Hectoring PE teachers are turning girls off sport.

That’s what the president of the Girls’ Schools Association has said this week, and what research being presented to a conference on the subject will say.

Hilary French – currently head teacher at one of the country’s top girls’ schools – argues the “old-style barracking associated with PE teachers destroys confidence and turns girls off sport”.

Girls and sport
Photo via cheryldecarteret on Flickr

I completely agree with her on the issues around girls and sport. At the risk of pulling a Pippa Middleton here, memories of my school PE days are of a said “old-school” teacher (who if I remember rightly was terribly unfit himself) barking at us as through apocalyptic weather as we were forced to run laps of a muddied school field in an attempt at cross country, or jeering at you during hockey/football/rugby/gymnastics/athletics (delete as appropriate) if you weren’t one of those who were naturally gifted at sports.

The result, Hilary French says, is that girls end up feeling self-conscious and embarrassed, and become completely turned off by sport. Again, I’d say Hilary is right on, as does research which has consistently shown that girls drop out of sport from their teens onwards.

A University of Loughborough study found that although around 60% of eight-year-old boys and girls took part in roughly the same amount of physical activity – at least one hour, five days a week – this figure had halved for girls by the time they were 14. For boys it had dropped by just 10%. And Sport England says that for all sports, half as many 16-24-year-old women take part as men of the same age. This shows that the gap between girls and sport is huge.

For me, this was certainly true. After compulsory PE lessons stopped at the age of 16, I reckon I did little to no exercise until my early 20s.

To put to stop to this, Hilary goes on to say that girls need a different approach when it comes to teaching sport, adding: “Lots of girls need persuading and coaxing.”

But I’m not so sure it’s about coaxing and persuading – more about encouraging girls to see exercise as not only about the physical, but as beneficial to your overall well-being.

In my 20s, I only really got back into exercise when I came to understand that it was something that gave me power over my body and my mind. Those hectoring teachers made my teenage self feel powerless, but if they had taken a more holistic approach when talking to female students – looking at how we wanted exercise to make us feel, rather than simply seeing how far we could run – I would have understood more that this was for my benefit, not humiliation. That is was about building confidence through feeling good, rather than destroying it by feeling inadequate. 

One of the other things teenage girls say puts them off exercise at school is the notion that getting sweaty and red-faced in front of the boys is unfeminine, if not distinctly unsexy. A massive concerned when you’re 15.

But one of my biggest exercise inspirations, Bangs and a Bun, talks about breaking down the myth that sweating is bad – instead seeing it as badass. The Sunday Times Style magazine’s #FitNotThin campaign recently promoted a similar message, and I wish I’d had someone telling me this when I was that age. That getting a sweat on during your work-out is a sign of strength and determination – definitely attractive qualities.

So instead of trying to “coax” and “persuade” girls that exercise is good for them, without tackling their underlying reluctance, wouldn’t it be great if our teachers helped them into a mind-frame where doing anything else would seem seriously unwise for both body and mind.

This type of holistic teaching could help girls to grow up as more grounded, rounded individuals. I’ve talked this about before in relationships education, and it was in the news again last week when a group of education experts said kids should not start formal schooling until the age of five, with early years placing much more emphasis on play.

Education secretary Michael Gove’s department said the experts were “misguided”.

But if our politicians won’t even entertain the debate, there seems little hope of change – a huge shame when experts indicate a crisis in our teen’s self-confidence and obesity. Girls and sport – it’s an ongoing problem.

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