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16 March 2015

London Youth is dedicated to getting more girls into sport. This is how we are going to do it.

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Monday 16 March 2015

Sport has been part of my life for as long as I remember. So I find it hard to understand friends and colleagues who say that they never exercise, and have no desire to. But my London Youth colleague Beth recently helped me see things from her point of view when we were chatting about the impressive new Sport England campaign, This Girl Can, which aims to get more girls and women involved in sport.

Beth asked me if there were things about my job that I didn't like. Public speaking is always something I've hated. The idea of standing up in front of people and talking doesn't appeal at all. Beth explained that for her sport had the same effect, thanks to her experience at school: 'Unlike other classroom based lessons, PE was the only time when it was OK for children to laugh at those who weren't as good' she told me. 'And sometimes even the teachers joined in!'

But women not doing sport is a serious issue. According to Sport England's Active People's Survey, nearly two million fewer women than men play sport once a week. And at the age of 18, twice as many women as men do no sport at all. For women from poorer backgrounds the picture is even worse: only 36% of 16-25 year olds from lower socio-economic groups take part in sport at least once a week, against 49% of those from more affluent backgrounds. This matters, because as we all know, sport brings significant health and wellbeing benefits, and helps keep people active and to enjoy life. And getting involved in sport can simply help young people meet friends and have fun.

So This Girl Can is an important campaign. But can it persuade Beth, and the next generation like her, to take the first step and take part in sport? I've been helping young people get into sport since 2009, and from my experience, in addition to a high quality campaign, a number of things need to be in place if we really want things to change. Here are my top five ideas for what else could make a difference:

Step one: Go to where young women are – don't always rely on schools and sports clubs

My team work with girls and boys in communities in London, like Jade. She isn't from a family that can afford membership of a sports club, and doesn't get on at school – so she is at risk of missing out. But she does go every week to her local youth club. So by offering the chance to Jade to try sport there – in a place she doesn't find intimidating or competitive – she has quickly got involved in street dance and tag rugby.

Step two: Offer choice

Not every girl wants to play netball or hockey. By giving girls a choice you make it easier for them to get active on their own terms. A group of young Muslim women in Tower Hamlets developed a passion for non-contact boxing through trying the sport with a female coach. They now run sessions for other girls and have the support of their family and friends.

Step three: Link the campaign to actual opportunities

Even if girls are tempted by This Girl Can, it needs to be made easy for them to follow up their interest. Perhaps a link from the campaign website to local opportunities available would help. Better still, involving youth workers and others that support young people will help turn inspiration into action. Fran, a young coach who works with girls in East London finds that the best response she gets is when she can tap into the enthusiasm with girls about sport that they might have seen, and help them shape an activity for themselves.

Step four: Make it high quality

Young people – girls or boys – get put off if the kit is horrible, or facilities are run down. But I've seen girls who say they hate sport really getting into activities they have never tried before – such as fencing – when they have a high quality coach, and the chance to use brand new kit in properly structured sessions.

Step five: Show what else sport can lead to

We know not everyone is going to be a Denise Lewis or a Tanni Grey-Thompson. But sport can give young people much better chances in life if supported in the right way. We've looked at data on 200 young people who got involved in sport in their youth club last year through our Getting Ready programme and the results, summarised in our new report Good Youth Work Works? are really encouraging: for 70% of them, their emotional and social capabilities had improved markedly, making them better able to deal with life's challenges. And around 60% reported that they were more resilient, and had increased self-confidence. Exactly what that means in the long term is hard to predict, but all the evidence says that if you give young people these building blocks, they will do better in later life in terms of employment, health and their social activities.

Sport can offer women brilliant opportunities. It has done for me. So This Girl Can is a great campaign and me and my team will do all we can to support it. But I hope there can be more investment in the rest of the package, so we can get even more girls to enjoy those opportunities, and feel the benefits of a sporting habit for life.

I am Head of Sports Development for the charity London Youth, running Getting Ready, an award winning sports programme that works with 3000 young people per year in 100 community organisations.

Click here to read London Youth's full report on outcomes for young people, from its sports development and other programmes.

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