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The ultimate guide to empowering young women

Every girl, even those who say they aren’t sporty, has it within her power to make sport part of her balanced life. The trick is in setting clear, tangible goals and focusing on achieving the 3 F’s. Fun, friends and fitness.

Let’s face it. Going through puberty is a rollercoaster of a time. What with the mood swings, the self-consciousness and the body changes, we are all left feeling completely bewildered - whether we are a parent or a teenager.

Somewhere along this exciting - yes exciting - journey, there is something that seems to affect girls more than it does boys. Sport, which is so key for anyone’s mental and physical wellbeing, takes a backbench for a lot of girls as they become young women. Girls become young women and somewhere along the way they lose interest in participating in sport.

Even at a younger age there is still a wide gap between girls and boys who play sport. Our research found that only 68% currently participate in any form of sport, compared to 77% of boys. This figure declines dramatically throughout their teenage years so that by age 16-18, only 38% of girls participate in sport.

Sport is so important in helping young people feel healthy physically and mentally. A whopping 92% of girls agree that it is important to play sport so as parents it’s just about finding the right ways to encourage their daughters to take action.

Why do girls face these challenges?

To find the best solution, you have to understand the problem. We caught up with Jono Nicholas, CEO of ReachOut, to better grasp what challenges girls and young women face when they’re growing up which can discourage them from playing sport. ReachOut is a mental health organisation that provides practical support for young people.

“It’s a critical age for young women in their early teens as they become more conscious of their body changes and they start to lose interest in sport. Parents don’t need to be afraid of their kids becoming more conscious of what they look like. These are biological changes that are going to happen naturally. The important thing is to help reinforce their daughters’ connection to sport and help them to set the goals which will help them realise the most balanced wellbeing in body and mind.”

How can we help encourage girls to play sport?

Fun & Friends

Fun and friendships are the core benefits of playing sport, according to the girls who participated in our study. 84% of them felt that playing sport helps them to forget their worries.

It’s important that girls playing team sports have a supportive environment which is fun and encourages friendships to flourish. The structure and balance this provides has an incredible impact physically and mentally. Both are very closely connected.

Jono says that a key goal of any sports team should be to “build a really strong team culture with teammates that supports each other” regardless of whether they win a match or not.

“People are motivated when they think they are part of a bigger purpose than themselves. If the goal is to have a supportive team then you can figure out what practical actions you need to take to achieve that purpose.

To achieve a good culture you might, for example, organise that once a week the team have a dinner together. A good coach will figure out ways to measure progress both on an individual and a collective group level.”

He points out that “sport by itself isn’t magical”. Simply joining a netball team and expecting the magic to do its thing won’t work. Parents play a very critical role in educating their children to choose friendships that make them feel good. Teaching them to surround themselves with people who make them feel good is a key skill which will help them to achieve a strong sense of wellbeing throughout their lives.

Jono makes the point that this can be achieved by parents having deliberate conversations with their children, as well as through leading by example.

" A lot of people have this perception that these things happen by accident but you can actually be very deliberate about the way you approach this. For example, don't rely on luck that your kids will find the right friends at school, have real conversations with your kids and encourage them to choose friends that make them feel good, that they genuinely enjoy spending time with and don't judge them by the way they look."

Fitness not thinness

When teenage girls start to become more self-conscious about their bodies, sport can have a really positive impact on their confidence.

Jono points out that this is largely because “sport emphasises worth through physical capabilities, not through looks.”

By focusing, for example, on wins like beating their own personal best, rather than on how many calories they’ve eaten in a day or how many kilos they’ve lost, girls are practising positive reinforcement that makes a very healthy wellbeing. At whatever level of fitness they are, goals that prioritise becoming stronger and healthier are much more rewarding to measure.

The Power of Goal Setting

Girls can be empowered to achieve their goals by getting an effective process in place. Firstly, set a goal. Secondly, figure out the micro-steps that you need to do to achieve that goal. This breaks down a mammoth task into bitesize, achievable stages. Thirdly, track progress on a regular basis. Reassess what you need to do in step 2 to achieve step 1. Repeat.

“Goal setting is one of the most valuable skills that we can teach young people. The best thing you can do is focus on progress not performance. The highest performing athletes can actually be quite miserable and the reason for this is that they have replaced the concept of improvement with performance, which is really judgement.”

" Your goal for the year shouldn't solely be to become champions. If you set the bar so high that people become miserable if they don't hit it, you miss the point of sport. If you want to maximise your well being and confidence set goals that are tangible."

Focus on improvement rather than winning. Improvement on an individual and group level can be tracked. People get a lot of personal satisfaction from mastering tangible goals and overcoming challenges one step at a time.

Encourage girls to repeat the mantra. The more I practice, the harder I work, the better I’ll be.

"It's all about teaching your children that their key goal is to live a balanced life of school, friends and sports. These are skills for life."

Celebrate the wins

The most important thing is to celebrate the progress. Win or lose. Individual and group achievements are just as, if not more, important to celebrate as winning. It’s not enough to just give ourselves a pat on the back, of course. The most powerful positive reinforcement comes from a combined force of self-congratulation and recognition from our friends, family and role models. It’s important that girls receive this kind of support from others but also play an active part in cheering on their teammates. Girls and young women who help each other do better as individuals.

Jessica Holsden, founder of seed.ED Educationary and YouTube podcast host of “Study with Jess”, a resource which encourages girls and young women to get through their studies in a positive way, puts it nicely.

“Her win is my win. The better she does, the better I do.”

ReachOut is Australia's leading online health website for young people and their parents. Working with registered counsellors, psychologists and mental health professionals ReachOut provides online self-help tools that are used by over 1.5 million Australians each year. A valuable resource for many parents, teens and young adults.

If your child, or anyone you know is having issues with self-esteem, confidence or mental or physical health, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

This content includes the views and opinions of a third-party, and does not necessarily reflect the views of Suncorp. Information is intended to be of a general nature only and any advice has been prepared without taking into account any person's particular objectives, personal situation or needs.

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