23 June 2024
Stereotypes And Sport

Stereotypes And Sport

Do stereotypes actually influence girls’ behaviour during training? Do they influence their attitude during competitions? Could they be the cause of girls dropping out of sport?

There is a whole host of stereotypes about women. Stereotypical expectations formed by society can lead to missing out on many possibilities in life. The classic distinction between feminine and masculine, between what is appropriate for girls and what is appropriate for boys, can have a very negative impact on a child’s well-being and self-esteem. It is quite common for social roles to be difficult for young people, especially when they do not feel comfortable in them.

Sport is one of the many spheres of life where the influence of stereotypes is enormous. They range from girls of a few years old, through teenage girls, young women and even women in their prime. Every one of us struggles with them.

In this article I will refer to the following stereotypes:

  1. Sport is for boys! Girls can dance, do yoga or gymnastics.
  2. Women should look feminine. An athletic figure is not feminine.
  3. Girls should be nice, helpful and friendly.

Sport is for boys!

Since a long time sport is considered as man’s comfort zone. Sport is for boys and that’s it! Girls shouldn’t run (they’ll get sweaty!) or climb trees (they’ll get their dresses dirty!). They shouldn’t compete too much either, because it doesn’t suit a girl to fight so fiercely. The stereotype of the boy athlete and the girl non-athlete is unfair to both sexes. There are plenty of boys who are not interested in sport, who do not like football and who cannot play it! And a whole lot of girls who love sport.

What are the consequences if we stay with those stereotypes?

  • In this way we limit the opportunities for both girls and boys. Girls only have access to certain physical activities, those in which their femininity is emphasised (e.g. artistic gymnastics, synchronised swimming, dance), or those one might say more elegant, such as horse riding or tennis and volleyball.
  • In this way we show that girls are not equal to boys. If they were as good as boys, they could also play football or rugby.
  • we start to build up a big division between boys who know about sport and girls who know nothing about it. When these children grow up, it can be a source of tease from men and a source of insecurity for women and a feeling that they are inferior and ‘too stupid’ to understand what the sport is all about.
  • We strengthen unhealthy habits in girls. Physical activity is needed to maintain both physical and mental health.

It is clear from research conducted by Women in Sport and the Youth Sport Trust that:

  • The girls aged 7 and 8 who participated in the study were already conscious of gender differences in perceptions of girls’ physical skills.
  • The 7-8 year old boys in the study tended to think they were better at sport than the girls – with the girls not necessarily agreeing.

We read in the report that already among children aged 7-8 years, gender stereotypes were strongly manifested in the context of defining themselves and what is important to them.

Women should look feminine!

The above statement is very hurtful, regardless of age and life situation. Feminine, means how exactly? What canon of beauty does the current reality serve us? Do we really want little girls to imitate the models that the media serve us?

The appearance of girls is commented on from their infancy. They should look like dolls, with shiny hair and tulle dresses. Long hair, preferably undone, a slim figure, a smile that never leaves the face. Clothes that emphasise the shape but are modest at the same time.

In the world of sport, it’s not how you look that matters, it’s how you train and how you are able to transfer your training into results at competitions. For young female athletes, sporting development is the most important thing, because it is something they themselves really want. But very often this is in conflict with what society expects of a young woman – to be feminine. Girls are afraid that an athletic figure will be less beautiful than the one created by the media. They are afraid that through strength training they will “grow muscles” and look like “tomboys”. That their overly muscular legs, arms or any part of the body will be the object of jokes and common criticism. Plus, in badminton, as in tennis, there is the issue of the athlete’s sportswear (skirts or trousers, or perhaps a dress?) and the numerous comments made about it.

In the mentioned report (you can find it here) it can be read that the teachers who took part in the research noticed a lack of positive role models for girls in the sports environment (compared to boys). The teachers and parents agreed that, girls start to become much more aware of their looks, comparing themselves to TV and other media celebrities. As one teacher pointed out, this contributes to the perception that sport may not be a ‘ladylike thing to do.’

Girl should be nice, friendly and help others!

Social roles define very strictly how girls should behave. They should be polite, they should help those who are in need, they should smile and not complain. A submissive attitude, one that aims to put the needs of others before one’s own, works against female athletes. It prevents them from achieving success in sport. What exactly is this about?

Competitive sport is about competition. To succeed in sport we have to compete, we have to fight for every point, every record. Whatever the sport it is. We fight our weaknesses, we develop our skills. We improve our game. On many occasions I have seen girls who wanted to be nice during a match and therefore did not use their opponent’s weaknesses. As a result, they lost because they were not able to score points. They were afraid that if they played too hard, they would be perceived as aggressive, selfish and being ready to achieve their goals at any costs. And you know, a girl shouldn’t be like that. And if she is, nobody will like her.

In that case, what next? How can we change this?

As coaches and teachers, we can try not to comment on the girls’ appearance. Let’s talk about the fact that it’s not that important. Make them feel that we value other values in them. Let’s be attentive to how girls view their bodies and respond if necessary!

If we are going to comment on a girl’s behaviour (e.g. aggressive, selfish), let’s first consider whether we would pay attention to this behaviour if it were a boy or not.

Do not divide physical activities into those for boys and those for girls. Let girls play rugby and boys dance!

Talk to your parents! According to a report from Women in Sport: among children aged 7-8 years, the family still plays a major role in shaping attitudes. This is reflecting in how the children in research groups defined their priorities. Therefore, let us set an example for our pupils, and also for the adults around us.

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