Girls Just Want to Have Fun

Girls just want to have fun

July 17, 2020

Does Our System Choose Glory Over Joy?

A study was released a few days ago on the topic of girls in sport and why so many drop out in their teen years. I had the privilege of addressing a House of Commons committee on this topic back in 2016. I certainly felt like an outlier in a group of sports admin executives and Olympic athletes but I was confident in my message. Here’s what I said.

The Grass Roots Problem

My professional life has been spent coaching swimmers, bikers, runners, and triathletes, but my passion is getting people on their feet, not getting feet on podiums. In each sport, the key to my success has been creating programs that consistently had three characteristics: welcoming, fun, and effective.

I’m here today to share my view of the actual experience of women and girls in amateur sports and how we can improve it. I’m not a scientist nor do I have many answers, but I do know there is a problem at the grassroots.

The million-dollar question is, why are females not staying in sport? From my experience, one of the main reasons is they are not given the recreational opportunities they need. It’s not a priority for the Canadian sports system. This is because our sports system is built to support elite excellence. When participation is highlighted, it’s often only to increase the pool of talent at the young ages to feed the excellence.

Lack of Resources For Recreational Sport

Here’s an example. Last year a local middle school with girls at that critical age of 12 and 13 had 50 girls show up to play touch football. Unfortunately, there was space for only 28 of them, due to limited resources. Those other 22 girls walked away from that sport and may never return. They didn’t show the proficiency to win the right to play, and that’s wrong. While this example is school sport, it is indicative, from my experience, of the sport community as a whole.

Recreational sport is the focus of one of the five objectives of the Canadian sport policy, but it is not being sufficiently addressed. This responsibility seems to fall—recreational sport, that is—to the national sport organizations, but their mission is dominated by a focus on elite success, and their programs are aligned to that goal. I believe in elite sport, but the resources it receives leaves little for recreational sport, and it is recreational sport that serves the majority of Canadians.

The Failure of the Development Model

One of the main reasons for this imbalance is the organizational focus on the long-term athlete development model. This is a ladder of stages that shows the development of an athlete from introduction to sport through elite levels, and there’s great detail at each of these stages. Running up the side of these charts, usually, is a column or option called “sport for life”. This is for those who leave the ladder, but there are rarely details with this sport-for-life option. That makes sense, because there are rarely any programming options either. Athletes who step off the competitive sports ladder seem to be told to go off in the corner and play alone. There’s just not the support for them.

Let’s maintain the ladder—it’s important—but let’s also pave a road in recreational sport for the majority of Canadians, one they can enjoy. We need to promote Olympic dreams, but we also need to share another ideal, the ideal of a lifelong journey fuelled by the joy of sport.

They Just Don’t Want the Game to End

I coached my daughter’s volleyball team when she was 10 years old. When they were eliminated at the school tournament, my daughter cried. I comforted her and gave her some time and space, and then I later asked her why she cried. She explained to me that it wasn’t at all that they lost; she didn’t care about that. It was that the season was over and she would no longer be able to play with her friends. But Hannah will play again, and she’ll keep playing throughout her life—if there is a team, and if the team will take her.

I then hope for two things: first, that recreational sport is promoted and supported in equal measure with elite sport in Canada; and second, that we place as much value on the simple joy of a life in sport as we do on the glory of sporting achievement.

Finally, I want to share a personal note about my own experience. The athletes I coach are going nowhere in sport. They just want to keep going onward. They’re not going up.

Geordie McConnell, Head Coach