Why Girls Leave Sport & What We Can Do About It?

Why Sport Is Important

We all know that exercise is important. The physical health benefits of exercise are often touted, such as improved stamina, flexibility, bone & muscle strength, heart & lung functioning, and reduced incidence of such chronic diseases as diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease. While the physical health benefits are clear, today we are hearing more about the positive impact exercise – and sports in particular – have on mental, emotional, and social wellbeing.

For those who aren’t aware, the psychosocial benefits of sport include:

  • Lower incidences of anxiety and depression
  • Greater development of self-esteem and confidence
  • Improved cognitive functioning, associated with improved academic performance
  • Development of important life skills such as teamwork, leadership, communication, time management, goal setting, and resilience

The problem is that, based on the 2020 ParticipACTION report card, most Canadian youths are not getting enough exercise. This is due primarily to less physical education in school, less active play at home, and less opportunities for active transportation (i.e. walking and biking instead of driving).

Fortunately there is an abundance of organized sport programs. The report card noted that most Canadian youths do participate in organized sport, and it is where they engage in most of their physical activity.

Knowing this, it should be of particular concern that by the time they are in their teens, girls drop out of sports at a rate of 3x that of their male peers. This is particularly concerning as studies show that girls who drop out of sport in their teens are unlikely to return to physical activity as adults.

Why Girls Are Leaving Sport

Girls tend to drop out of sport in their teens for a few key reasons:

1.Lack of Positive Role Models 

Due to a lack of female coaches coupled with the lack of visible opportunities for females to continue with sport, many girls don’t see a place for themselves in sport. This is particularly noteworthy in that the females that may be seen in sport are often sexualized, at a point where many young women are experiencing self-consciousness related to their own body image.

2. Sport Culture

Girls are much less tolerant of poor sports behaviours than males. They want coaches who are knowledgeable and will help them improve their skills while also creating a positive culture that allows them to develop friendships. When they don’t experience this, they stop viewing sport as fun and leave. This creates a waterfall effect in that many girls will leave sport because their friends have.

3. Lack of Access

With most sport opportunities existing outside of school, access becomes a factor. This can relate to the cost, with some families finding the fees to participate prohibitive. This can also relate to program opportunities, with individuals in some regions having to travel great distances to be able to participate in sport programs. In such regions, sport programs for males tend to be more prevalent than those for females.

How to Keep Girls in Sport

It should be evident that, to keep girls in sport, we must begin to address the factors that are causing them to leave.

1. Positive Role Models

Athletics is unique in that, by being a sport composed of numerous events, athletes have opportunities to find their niche as a runner, jumper, or thrower. Particularly for track & field clubs, it’s important to expose female athletes to as many events as possible so that they see opportunities for themselves to continue to progress in sport.

It is also important to actively encourage young females to become involved as coaches. While we have many great male coaches in our sport there are fewer females. Unfortunately this means that females are less likely to see themselves as potential coaches, making them less likely to pursue coaching unless encouraged to do so. To put it simply, the more females who stay in sport, in any role, the more females that exist to be role models, both to each other and those coming up behind them.

2. Sport Culture

Let’s be proactive about creating a positive sporting environment. Consider taking Keeping Girls in Sport, an online workshop developed specifically to help coaches create a safe and respectful environment for female athletes. Girls want to do well at sports, but they won’t stick around if the culture isn’t positive.

3. Access

Sport needs to exist in schools. With the elimination of most PE specialist positions it is especially important to advocate for continued PE programming for students and physical literacy professional development opportunities for teachers. For many youth, school is the first exposure they will have to sports, but that can’t occur without PE programs.

Organized sport is clearly important as well, as it provides the opportunity to continue developing skills and potentially compete at higher levels. Fortunately, there are amazing programs such as KidSport that will help cover the registration fees for programs offered by member clubs of a Provincial Sport Organization (such as BC Athletics). While the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly slowed down sport participation, it has also shown us the opportunities that exist for virtual training. Particularly for those in remote regions, being able to access both virtual and in person training opportunities could greatly impact young woman wanting to continue in sport. 


What Can You Do?

Keeping girls in sport is important and is something we must all be intentional about. If your club is interested in making this a goal please consider applying for the ViaSport She Play Female Retention Project, a program working to help keep girls 11-14 year old in sport. Apply by Thursday, July 16th for a chance to participate.


Author: Sabrina Nettey - Introductory Programs Coordinator – RunJumpThrowWheel & Junior Development, BC Athletics