At 14, girls are twice as likely than boys to quit the sport they practice. The reasons behind it are related partly to biological (and psychological) changes happening to their bodies. And partly to external factors, from social expectations to a lack of examples to follow and investments in clubs.
Why they quit?
According to recent studies, girls in the US, Canada and Australia affirm dropping out of sports because they no longer have fun playing, feel too old, or need more time to study. The latter reason, in particular, is valid for 48% of female responders to the research by the Australian platform Youth13 (in collaboration with VISA.) While it is mentioned by 30% of teenage boys.
Personal choices aside, it is well apparent, confirmed by the Department of Health & Human Services: “More than “80% of the global population of adolescents is insufficiently physically active” even if today access to some form of training is virtually more open than ever. And despite the growing evidence that physical activity leads to healthier lifestyles and reduced risks of developing severe pathologies.
Undoubtedly, the restrictions introduced in 2020 worsened a situation that has yet to – even – return to the same as before. And girls seem, once again, more affected. The Women’s Sports Foundation concede: “The pandemic negatively impacted multiple makers of girls’ well-being with notable declines in physical health behaviours, mental health and academic achievement“. Although, “participation in sports protected against many detrimental impacts of the pandemic. 12Th-grade girls who played sports had: a higher level of self esteems, self-efficiency and social support. More positive self-perception of their academic achievement and goals. Lower levels of loneliness, self-derogation, fatalism and depression“. And “showed more positive achievement outcomes and higher expectation about their academic future“.
Looking beyond: Role models and skills for work
By quitting at a young age, girls miss out on mastering skills crucial in life beyond school. Many female students understand that sports help develop qualities such as teamwork, resilience, collaboration, discipline and leadership. But researchers found that only a portion of them recognize the potential benefits granted by these soft skills in their (future) work.
Girls leave sports entering adolescence, influenced by social expectations, standards and the level of accessibility they are exposed to. On the one hand, schools increasingly reduce the hours of physical education offered to children. On the other, the investments in female teams often do not cover the costs. Not only are some sports better equipped and founded, but if there are few clubs in one area, the financial burden of playing can easily spill into questions of access to safe transportation to and from training sessions.
If it was not enough, the lack of role models is another crucial reason to consider entering or quitting a specific sport. Something is changing, yet positive and relatable examples that inspire the younger generations are still limited. “To some girls – write the Women’s Sports Foundation – fitting within the mould that they are constantly told to stay in is more important than standing out. Peer pressure can be hard for girls at any age; when that pressure isn’t offset with strong encouragement to participate in sports and healthy physical activity, the results may lead girls to drop out altogether.”
The gender divide in sports; what to do?
According to data from 2022, European who left school at 15 or earlier “are much less likely to exercise or play a sport with regularity” compared to those who continue studying at least up to 20. Interestingly, some experts point out that the first effective steps to change the current trends can be as simple as making the training more about the experience than handing out medals.
A more considerable effort is required to tackle the stigma surrounding certain sports. Historically, gender “play gaps” begins early in life – as also shown in the very actual prevalence of boys choosing football (in Europe, they represent 95% of the players) or wrestling (81%) and girls preferring dance (91%).
Ultimately, we must acknowledge how much attires contribute to limiting participation in (or quitting) sports during the delicate teenage years. Publicly, some professional female athletes, from beach volley to gymnastics, have openly contested their sports kits in recent years. But average teenage girls still feel sexualized by certain uniforms they are required to wear. Sooner or later, these all create specific ideal body standards that can easily distort perceptions girls may carry on later in life.
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