The 72% increase in girls playing AFL is a wonderful thing for the sport and for female athletes. A new path to professionalism has opened up and females of all ages are embracing it.
In order to maintain the momentum we must be mindful of why females, especially adolescent girls drop out of sport.
The following is a list of 5 common reasons why girls drop out of sport.
Now remember they are generalisations, and you will find many exceptions. Try not to think of the exceptions, but of the girls you know who don’t play anymore and why they may have stopped.
Reason 1: With adolescence comes a greater desire for cooperation and connectedness over competition: Soaring estrogen levels as girls enter puberty prompt a shift in attitude by many girls away from competition and towards relationships and connectedness. If females don’t get that connectedness with the team or sport they are in they will seek it elsewhere.
Answer – Build time into your schedule for girls to socialize, talk and get to know each other. Off field events and traditions promote connectedness. Oh…and immediately stamp out any ostracizing behavior.
Reason 2. Girls are less tolerant of poor sports behaviour than boys.
Toxic environments, whether it is frequent abusing of referees, feral parents or simply bad sportsmanship can turn girls off sports. They often have a heightened sense of injustice and are unlikely to abide any unfairness. If it is too prevalent it will cause them to walk away from the situation.
Answer: Insist and demand respectful good sportsmanship from your players, parents, officials and supporters.
Reason 3. Teenage girls experience a crisis of confidence. Studies confirm what many women know from their own experiences as teenagers: that girls can suffer a severe crisis in confidence and larger drop in self-esteem during adolescence than boys. Boys tend to become more confident as they mature whereas the opposite can occur for many females.
Answer: make your environment one that doesn’t tolerate demeaning comments, celebrates mistakes, rewards effort and importantly values the contribution of all players equally.
Reason 4. Girls sometimes don’t receive the support they need from their family. The primary place where girls learn about gender roles is the family. Families still tend to engage, perhaps unconsciously, in gender stereotyping, conveying to girls the message that girls are inherently less athletic than boys, and that sports are less important for girls than they are for boys. For many families the thought of a financially viable female sporting career is hard to see.
Answer: As a coach you must involve the parents in the sport. Tell them what they can do to support their daughter, teach them what to say and communicate the health and wellbeing benefits of playing sport.
Reason 5. Poor coaching. Of the eleven reasons cited by girls in a classic 1988 study as to why they dropped out of sports, the fourth highest was that the coach was a poor teacher; number nine was that the coach played favourites. Coaches who berate and belittle girls turn sports into such a hurtful, harmful experience, that dropping out becomes for many a way to avoid further damage to their self-esteem.
Answer: Every player in your team must have the same opportunities to improve. If you can’t teach or improve the girls then find someone who can help you or hand over the reigns completely. In the end, girls’ playing is more important than you coaching.
Coaching females is a unique challenge but an especially rewarding one if done correctly. If you do, remember your main job is not to create the next Erin Phillips, but to ensure the young girls are still playing the sport (or another sport) into adulthood. We know adults are unlikely to take up a new sport, so keeping them in sport as they grow and mature is vital.
The fact is youth girls are different to youth boys and treating them the same is a major reason why the drop out rate for girls is 6 times higher than boys (according to research undertaken by U.S based Positive Coaching Alliance).
About the author:
Nathan Burke started his career as a schoolteacher before the demands of elite level football with St Kilda F.C. took over. Following a successful corporate career he founded Nathan Burke Consulting – a Melbourne based firm that offers High Performance Training and Coaching solutions to corporates, schools and sports teams. In 2020 Nathan will take the reins as head Coach of the Western Bulldogs AFLW team.