Objective: Despite increases in sport participation among girls since the passing of Title IX legislation, girls still tend to have lower physical activity in comparison to boys. The aim of this pilot study was to better understand perspectives of adolescent girls about physical activity.
Methods: Ten girls aged 13 to 17 years were invited to participate in two, one-hour, structured focus groups using a phenomenological approach. Convenience sampling was used for this pilot study. The girls were queried about the physical activities they do, their enjoyment of that activity, their thoughts about others engaged in physical activity, reasons why girls stop physical activity, and ideas about how girls can be helped to re-engage in physical activity if they ended sport participation in high school.
Results: Four themes from the focus groups were identified, including Inspiration/Motivation, Comradery, Accomplishment, and Fairness. On a positive note, girls participated in many types of physical activity, both in and out of school, and recognized its benefits from physical, social and psychological perspectives. On a negative note, they spoke at length about school-related discrepancies relative to unequal treatment of boys’ and girls’ sports teams.
Conclusions: In this group of girls, physical activity was lauded as a healthy and enjoyable behavior, yet displeasure with school preferences for acknowledging and supporting boys’ sports was a stark reminder of the gender gap that still exists in school settings for promoting girls’ exercise activities.
It has been 40 years since Title IX legislation was passed in the U.S. One of the issues this Title was designed to end were “barriers in sports for women and girls.”1 Over a decade ago, McCallister, et al. qualitatively queried pre-adolescent children about sports and found that sports participation was viewed as having primarily masculine characteristics and that performing sport “like a girl” was viewed as negative and derogatory.2 In the U.S., boys outnumber girls’ high school sports participation and boys have higher participation in outdoor recreation pursuits than similarly aged girls.3,4 Girls still lag behind boys in school-based physical activity.3,4
Since recent research points to school teachers as having major influences in girls’ attitudes toward and participation in extracurricular sports, schools are considered an opportune location to promote physical activity for children and adolescents.5,6 While state curricula and school grade level dictate physical education requirements, many school extracurricular opportunities can promote physical activity for girls. As we were working with families impacted by breast cancer and examining the potential impact of physical activity, we wondered whether there has been an increase in positive attitude, perception and practice linked to physical activity in adolescent girls compared to that observed in the past. We conducted a preliminary feasibility study to determine how willing teen girls would be to provide information about their physical activities.
We used a convenience sample to invite a group of adolescent girls (10 girls aged 13-17 years) to participate in a focus group. At the focus group, we discussed (a) their lived experiences with physical activity and (b) their thoughts, feelings and rationale for participation in physical activities. We used a short interview schedule, of six open-ended questions, that allowed us to guide the participants in the discussion. The conversation lasted 60 minutes and was audio recorded and transcribed. We reviewed the transcript using open coding to identify overarching themes. As we worked through the transcript, we reviewed the information line-by-line to determine what ideas the participants used to describe their experiences with physical activity. The study team discussed the emerging themes in detail to ensure that we had a clear interpretation of the information. The information from these conversations indicated that although they enjoy physical activities in school settings, girls end their participation early due to lack of support and recognition by teachers and school administration. All study procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of Utah.
These young women were involved in a number of physical fitness and exercise activities, which included traditional aerobic conditioning exercise such as running, “intense fitness classes,” dance, and physical education class; sports, such as ice hockey, soccer, swimming, track, tennis and water polo; and individual activities such as weight training, hiking and yoga. Based on our conversation with these youth, four overarching themes came to light, i.e., Inspiration/Motivation, Comradery, Accomplishment, and Fairness, which are important for how girls see their participation and value of their efforts in physical activities at school.
The participants were asked what they thought about when they saw other girls participating in physical activities. They noted that “it’s inspiring” when watching peers and/or star athletes. In addition, one participant stated, “You can see how far you have come” when thinking about her own workouts. This inspiration connected the girl’s internal motivation for exercise and developing physical fitness. In terms of positive effect, participants noted different reasons for doing physical activities:
– “I just do it because it gives me something to do. If I go home right after school, I will just do nothing. Sports kind of give focus because I know I have a limited time to do homework and stuff.”
– “I do it because I want to stay healthy and fit…just kind of for my own good.”
