Moving the goal posts for adolescent girls in sports

The impact of body image on female participation rates

A weekly ritual for many parents of young children is the frenzied, post-dinner dash to get their child to soccer or baseball or basketball practice. But, as the years go by, a pattern that many parents notice is that while boys enthusiastically continue their sports participation well into high school, girls tend not to.

The reasons vary—from the increasing importance to girls of social relationships outside of sports; to a renewed commitment to doing well in high school in preparation for postsecondary school; to taking on a part-time job.

A study funded by Sport Canada through the Sport Participation Research Initiative found another key factor. After surveying, over three years, 521 girls aged 12-to-16 years who were involved in several team sports, such as soccer, softball and hockey, researcher Catherine Sabiston found that “girls would drop out of these sports due to body image challenges.”

“Within the first year, 21 per cent of girls dropped out of at least one sport, and 6 per cent dropped out altogether. After the second year, an additional 18 per cent of girls dropped at least one sport, and 8 per cent dropped all sports,” says Sabiston.

“Their negative emotions around the body were tied to a number of factors, including socialization from parents and family, teachers, coaches, and peers; comparisons to others who are perceived to be better at sports and/or had better appearances; self-comparison to ideals promoted in media that tend to be unrealistic to achieve; and, especially, the influence of social media comments and comparative images posted on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram,” she concludes.

Sabiston is Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Mental Health, and a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto. The issue of body image and sports is of personal importance to her.

“I have always been interested in body image, as an athlete myself witnessing the body talk and weight commentary—the environment of sport being social, evaluative, and competitive. The research shows that adolescence is a time of steep dropout from sport for girls, and it was time to test the hypothesis that part of this was a result of body image and social comparison.”

Adolescent girls in sports experience a wide range of emotions, not all of them bad. Some do feel proud of their body and their accomplishments, which is obviously a strength that can help them stay in sport. But, Sabiston says, the girls studied also experienced feelings of anxiety and self-consciousness about their changing bodies, which influenced their enjoyment of sports.

She has created a video illustrating her research, with the help of PhD candidate Jenna Gilchrist. It outlines the emotional factors that influence a girl’s decision to leave sports, and what remedies are available to help encourage them to stay.

This is, in fact, the focus of the next stage of Sabiston’s work.

“We are going to be testing different mechanisms that can be the target of interventions,” such as whether having confidence in their physical abilities helps adolescent girls stay in sports, she says. Sabiston will also be “working collaboratively with coaches and teachers to develop training modules for reducing weight and body talk; and will continue to follow girls in sports to further test reasons for dropout and poor sport experiences.”

“Ultimately, we want to be able to keep girls in sport so that there are more women involved in all aspects of it—as coaches, trainers, referees, directors and policy-makers,” says Sabiston