More needs to be done to encourage girls into sport, new study shows
The study was led by Dr Stacey Emmonds, Reader in Sports Coaching at Leeds Beckett, and involved collecting participation information for more than 5.5 million young people in 18 different organised sports - from Under eights to Under 18s, from 29 countries across Europe.
Dr Emmonds explained: “From previous research, we know that increased physical activity in adolescence is associated with improved mental health and improved academic performance.
“Our findings show that children’s physical activity levels have declined steadily and globally over the last two decades – and that the onset of puberty particularly (approximately 11 years for girls and 13 years for boys) is a key time point where participation in sport often starts to drop.”
So far, most research into youth sport participation has been conducted in the United States. This new study set out to discover the current participation rates in organised sport of children and adolescents across Europe; and the differences in participation rates between boys and girls, and between different sports. It is the first time that a multi-country and multi-sport study of this kind has been conducted to investigate participation rates in organised youth sport.
Participation numbers were collected for the period 2017-2020 and the key findings include:
- Overall, youth male sport participation rates (80%) are significantly higher than females (20%).
- This trend, however, has a distinct sport-specific flavour. Some sports like football (8%) and wrestling (18%) have very low female participation, whereas others such as volleyball (73%) and dance sports (85%) are primarily played by girls.
- Overall participation peaks for both males and females between 12 and 14 years of age.
- Participation decreases significantly for boys from 14 to 18 years of age in most sports.
- Girls’ participation significantly decreases between 14 and 16 but increases again between 16 and 18 in some sports.
Dr Emmonds said: “A concerning pattern is the more severe decline in participation rates for girls between Under 14 and Under 16 – 94% of sports observed a significant decrease in female participation between these ages.
“However, an interesting finding was that 72% of sports also experienced an increase in female participation rates between Under 16 and Under 18 - while there was a 67% decrease in male adolescent participation rates in the same age group.”
Despite this, girls’ participation at Under 18 was still significantly less than for boys (approximately 79% of participants male versus 21% female).
Dr Emmonds added: “This is an area that we need to research further, to inform dropout prevention strategies within coaching. Our findings also support the need to increase participation – and retention - rates of young girls in sport across Europe. If more young girls can sample a broader variety of sports from a young age, this is likely to lead to greater skill levels and therefore girls will be more likely to continue participating.”
The study concludes that a ‘One Size Fits All’ approach to preventing decreasing participation trends and dropout in youth sport may not be the best approach.
Dr Emmonds said: “Whilst we found that overall participation rates were higher in younger children (peaking at Under 12s), there were some interesting trends for some specific sports.
“For example, in swimming, there was a decrease in participation for each consecutive age category - regardless of gender - with decreases of approximately 370% from Under eights to Under 18s. The opposite was observed in other sports – such as volleyball and boxing.
“In our next research study, we plan to explore these dropout trends further to suggest tailored strategies for sports, and to further understand the dropout rates of adolescents in sport participation found by this study.
“There is not one strategy to maintaining and increasing sports participation across childhood and adolescence – and different sports and countries may need to consider different strategies at different age categories.
“By understanding the barriers and facilities to sports participation in adolescence in sport across Europe, tailored strategies can be implemented to decrease dropout rates in youth sport, with the support of coaches and sports organisations – who have a vital role to play. This will be essential to keeping children and adolescents engaged in sport for health benefits - not only physical but also psychological - and to support their psychosocial development.”
The study forms part of the Erasmus+ co-funded project ICOACHKIDS+ - which aims to enhance sport participation, reduce dropout, and maximise the health enhancing properties of sport.
You can access the full Youth Sport Participations Trends in Europe report - on the ICOACHKIDS+ website.