When it comes to encouraging women into sports, it starts at the very beginning- or rather, it doesn’t. From a very young age, boys are told to play outside, to get dirty, and to tackle, whilst girls are told they look pretty and they make pretty things. We could have a lifelong nature versus nurture debate about this, but the fact is that what we say and what we do affects children’s perceptions of themselves and their gender from a very young age. If a girl grows up with brothers she will be more likely to take an interest in a sport, in the same way, a boy surrounded by sisters will tend to be more sensitive. Female participation in sport is greatest in the youngest age group, but it is also where we see the largest gender gap. So, how do we make sports a societal norm for women and girls?
What stops women exercising?
Poor body image
This is a lot to do with what the media endorses as the ideal female body type. In your classes focus on physical achievements, such as beating your plank hold record, completing more squat jumps or sprinting faster than last time. Encourage them to track their progress and beat their last week’s selves. Too many times does a coach (females included) shout “encouragements” like ‘For a flatter stomach’, ‘Do you want to look good in a bikini?’ This is neither helpful nor relevant to most women’s lives. Zumba took off at the start of this decade because it was women encouraging women and not giving a damn about how they look.
Family, work, and social commitments
Exercise can seem like a selfish venture, as it is a time purely for ourselves. Women need to be convinced that it is essential, as opposed to self-indulgent and that it will benefit other areas of their lives. Focus on the energising effects of exercise. As for the social life? This is part of it! Well- this is only true if the coach and participants are fun to be around. The session doesn’t need to be laid back in order for it to be fun and sociable.
The fear of being bad or judged
This can be judgement from themselves, other participants, or the coaches. Women tend to gravitate towards sports for individuals such as yoga or aerobics. This is perhaps, in part, a fear of “letting the team down” in group activities. If the coach provides a warm welcoming atmosphere, then the attendees will follow suit. Label team-based activities as “beginner”, “general”, or “all-levels”.
It may seem trivial, but if there are no hairdryers many women will not be able to exercise before work or before going out. Make sure that you have clean showers, hairdryers and, if you’re feeling really generous, you could throw in some hair straighteners.
What gets women exercising?
Themselves and their friends
Women tend to be self-motivated, so highlighting the health benefits and the sense of achievement that exercise brings, will tempt them to join. Peer pressure also plays a big role. Get some flyers pinned in local coffee shops, handed around schoolyards, and advertise online. Once you get a few of women through the door (assuming they enjoy the session), they will encourage (or force) their friends to join.
Bad marketing is everywhere (case and point above). If you only want supermodels to exercise at your club, then go ahead and use supermodels in your branding. If you’re looking for women, then use normal people that women can relate to and bodies they can achieve. Recent campaigns by Nike (Check out ‘Here I Am’) and This Girl Can are enticing, as they focus on a variety of bodies and on fitness rather than being skinny. Use positive words such as inspiring, passion, exciting, motivation, teamwork, and pride.
It is still the case that stay-at-home mums outnumber stay-at-home dads. As a result, weekday morning sessions are prime time. Make it as convenient as possible. Perhaps babies can be brought along or you can sort a deal out with a nearby creche. Then there are women that need to squeeze exercise in before or after work. In an ideal world you would cater to all of these women, but if this is not possible, evaluate the demographics of your neighbourhood and decide what time of class is most suitable.
Space to socialise
If the reward for an hour of sweating is coffee and a catch-up, then many more women will be in attendance. Amy loves the workout and Debra loves chatting to Amy. If you have a coffee shop on site or there is one nearby, then Amy and Deb can both get what they want in life.
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