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Young women’s engagement in sport in a ‘pandemic’ world

For many, the stop-start nature of sporting seasons, or the abrupt and prolonged cessation of training and competition, mean that they have lost important aspects of their social lives. During such a critical time in their lives when girls and young women are developing their lifelong relationships with sport and building their confidence in their moving bodies, the disruption to two years (and counting) of sport and active recreation may have lasting effects on their engagement with sport.

The introduction and ongoing presence of COVID-19 in our lives has exacerbated existing gender inequalities. Women are experiencing even greater economic, health, and gender-based violence disparities than they did prior to the pandemic. Many women are carrying the additional emotional burden of looking after children and vulnerable family members.

It follows that young women are being significantly impacted by the pandemic. International research focused on girls and young women’s wellbeing during COVID-19 has revealed gendered differences, with the pandemic affecting girls’ mental health more than boys. Some have explored the heightened risks for girls and young women experiencing the transition to adulthood while confined to the ‘home’—not always a stable and safe environment—without peer support and where food insecurity and gender-based violence can at times be inescapable.

As well as major disruptions to their school, sport and social lives, many have had to pick up new household duties, caring responsibilities and part-time employment to help families get through. Research has also revealed how teen girls’ are navigating new and existing relationships (friendships, online dating) in digital environments, also with a series of safety concerns.

Girls, Women and Sport in COVID-19

Prior to COVID-19, around the world, women in sport were experiencing new and significant gains such as greater recognition, accessibility, and wage parity campaigns. This was certainly true in New Zealand with significant investments in girls and women’s sport and active recreation, and growing visibility and support for our top athletes and teams. However COVID-19 has highlighted the continued underlying inequalities between the genders in relation to sport, with women’s sport often being sidelined in attempts to restart men’s sport. Such decisions highlight ongoing prioritisation of men’s sport, and such investment decisions are noted by girls and women. For many, this feels as though they’ve been unfairly ‘benched’ during the pandemic.

At the community level, sport was shut down and opened up multiple times, disrupting the lives of all those participating. COVID-19 has therefore dramatically altered people’s physical engagement with sport. The various lockdowns in New Zealand prevented access to sport facilities and social networks as experienced in organised team sports. For many, even when sport recommenced, a range of new fears had surfaced, such that their engagement and attendance was different. International research has shown decreases in motivation to participate in sport because of additional financial, health and social pressures during lockdowns.

The increasing trend in individualised physical activity participation as opposed to organised sport is likely to continue during and beyond COVID-19 for young people. Even if they re-engage with sport and their community club, the relationships with their bodies, confidence in their skills, relationships with others at the club or school, as well as the physical infrastructure and equipment they use, may be forever changed. Such trends have prompted Australian researchers to predict a generation of Australian youth ‘lost’ from sport because of COVID-19.

The pandemic is drastically affecting girls and young women’s participation in sport and active recreation. For many, the stop-start nature of sporting seasons, or the abrupt and prolonged cessation of training and competition, mean that they have lost important aspects of their social lives. For many girls and young women, their participation in sport and active recreation is a significant contributor to their sense of identity, self-confidence, body image, connection and belonging. Their teammates and fellow participants are often central in their friendships and social networks. During such a critical time in their lives when girls and young women are developing their lifelong relationships with sport and building their confidence in their moving bodies, the disruption to two years (and counting) of sport and active recreation may have lasting effects on their engagement with sport.

The Value of Sport and Physical Activity during COVID-19

During times of increased stress, uncertainty and social isolation, however, sport and active recreation can provide girls and young women with important opportunities to process complex emotions (i.e., fear, disappointment, confusion, frustration, anger) and for all the well-known physical benefits of physical movement. During the pandemic, many girls and young women have taken to modifying where and how they participate. Kicking a soccer ball around in the backyard with siblings, learning to skateboard on the footpath, practicing TikTok dance routines in her bedroom, or doing an online workout with friends, are all great alternatives. Keeping moving for pleasure, learning, self-expression, connection with their peers, and physical fitness are more important than ever in our young women’s lives.

As parents and providers, it is important that we recognize the impact the pandemic is having on girls and young women’s current and future sporting participation and motivation. The radical disruptions to their routines are impacting young women’s mental health and body image, and their relationships with the peer group. Some have lost a lot of confidence in their sporting competencies, as well as their social skills. So, when we ‘push play’ on sport again, we shouldn’t be surprised if not all girls and young women come rushing back immediately. We need to be patient and supportive, and responsive to their changing relationships with sport and active recreation. Some may walk away from sports they’ve loved their entire lives, others may have found new sporting and fitness passions during the pandemic, and some may require a gentler approach to finding their way back to sport, one step at a time.


This article was originally published on sportnz.org.nz for the #itsmymove campaign.

#itsmymove explores factors like judgement, lack of confidence and fear of failure that are barriers to increasing participation by young women. Become part of the #itsmymove movement and help young women to be active and healthy their way.

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