

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