Breaking Barriers and Creating Opportunities for Girls in Sports

High School Girls Lacrosse

Sports have the power to transform lives, build character, and foster personal growth. However, when it comes to girls’ participation in sports, there are still institutional and systemic barriers that need to be addressed.

One organization is doing it right.

Parentology met with Marco Di Buono, the President of Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities (Jumpstart). We discussed the initiatives undertaken by Jumpstart to keep girls in sports and highlighted the importance of creating inclusive and empowering environments for young female athletes, on and off the field.

Understanding the Barriers

Di Buono emphasizes the need to center girls and young women in the design and implementation of sports programs, claiming that the predominantly male-oriented sport system, from governance levels to coaching and volunteer positions, often fails to empathize with and acknowledge the lived experiences of girls and young women.

One significant barrier he identifies is the difference in the ways boys and girls experience sports.

“Girls prioritize bonding as teammates and the overall enjoyment of playing…they don’t want to jump right into the technical and tactical skill development,” Di Buono says. “And they’ve articulated this in their own voice.”

Another crucial aspect is the increased risk of certain types of training injuries faced by girls. Di Buono notes, “There’s a bit of a crisis with over training injuries, particularly ACL injuries. Girls are far more predisposed to certain types of training injuries. Boys are not. So even designing training programs that take that into consideration and don’t exacerbate the elevated risk that girls present inherently.”

Girls in Sports
Credit: Shutterstock

Di Buono also cites that apparel and equipment inequities often drive girls away from play.

“As girls are aging into preteens and teens, recognizing that certain types of uniforms may not be as comfortable,” he says. “Particularly as girls are going through menstruation; they’re much more self conscious about the types of things they’re wearing.”

These are just some of the barriers that girls have articulated as to why the system isn’t as welcoming to them as their male counterparts.

Gender Integration and Inclusive Pathways

While discussing the models of gender integration in traditionally male-dominated sports versus all-girls sports teams, Di Buono doesn’t prefer one model over the other, but rather thinks we can, and should, have both.

“Some gender integration programs work for some girls and young women, others don’t,” he says. “There’s now an all-girls tackle football team in the Toronto area that is going to compete with other all-girls tackle football teams. There are girls that play on all boys tackle football teams throughout the rest of the province.”

He says it’s not about valuing one model over the other, rather “it’s really a question of let’s offer a multitude of pathways for these girls to be able to enjoy sports in ways that they see is best suited for them.”

Jumpstart’s Initiatives

Jumpstart has undertaken several programs to promote gender parity and enhance girls’ involvement in sports. One of their key initiatives is the “Keeping Girls in Sport” coaching education resource, designed to increase coaching competence around the feminine experience in sport. Di Buono explains the rationale behind this resource, stating, “We noticed that you can build it, but if you don’t train the individuals to have a mindset that is cognizant of the female experience in sport, you’re not creating a welcoming environment.”

Furthermore, Jumpstart has partnered with Canadian women in sport to implement the “Same Game Challenge.” This initiative applies a gender equity lens to grassroots organizations, ensuring that the entire structure, from volunteer boards to coaches and program designs, is designed to make girls feel welcome and safe.

“Play to Lead” Program

Jumpstart’s “Play to Lead” program focuses on the long-term goal of creating the next generation of female leaders in sports. This program engages high school girls who have either dropped out or are still participating in sports. Over a six-month period, the program highlights the competencies developed through sports, such as teamwork, resiliency, and conflict resolution.

“Let’s highlight what those look like and build muscle memory for these girls over a six-month period,” he says. “Let’s create a community of participants who are going through this at the same time so they can rely on each other for support and then let’s ultimately find them opportunities within the sports system, whether it’s grassroots or whether some of them want to become broadcasters or some of them want to become coaches.”

Positive Retention and Future Expansion

Jumpstart’ efforts in keeping girls in sports have yielded remarkable results in terms of retention. The organization has experienced high participation rates and positive feedback from girls who have gone through their programs.

“With the first cohort of 42 girls, we had 96% participation over the six-month period,” Di Buono says. “Some of them now have told us they’re so excited about what they’ve learned they want to put programs together in their communities right away.”

He adds that their goal is to have 1200 young women go through this program over the next five years and become the next generation of leaders, within the Canada sports system, and beyond.

Expanding Reach

While Jumpstart’s mandate is primarily domestic, Di Buono acknowledges the global significance of empowering girls in sports.

“We’ve recently been connecting with our peers in the sport for development space in the UK, Australia, and other parts of Europe and the United States,” he says enthusiastically. “We got a lot of ideas for how we designed our program from them. But we’re also sharing what we’re learning with them as well, in the hopes that they will replicate and customize as per the local needs of their markets.”

High School Basketball
Credit: Shutterstock

While Jumpstart’s programs and mandates are tailored to address local needs, the exchange of knowledge and experiences can inspire positive change globally. Jumpstart is actively engaged in sharing the results of their initiatives at conferences, both within Canada and abroad, to contribute to the broader conversation on keeping girls in sports.

The Importance of Keeping Girls in Sports

Beyond the desire for equality, keeping girls in sports is a matter of fulfilling obligations and reaping long-term benefits. “They make up slightly more than 50% of the population, and we would be remiss not to provide opportunities for them… It’s quite frankly an obligation we have working in the sports system,” says Di Buono.

MORE: Leslie Bonci on Keeping Girls in Sports

Research suggests that sustained participation in sports can have profound effects on girls’ personal and professional development.

“Anecdotally, we know that women who have a history of longer-term sport participation tend to have a further professional development pathway,” he advises. “In a post-pandemic environment, we know that kids who participate in sport tend to do better in terms of reducing anxiety, reducing social isolation and being more resilient. So it’s critical now more than ever that we use sport as a tool to help kids become the best version of themselves.”

Keeping girls in sports goes beyond the pursuit of gender equality; it is about empowering girls to reach their full potential, fostering their personal growth, and nurturing future leaders. By breaking down barriers, promoting inclusivity, and creating opportunities, organizations like Jumpstart are leading the way in ensuring that girls feel valued, supported, and inspired in their sports journey.

By investing in girls’ sports participation and creating an environment that values their experiences, we can unlock their full potential, empower them to become leaders, and contribute to a more inclusive and equitable society. Let us strive to keep girls in sports, supporting and celebrating their achievements as they embark on their own remarkable journeys of growth, resilience, and success.

Alexis Nicols

Alexis is a full-time writer, graphic designer and mom in Ontario, Canada. She's obsessed with all things related to film, TV and streaming, particularly through the lens of her two boys.

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