As the FIFA women’s world cup gets on its way, Lizzie Steele (an intern with Newbigin House fresh expression of church) explains why she thinks it is a God-given mandate to encourage girls in sport.
Sport brings me to life. Without sport, I wouldn’t be me. I love sharing that passion with others, and I used to drag my brother out to play football with me, even though he was much more naturally taken to the indoors. I now share it with more willing subjects, in the young girls I coach on a Saturday morning and my teammates.
When I was at school, PE lessons were either loved or loathed. Some saw it as a great escape, a freeing prospect from the classroom. Others hated it. They hated the idea of getting changed, raising their heartrate and dripping in sweat or, worst of all, having to sit out of swimming because it was ‘that time of the month’.
It was normal for the boys to head out at lunch to play football, while the girls would sit and chat. These stereotypes would hang in the air and only a few would dare break the unwritten rule that ‘girls don’t play football’. Those girls carried the image of their whole sex on their shoulders and, after a while, even they took to the side-lines instead. Some continued and simply smiled when a male counterpart would say: “You’re really good for a girl.”
I loved sport so much, I studied sport and exercise at university. I learned the in-depth science of the ways our bodies change and adapt to training. I learned how important exercise is in our society, as we move away from manual labour and towards desk jobs and cars. I also learned that most girls stop doing any form of sport as soon as they stop PE lessons.
Unfortunately, we know exactly why this happens. Sport is seen as a man’s domain. Male athletes are plastered across buses and TV screens, made into millionaires and can retire at 30 with a career of punditry or endorsements laid out ahead of them. Most female athletes have to have another job to pay their way.
The tides are turning though. With the launch of this year’s FIFA women’s world cup, the momentum is beginning to gather, a new generation of girls are being inspired to play and enjoy sport. This is something we should celebrate and encourage.
I believe God wants to see all of creation thriving and if young girls are enjoying every moment of playing sport who are we to stop them? Our bodies were created to move and whether that be through sport or dancing, it allows us to express ourselves. Psychologically and physiologically the effects on the body are huge. We make our heart stronger and our body more resilient to illness. Sport is a stress-reliever and our brain releases feel-good hormones.
If we look at the contemporary issues facing young girls, sport can literally be a lifesaver. Sport teaches you to trust and love your body. Sport teaches you that you can fail, pick yourself up and try again. This is a vital message in a world that constantly tells girls otherwise. When faced with hyper-sexualisation, pressure to have unattainable body types, and record levels of anxiety and depression – sport allows girls to reclaim their bodies for themselves. But this is where the difficulties come in – sport is counter-cultural for women, and in order to get more women and girls involved, we have to break down those stigmas and barriers.
So, what can we do as youth and children’s workers? Firstly, let’s not uphold stereotypes. Instead of assuming boys will want to play football and girls will want to do baking, make both activities inclusive. Let’s have the option for children and young people to take part in either. Let’s stop the “wow, you’re really good for a girl” or “you kick like a boy” comments. Even if you think you’re complementing your young girls, these comments have sexist undertones and leave a mark.
It’s also important to try and lead by example. It’s not just young girls who have hang-ups about sport – those young girls become women. These hang-ups span generations, and the same insecurities that creep in when we’re young stay with a lot of women and stop them getting involved in sport. We’re scared of embarrassing ourselves by not being ‘good enough’, even in the most relaxed of settings. But role models are vital, because if you can’t see yourself doing it, you probably won’t do it. It’s not about being the best, it’s about modelling a ‘give it a go’ attitude, or that you’re allowed to enjoy things even if you’re not the best at them.
Creating a culture of encouragement is what builds people up. We were made to be in community with one another, to do life together and sport is a great way of bringing people together. So, let’s encourage all to take part and get behind the women’s world cup this summer, as we did for the men.