By Natalie Smithson from Underneath the Elephant
Discovering a new park that you didn’t know was there is very exciting when you have children, especially when that park is a stone’s throw from where you live. We all trundled off to uncover an obstacle course with a decent number of activities. Naturally, we didn’t use them for their intended purpose of serious exercise, we played run-outs instead. I had a vague recollection of this kids’ game, where one person guards whichever spot you call Home and the others have to sneak past to get there, so I joined in. I loitered on a rope bridge until I spied my chance. Taking my leap of faith I took everyone by surprise. “He’s only six!” laughed my husband, with a look of bemused alarm on his face as I darted Home past my step-son. I bolted as though the great Usain was behind me and like I might do myself an injury. I’d forgotten how to run. I looked like a turkey. I couldn’t breathe for a while afterwards, but it was the most fun I’d had in ages. I felt great. I should be doing this kind of thing more often. When did I decide as a young girl that sports weren’t for me? I began to wonder if I’d really missed out and if my step-daughter might too.
There’s been a lot of talk about girls and sport in the news lately. BBC News issued the headline: Sport builds girls’ confidence, says schools leader, and Parentdish published this blog post: ‘Fit’ should not be used to describe attractiveness, says headteacher. The premise of each is that girls are much less involved in sports at school than boys are and that looks are higher up their agenda than competitive games. This rang true for me. For many years I’ve told myself and others that I am “rubbish” at sports. I’m “no good” at any sport. Yet already I’d gained a full collection of swimming badges, excelled in netball – I was Goal Attack, and even though I couldn’t muster stamina or enthusiasm for long distance running, I won the majority of sprints I raced. Not only this, but I was good at football, which was considered unusual and not taken seriously because I was a girl. My aggression on the netball court was deemed unladylike. Instead, I joined the trampolining club. It was fun, but I was good at this too. Who or what, then, convinced me that I was “rubbish” when there was so much opportunity?
I came to realise it happened over time. I had no reason to be good at sports. Anybody I knew who played sports was male. The most I ever saw of women in professional sports was at Wimbledon and I didn’t witness anyone getting excited about their matches – it was all about the men’s singles. The F1 had no female drivers, only young women in short shorts holding flags. Men’s football and rugby were the only matches that anybody I knew paid to see. Equally, they seemed to be the only sports that offered any opportunity for professionals. Snooker dominated Sunday afternoons. Cricket made frequent appearances on the news. Any sports with high numbers of women participating in them seemed to be mocked or dismissed – except for beach volleyball, the only sport that got a crowd excited. It’s hardly any surprise I switched off, but I don’t want this for my step-daughter. As do all of our young girls, she deserves better.
I realise now that I am already contributing to her not seeking out sporting success. I will resolutely say that I am “not sporty”. I declare that “I hate football” and “cricket is boring”. I feel this way because I’m excluded. Standing on the sidelines is boring. Yet all of this talk reinforces the fact that as women we ‘don’t do’ sport. Such a girl – the word is actively used as a description to say that a person is weak and incapable. It has to stop. It’s not true. So you might not be a medal winner, but you can have fun trying. I won’t make a big song and dance about it. I’m not going to join the local rugby team or start wearing head bands. I won’t force my step-daughter to join the under 12s football team as if to prove a point. I’ll simply follow the Sports Watch mantra and turn up to women’s events when sports are on our agenda. I’ll stop saying I can’t do it, because I can, and so can she. When we see hurdles in our path, we will jump.
© Natalie Smithson 2014, all rights reserved