21 August 2023

We need more than goals to improve women’s sport


‘Beyond the winning and the goal,
Beyond the glory and the flame,
He feels the flame within his soul,
Born of the spirit of the game’.

In his poem, The Great Competitor, Grantland Rice articulated better than anyone that sport is about so much more than winning or losing. And listening to the Lioness’s composed and dignified post-match interviews yesterday, it’s clearly a sentiment that they embody.

This inspirational team has taught us is that our girls are honing more than their netball skills or their goalkeeping when they play sport. They have reminded us that the values of fair play, team work, mutual support and succeeding or failing graciously are intrinsic to sport. Matthew Arnold saw it at Rugby School a hundred years ago or more. And all our great British public schools have always understood that sport was about so much more that muscular prowess and physical fitness. It’s not for nothing that the ‘playing fields of Eton’ were thought fundamental to England’s military success.

Yet regrettably, the Lionesses are still very much the exception rather than the rule when it comes to female participation in sport. A survey by Women in Sport found that 43% of girls who felt that they were sporty in primary school lose interest as teenagers. Out of these girls, 68% said that a fear of feeling judged prevented them from taking part, while 61% said they lacked confidence. As a result 39% of women over 16 are not active enough compared to 35% of men, according to Sport England.

Campaigns like This Girl Can aim to change perceptions of women’s sport, but they must be accompanied by practical, targeted efforts to keep future champions interested. As the saying goes, it’s easier to keep a client than get a new one.

So how can this be done? In the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, girls who played competitive sports at school were proactively encouraged to try out for out for different disciplines. As a keen lacrosse player – and much to the hilarity of all my friends – I tested for the handball team, without success (it was a long drive home from Loughborough to Fulham).

But as well as cross-fertilising specialisms, we should be teaching girls that sport seeds skills. Boys will often happily kick a ball around just for the sake of it, but evidence suggests that girls, as they get older, need a reason. As Baroness Sue Campbell, director of women’s football, at the FA has said, ‘If you are practising a skill many times, we call that resilience. We’ve never expressed to girls what that’s called’.

Sport should be seen as an essential part of the school curriculum, not just because it helps keep us fit, but because it teaches values that any prospective employer will relish. The ability to work in teams, to inspire your colleagues to give 110% and to absorb disappointment and come back stronger are all in scarce supply, and more important in any workplace than the difference between an A or an A* in any given GCSE.

In the modern world economy it’s all about maximising the skills and motivation of your workforce. And there’s no better way to do that than by taking a leaf out of the Lionesses’ book.

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Emma Barr is a political commentator and former special advisor in the Department for Transport.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.