Girls in sport: battling the drop-off

The drop-off of adolescent girls from sport is well-documented. Assistant Director of Sport, Mrs Lizzie Broyd, explains how Downe House is trying to change the game.

5 July 2021

It has been well-documented in the national press that inactivity in girls stands at an alarming rate. Even brief research (and anecdotal experience) can probably corroborate the headline statistic that adolescent girls drop out of sport at twice the rate of boys. When does this drop-off take place? The Youth Sport Trust suggests that the biggest drop-off point for girls participating in sports activities occurs during the transition from primary to secondary school. This is a fact we cannot ignore and it is our job to examine the reasons why, and find ways to buck the trend.

Sports governing bodies and newspapers provide a multitude of reasons to explain the drop off of girls in sport. Factors range from social stigma, the disruption to friendship groups and declining body confidence to lack of access, decreased quality of experience and lack of role models.

There can be no doubt of the challenges that sports departments and clubs face to keep girls active but we, as a Sports department, have a unique opportunity to work with girls directly and regularly. So what are we doing at Downe House to battle the drop off?

1) A girls’ environment

Looking after girls growing up in today’s world is what girls’ schools do best. As a single-sex school, we can be, and are, experts in understanding girls. From our Learning for Life lessons to the boarding house to the sports pitch, we know how to navigate the complex dialogue around body image and self-confidence. To be clear, every school has to work through issues around social stigma and stereotypes. It would be wrong to suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, the benefits of single sex education in this regard are clear. There are multiple studies that suggest that girls prefer single-sex sport sessions, given the choice. A 2019 Scottish study even found that girls spend significantly more time undertaking moderate to vigorous physical activity in single-gender PE lessons, not to mention they enjoyed them more. The value of sport in conversations around self-esteem cannot be underestimated, with studies demonstrating that young female athletes have more positive body images than non-athletes.

2) The facilities are right there

As a boarding school, we can gift our girls with two very important things – time and space. Lack of access is simply not an issue on our campus. We are privileged to have a range of excellent sports facilities onsite including hard tennis courts, floodlit AstroTurf, squash courts, a multi-purpose sports hall with gym, spin bikes, 25m heated indoor pool, a dance studio, field and athletics grass track. Our beautiful site also boasts a number of cross country routes through the woodland.

On top of this, we are committed to helping girls pursue their sporting passions that lie outside of school. Whether it’s an England Volleyball player who needs a weekly taxi to her offsite regional club or a horse riding eventer who needs freedom at weekends to travel for competitions; if it’s important for our girls then it’s important for us.

3) Positive role models

External motivation must work hand-in-hand with internal motivation. Positive role models are an important external motivator in all areas of life, and sport is no different. Media bias towards female beauty over female athleticism can seem all-encompassing, and is sadly a huge part of class discussions on body image and self-esteem. Nevertheless there is cause to celebrate – just ask our girls about their sports role models and enjoy the wave of sheer enthusiasm you will be faced with. Our Sports enrichment programme introduces girls to a diverse range of role models in the sports industry. This could be a sports talk with former England #1 Badminton player, Fontaine Wright or British Open Water Champion, Joanne Jones or it could be a Sport Scholars’ seminar on gender stereotypes in sport and the media with leading voices in the field. Closer to home, our Sports department is full of fantastic teachers who still compete at elite levels themselves. We have Wales and England Lacrosse players and an ex-England squash player who show our girls on a daily basis a passion for sport and teamwork.

4) Taking a long-term approach

Our aim for every girl is to help her become ready for the world beyond Downe House. What does that involve? That means nurturing compassionate, confident women who will maintain a lifelong love of learning and equally crucial, a lifelong dedication to physical and mental wellbeing. We support girls who follow elite sports pathways, and are delighted when they go on to represent their country in their chosen sport. We also help each girl who joins the school to discover new sports and physical activities that she can enjoy. Encouraging girls to try an array of sports builds long-lasting confidence as they encounter new opportunities in life beyond Downe House. Our aim is to instil every girl with a lifelong love of sports activities, as the benefits are seen far beyond the PE lesson. Josh Goodall, our Head of Racquet Sports has already written about the far-reaching benefits of sport.

5) A breadth of options

There is a significant shift happening in the education sector. A recent Girls’ Schools Association poll found that nearly three in five (59%) sports directors believe that non-competitive fitness activities now have equal status with competitive sport in their schools. As already mentioned, providing a breadth of options is part of our long-term approach to keeping girls active.

Within the first three weeks of our Remove (Year 7) arriving at school, they will have experienced five different activities during curriculum PE lessons. Add to this our range of after school clubs and the girls could have had a taster of more than ten physical activities within a month. Offering girls a broad range of choice is crucial. It means that there really is something for every girl to enjoy. For some girls this will come from the collaboration of being part of a team, for others it will be a drive to pursue a competitive ambition. For many more still, continuing sport will stem from placing value on wellbeing. These are all values that we want every girl to experience during sport at school.

We offer traditional team sports (hockey, lacrosse, netball) as well as fitness programmes including gym classes, strength and conditioning, and yoga. On top of this we run a huge dance programme offering tap, modern and ballet to name but a few. Eventing, polo, skiing, basketball, squash, cricket, tennis – the list is endless. This is all possible due to our team of dedicated teachers, coaches and instructors who keep the girls busy, motivated and, most importantly, enthusiastic.

Keeping girls in sport

An early, enthusiastic and pre-emptive exposure to many different activities at a time when girls think they have experienced everything that sport has to offer makes a huge impact on how girls perceive physical activity. We see the results year-on-year. By the time the girls have finished their Downe adventure they have often found a true passion for a physical activity if not many! Most importantly, girls leave School carrying with them a love of teamwork, an ambition to be the best version of themselves, a confidence to try new things and an awareness of self-care; all things they can discover in sport.

Our girls are certainly bucking the national trend!

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