Girls should see sport as something for them

Olympic gold medallist Helen Richardson-Walsh believes sport can play a crucial role in breaking down the barrier between the genders and rid girls of the belief that they are less talented than boys. It worked for her

Recently I read a BBC article which reported research that suggested by the age of six girls thought themselves less innately talented than boys.

Six! Just think about that for a moment. That’s crazy isn’t it? It’s so young. To think that the gradient on the path to success is already an uphill battle in the lives of girls who have barely begun. It’s so disheartening to hear, and for me that’s exactly what this study is saying. If by that age girls believe that they’re not as good as boys it’s surely going to make their lives more challenging.

But why? Why is this the case? Because, although I’m disheartened by the young age, I’m not necessarily surprised. More often than no, when I visit a school to deliver an assembly, or provide coaching to a hockey club, I see differences in behaviour between girls and boys that makes me believe some aspects of this study are true.

What I’ve experienced is that girls are less likely to raise their hands to answer questions; they’ll more readily put themselves down; they apologise for doing something well; and again for doing it badly. And if I hear “I can’t do it” come out of a girl’s mouth one more time, I think I might scream! Fundamentally, what I see is a fear of failure. In the life of these girls there is nothing that could be worse than making a mistake – other than being laughed at for it. But why?

When I was growing up in a world full of sport, every day doing some sort of physical activity, I didn’t care less what anyone thought about me. At lunchtime I would play football with the boys, and the time flew by. I absolutely loved it. I felt different to most of the other girls at school: my time wasn’t consumed with all the same worries as them; I felt more confident to give my opinions and be who I wanted to be. I was basically prepared to “have a go” in any situation, no matter what the outcome.

So, from my own experiences, and having spent the best part of six years studying psychology, I find it difficult to believe that this difference between the genders is innate. In recent years a lot has been made of growth mindset, as uncovered by psychologist Carol Dweck. This is the belief that our basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, and brains and talent are just a starting point. So the language we adopt with our children and ourselves is critical in promoting this mindset, turning “I can’t do it” into “I’m not sure I can do it now, but I can learn with time and effort”.

This ability to try, and fail, to try again and eventually succeed through gradual improvement, not only creates a love of learning, but also builds the resilience that is necessary for any accomplishment. I believe I got this through playing sport, as failure is part and parcel every time you step on to a pitch or court. Learning to win and accepting losing, the development of skills, working with teammates, all require the growth mindset, encouraging the idea that whoever you are, you can always improve, while developing the acceptance and use of critical feedback. Not only does this build resilience when things don’t go as planned, it creates motivation and helps to turn the act of failing into a necessary step towards success. And the by-product? Unshakeable self-esteem.

This is exactly why girls should not only be encouraged to take part in sport, but to see sport as something for them. When I was younger I remember being called a tomboy, and at the time I didn’t think too much about it, but I always had this lingering feeling that it wasn’t said as a compliment. I now realise that it bothered me because I was basically being called a boy. But to me it was simple: I was a girl who liked and was good at sport. So when addressing the United Nations in 2014 Emma Watson motioned that: “It’s time to see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals”, I couldn’t have agreed more.

If we continue to box gender up into a neat little parcel, effectively what we’re saying is that “you have a limit”, which goes against the principles of growth mindset. Everyone has innate qualities, but they’re not dictated to by gender. Gender should not be the deciding factor. Of course, what I’ve spoken about so far won’t be and isn’t the case for every girl. And there will, I’m sure, be boys on the other side of the spectrum, which is why this needs addressing. As Emma Watson also said: “Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong.”

The problem, however, is that gender bias is so innate in our everyday lives and culture we sometimes barely notice it. The promotion of blue superheroes and pink princesses have been blamed by the Fawcett Society for girls’ lack of confidence. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it does have the propensity to pigeonhole and create rights and wrongs for each gender that don’t need to be there. It also puts a whole load of confusion in the minds of young people.

Sport is a good place to start, but it isn’t the only answer. Not every girl should, could or would play sport. It’s the same with boys. But challenging perspectives on gender is also what sport does by creating a variety of female role models. Great campaigns such as ‘Redraw the Balance’ for the Inspiring the Future charity, and Always’ ‘Like a Girl’, highlight the effects of gender stereotyping and the need to break down these preconceptions if every child, regardless of gender, is to flourish.

Audi’s equal pay for equal work pledge, promoted during their Super Bowl advertisement, is a step in the right direction. I was pleased to see the use of growth mindset in schools I visited recently. But in order for language to have more of an impact on young girls, their worth needs to be reflected in society. To me that’s a no-brainer. Commitments like Audi’s could be a real game-changer, but only if other companies follow suit.

Although a champion of sport, I know it’s not an equal playing field on multiple levels. Every week I’m directly or indirectly told that I’m worth less because I’m a woman. If what you see is what you get, it’s little wonder this seeps into the psyches of girls at an early age. I’m passionate about trying to help change the status quo. But if we are to see girls, as well as boys, thrive in the world, we all need to be the difference.


Helen Richardson-Walsh. Helen’s latest articles.

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Women’s Sport Trust want to thank our partner Getty Images for some of the imagery of women in sport used on this site. Click here to view the editorial curation featuring the world’s top sportswomen in action and here to learn more about our partnership with Getty Images.

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