Participants noted that having friends and others work out with them enabled them to maintain a level of interest in physical fitness. Having this type of comradery linked to external motivations for completing physical activity and having a companion to work with meant possible accountability and/or fun, and allowed individuals to select an activity for which the impact of friends was key. When asked about what types of things might help them increase their physical activity, the participants noted:
– “If people encourage them to do it, . . . they will try harder.”
– “Doing it with their friends.”
The girls were asked how they felt when they moved a lot and/or if they were expected to move a lot in their activities. Their responses related to a sense of accomplishment, both with being involved in physical activity and with putting forth a best effort:
– “…I know I was there; I was doing my best. I know it is going to pay off and it is worth it to be there. I always feel really good about that.”
– “I feel accomplished, like . . . I did something besides just sitting there, wasting my time.”
One area that evolved from the conversation was about the lack of community recognition for girls’ activities. Although this was not a topic we specifically intended to query, it was clear that the issue of public recognition for sports participation was of major concern to the girls; they initiated this part of the discussion. The participants were asked why girls stop participating in physical fitness activities, especially in comparison to boys. Their responses were connected to perceived community preference for boys’ activities and realization that boys were more often pushed into sporting activities and recognized for these activities:
– “I think that sports is not something that is as pressured as much on girls than as boys. I think that sometimes it does not feel as important to girls. So I think it is not as emphasized.”
– “People talk to guys about sports more. I have seen teachers come into rooms and start asking the guys like how is baseball going, how is basketball coming? But they do not ever ask girls about it.”
– “At our school, there are so many girls who are so into their sports. It is just no one gives them the recognition. We do not have fan clubs for those [girls’] teams. We have fan clubs for the boys’ teams though.”
The results of this feasibility study provided important insights into the physical activity experiences of teen girls. Our four themes, Inspiration/Motivation, Comradery, Accomplishment, and Fairness, are largely supported by a recent review by Standiford, who categorized themes into somewhat larger categories of Perceptual, Interpersonal and Situational influences for participation.7 The strongest statements from this group of adolescent girls were captured in the construct of Fairness in our study, and articulated as “contending with boys” by Standiford.7 The girls in our study were queried as to why many girls do not persist in sport and exercise participation. The response of the girls was notably strong relative to the role of schools in supporting the boys and affording girls little, if any, recognition. Girls stated that schools allowed students to leave school early or even allowed students to miss school on days when the boys’ football or basketball teams were playing in a championship game:
– “So if we are in the state championships or anything, we will get out early if it is boys. But if it’s the girls, we do not get out early.”
– “Our drill team actually went to state and it was not a school excused. Like they encouraged us to go, but it was not school excused. But for the guys’ basketball team, it was a school-excused thing.”
Such actions were taken to ensure that the boys’ teams would have fan support from peers, teachers and other school personnel. Our participants reported that this type of school support was never offered to girls’ teams. Further, school administrators would often announce upcoming boys’ team events during morning announcements, but would rarely provide the same information about girls’ teams. As noted in the statements below, teen girls experienced lack of support due to clear preference for teen boys’ activities:
– “Like they come over the intercom or the teacher tells you like oh there is a football game tonight. There is also a tennis game tonight, but. . .”
– “Our school glorifies our football team. They glorify our basketball team. But our girls’ tennis team and our girls’ soccer team like none of the girls’ teams get as much recognition as our basketball team or our football team.”
– “Swimming will be like region champions and then people will be like, “I didn’t know we had a swim team.” It is like yes we do have a swim team. [laughter] We are there.”
While we suspected that girls would address inequities between girls and boys in the realm of physical activity, exercise and sport, we were surprised at the girls’ level of discontent with schools and their seemingly frank disregard for girls’ roles in sport.
Public Health Implications:
Existing practices that perpetuate the notion that boys are better at sports and, therefore are favored over girls in sport settings, were described by the girls in the present study and have been reported elsewhere.5 Wetton and colleagues noted that, among a sample of 60 girls aged 15 to 16 years old, perceived lack of ability, negative experiences in physical education classes, and teacher preference for working with skilled students were reasons girls did not participate in team sports.5 The girls in our present study stated that favoritism for boys’ sports was perpetuated by the school environment and, in particular, unsupportive teachers. Participation was considered a highly visible expectation for boys and a low-priority option for girls. Interestingly, one girl in the study described physical activity opportunities as a socially acceptable outlet for her aggression (a sentiment that resonated with the group), especially against boys.
