A sporting generation lost through Covid?

The pandemic is drastically affecting girls and young women participating in sport and active recreation. How do you stop them walking away from the sports they love? Professor Holly Thorpe writes.

Before the Covid pandemic struck, women in sport around the world were experiencing new and significant gains – through greater recognition, accessibility and wage parity campaigns.

This was certainly true in Aotearoa 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 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 prioritization 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 has 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 organized team sports.

Even when sport was recommended, a range of new fears had surfaced for many women and girls, with their engagement and attendance now 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 individualized physical activity participation as opposed to organized sport is likely to continue during and beyond Covid 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 changed forever.

Such trends have prompted Australian researchers to predict a generation of Australian youth ‘lost’ from sport because of Covid.

Will we experience a ‘lost generation’ here in Aotearoa, too?

Club sports are trying to rebuild from lockdowns and Covid cases. Photo: Pamela Buenrostro | Unsplash

Sport New Zealand is working hard to rebuild sports clubs and ensure a strong recovery process, and their recent campaign ‘It’s My Move’ targeting young women aged 14-18 is particularly timely, as our girls and young women experience a ‘double hit’ of both pandemic and gendered effects on their sporting participation.

For many, the stop-start nature of sporting seasons, or the abrupt and prolonged cessation of training and competition, mean 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 sports.

The effects of Covid on girls’ mental health

Women are experiencing even greater economic, health, and gender-based violence disparities than they did before 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 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.

The realities for young women living in pandemic times are radically different. They face new pressures, fears and anxieties. But young women are not a homogeneous group.

It’s important to recognize that these challenges are being experienced differently by girls and young women from different socio-economic, cultural and religious backgrounds. It’s understandable their relationships with sport are changing in response to this ever-evolving social landscape.

The value of sport during Covid

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 (ie fear, disappointment, confusion, frustration, anger) and for all the well-known physical benefits of physical movement.

In 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.

Through the pandemic many girls have changed the way they’re keeping active. Photo: Husam Yaghi | Unsplash

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’s important that we recognize the impact of 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, as we ‘push play’ on sport again, adults 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.

If we are patient, supportive and responsive to their concerns, we might be able to work together to find creative ways to avoid a ‘Lost Generation’ of girls and young women from sport.

The latest campaign from Sport New Zealand #Itsmymove is certainly one great initiative towards this goal, with an array of resources for parents, providers and young women, too.

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