Eye on the ball: Why making sport accessible to women is so important

by Emilia Passaro

Image source: This Girl Can. The campaign , funded by The National Lottery and developed by Sport England, celebrates being active and aims to help women overcome the fear of judgement stopping women and girls from joining in.

In the past few weeks The Guardian has put out two articles about netball. Two! This is exciting news right?

A predominantly female sport is finally getting some recognition in the infinite ocean of male-dominated sports. Unfortunately, they’re not the greatest write ups we could have hoped for.

The first, by Morwenna Ferrier, states that netball is “uncool” even though  £16.9m is being invested in to the sport, with a solid £10.5m of that going towards encouraging adult women back into the sport.

Image source: This Girl Can

She claims the reasons for the game’s uncool rating are “it’s reputation at school, it’s complex rules and it’s tremendous restrictions on movement, not to mention the fact that marking an opponent requires a player to do a modified Nazi salute”.

Disregarding the Nazi salute comment because that’s obviously an unsavoury (and frankly lazy) joke, let’s look at the breakdown…

School reputation

I understand this statement. PE was the bane of my life and is the reason I still hate field hockey (although my perceptions of the sport notably improved during the 2016 Olympics. That was class).

I can see how the flashbacks of standing outside in a tiny skirt, probably wearing a t-shirt foraged from lost property while the wind howls and rain falls in horizontal sheets stinging your bare legs could be traumatic, but surely women’s relationship with sport has moved on since these dark times?

Complex Rules

Netball is a competitive sport and as such it has rules. Complexity is a subjective concept so I won’t comment on that but I know many people who are able to understand and execute the rules of netball. Plus, with two umpires barking out any offenses you make during the match it shouldn’t be too difficult to pick out where you’re going wrong.

Taking part

The rest of the article goes on to quote the head of Media at Sport England, Andrew St Ledger, who awarded the grant. He says “It’s all about getting people who are typically not represented in sports and physical activity to take part.” I think this is the most important aspect of netball and Mr St Ledger sums it up beautifully. He goes on to say “Netball is a great one for targeting women because about 98% of people who play netball are women, as you might expect.” He’s right. The vast majority of netball players are women and it is good to see an investment into women’s sports.

Image source: This Girl Can

The problem comes when we look into why women’s sports are so underfunded and frankly under appreciated. Billions of pounds have been pumped into men’s sports, premier league footballers are some of the highest paid individuals on the planet, it’s almost impossible to get away from the men’s rugby Six Nations and there’s nothing wrong with that (except maybe those wages – that’s ridiculous) but wouldn’t it be nice for the other half of the population to be represented in sport?

At this important juncture in their life, teenage girls become more self-conscious. Not only physically, but also how they are perceived by their peers, effectively how “cool” they are… and this is exactly why articles such as Miss Ferrier’s are so damaging.

Why are women abandoning sports after school?

The other article, in response to the first; shed a slightly more helpful light on the situation. Emma John delivers a response to Ferrier’s article from the netball community and even though the piece was undoubtedly meant as light-hearted commentary it seems to have missed the point. She states how the popularity of netball is on the rise and with recent international and league matches being broadcast live on television (BBC2 and Sky Sports 2 respectively) more and more eyes are turning towards the sport and hopefully women’s sport in general. I for one am very excited to see where the increase in funding and attention will take the game and, I’m sure the rest of my team, the Wendover Sparrowhawks Netball Club are too. However, the fact remains that a significant proportion of young women are abandoning group sports after leaving school.

Academic achievement vs sporting achievement

Is it a coincidence that this departure from group sports tends to correlate with hitting puberty? The reasons for this are not entirely clear but there are a few theories. Is it possible that young women are discouraged from pursuing sporting achievement in favour of academic achievement? Girls often out perform boys in academia at this age while boys surge ahead on the sporting field. Could it be that this supposed competition between sexes is turning our young women away from finding accomplishment in sporting endeavours?

Self-conscious

Another theory is that at this important juncture in their life, teenage girls become more self-conscious. Not only physically but also how they are perceived by their peers, effectively how “cool” they are. I see more truth in this latter theory and this is exactly why articles such as Miss Ferrier’s are so damaging. Young people are highly impressionable and therefore there is just no room for any kind of negative press in regards to women’s sports. We need to be promoting it as much as possible. The health benefits of sport, not only physical but also mental are well documented – this is something we should be ushering our young people towards.

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