The role of physical activity in promoting a multitude of health benefits was mentioned by our participants in the present study and by young women from other countries.5,8,9 The participants in this study specifically described the immediate benefits of physical activity such as stress management, sense of accomplishment, and being a healthy person. They also recognized that school credit can be earned through physical education class, which was viewed as positive. In terms of public health, there seems to be an overall lack of physical activity support for young women. This area is one in which public health professionals could conduct more research and develop clear models about why physical activities are important for young women as well as how to create a culture of support for young women’s participation.
Social aspects of physical activity were highly valued by the girls in the current study including friendship, meeting new people and being a team member. The general influence of others is captured by Standiford as Interpersonal Influences and includes parents and teachers in addition to friends; though the present group of girls did not mention teachers as positively influencing their own participation, they were very outspoken about the discrepancy between teachers’ support of boys’ sports versus girls’ sports, suggesting that teachers could have a positive influence on their own participation.7 A recent school-based intervention aimed to improve health behaviors among adolescents, including increased physical activity and decreased sedentary time, was favorable for promoting such changes.10 However, physical activity improvements were most notable among the boys and sedentary time among the girls did not decrease. Thus, a social system of support for girls needs to be developed with a public health lens to promote physical activity options for females in the school system.
This study supports the work of others and brings new information to the effort to increase physical activity among teen girls. Specifically, we found that girls enjoy team sports and recognize the benefits of teamwork; they use physical activity to manage stress and aggression; and they can be discouraged by stereotypical attitudes. Based on a review article about the motivation for participation in sports by Deaner, Balish, and Lombardo, the finding about team sports participation appears to be potentially novel since research has indicated that females’ rationale for sports participation is very different from males’ rationale.11 In fact, one qualitative study, which connects to the work by Deaner, Balish, and Lombardo, noted that physical education teachers’ approaches to increasing girls’ participation in school-based programming were, in fact, largely based upon gender stereotypes, despite recent advancements in physical education curricula.12 Albeit small, this study supports persistent gender stereotypes in school physical education programming and links to the findings from our focus group discussion—that boys’ sports activities are held out as most important illustrating that boys are expected to participate in sports, but girls are not.
In summary, based on the comments made by the girls in the focus group, the school environment is a place that can potentially improve the physical activity participation of adolescent girls. Promoting physical activity can be achieved by having policies that ensure that girls’ sports are promoted and noted at the same level as boys’ sports. For example, if school attendance is waived on days when boys’ sports teams are competing in championship situations, it seems higher level policy makers ought to be part of this support for girls’ participation as well. Schools should ensure that students understand that physical activities through the sports for males and females are on equal footing as “events” that students are expected to support by their attendance.
Another potential policy change would be to enhance opportunities for girls to participate in the same variety of sports that boys are offered. One example is intramural sports and recreational physical activities that are organized at a variety of skill levels, and another is to not categorize physical education offerings by gender. The proposed variations could help girls increase physical activity while enjoying the social and teamwork benefits of physical activity they like, since these are factors that encourage their participation. Although less is known about the types of variation that might best promote ongoing physical activity for girls, research questions to be considered might include whether same sex physical education classes promote girls participating in physical activity for more years. Answers to these types of questions should be gathered through research to inform revised policies.
Finally, girls in this study identified a variety of benefits associated with participating in physical activity in addition to physical health. These included spending time with friends, feeling a sense of accomplishment, and managing emotions and stress. As schools address the current mental health issues of students, physical activity can be prioritized as a tool to promote mental wellness.
Forty years after the passage of Title IX legislation, it is clear that significant strides still must be made to address the issues related to sex-based discrimination. Schools should play an important role in promoting gender equality by creating a welcoming environment for girls’ participation in organized sports as well as other physical activities. Creating a supportive environment for physical activities and sports for girls in educational settings can promote continued activity into adulthood for women.
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