Once more it is important to emphasise that girls and women have suffered discrimination in almost every sphere of activity, not the least of which is physical activity.
It is also important to remind ourselves that while the liberation activities in which women have engaged themselves over the years have resulted in significant advancement the area of sport remains lagging behind. St Vincent and the Grenadines is no exception to what appears to be a global phenomenon.
It is by understanding the several inhibiting factors that we can begin to plan ways and means of redressing them.
Unfortunately for us in the Caribbean and especially in St Vincent and the Grenadines, we enjoy speaking off the top of our heads without engaging in appropriate scientific study.
It is also very dangerous that there is an ever-increasing number of persons anxious to make public unsubstantiated proclamations in respect of physical activity and sport and expressing disdain for those who wish to utilize the tools of scientific inquiry and academia to investigate causes of behaviour in this sphere as a prelude to the determination of appropriate remedial action. To the extent that we opt for this woefully inadequate and unsavoury approach to that extent we shoot ourselves in the foot and hinder whatever chances we may have of making progress.
One of the factors impacting girls’ involvement in physical activity as is the case with regard to so many different aspects of an individuals’ life, is one’s peers.
There is an on going debate in respect of which social institution has the greatest influence on an individual – the family od the peer group. Whatever about the outcome of this debate it is clear that the peer group exerts tremendous influence on an individual’s development.
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) study noted, Whilst a peer group can act as powerful enforcer of norms and behaviours for both boys and girls, there is evidence that they use and view friendships in different ways. Studies suggest that a key factor in whether girls engage in and sustain physical activities was whether they had a same-sex friend with whom to participatelxv. This may, in part, be due to the support structure such shared experiences can offer, especially during adolescence, when many girls consider reducing their commitment to physical activities that they are most anxious about being rejected or excluded from same-sex friendships (GIRLS’ PARTICIPATION IN PHYSICAL ACTIVITIES AND SPORTS: BENEFITS, PATTERNS, INFLUENCES AND WAYS FORWARD – R. Bailey, I. Wellard and H. Dismore)
One has only to look around St Vincent and the Grenadines and one finds that both men and women tend to exercise with their peers.
Girls are more likely to engage in a physical exercise regimen to the extent that their peers are also doing so. They are encouraged by their peers to get fit and stay fit.
Exercising together is a social activity as peers find much to talk about during the time on the road, at the playing field or in the gymnasium. They speak about everything under the sun and eagerly look forward to the next opportunity.
For many girls engaging in physical activity with their peers it is an excellent opportunity to de-stress from the rigours of work and the broader vicissitudes of life.
It should be noted however that the fact that many girls are prone to exercise with their peers does not necessarily translate into evidence that they enjoy what they are doing. They may just be responding to the sheer weight of peer pressure; they may not wish to been identified and stigmatised as the odd one in the group.
However, just as girls are encouraged to engage in regular physical activity by their peers they could just as easily be swayed away from this option.
The WHO study cited earlier notes, for girls, physical activities often become less important in their lives as they (are) encouraged by pressure from their peer group to seek other activities associated with their preferred perceptions of femininity.
Studies undertaken in Canada following the positive drug test of Ben Johnson at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 reveal that many young boys still indicated a preference to use steroids because they wanted to develop bodies that would impress the girls. These findings emerged amidst overwhelming evidence that steroids are harmful to the very same body that they sought to develop to impress.
Girls are increasingly aware that exercise tones the body. They are inundated with this on television. They are nonetheless aware that here comes a point at which the development of the body through exercise may well reveal a physique that many would consider associated with men rather than women.
Women are not eager to have themselves described as looking more like men than their own kind.
While many women admire the achievements of their gender in sport they do not always relish the way their bodies look when displayed.
Some girls and women readily distinguish between what is perceived as sexy when wearing as bikini on the beach and the muscularity associated with scantily clad women involved in Beach Volleyball or Track and Field competition.
Rather than read and discuss with certified physical trainers the different types of exercises in which they should engage themselves they prefer to act on their own intuition relative to the perception others have of them or, alternatively, subject themselves to the views of their trusted peers on this matter.
The end result is often the same. They resist any inclination to engaging in physical activity for fear of being considered masculine.
Sexual awareness and involvement
At puberty most girls are aware of their human sexuality. Since they experience this earlier than their make counterparts they tend to be encouraged by their peers to want to share sexual encounters at an early age.
It is also true, and increasingly so, that many girls learn about their sexuality from their peers rather than from their mothers and parents, more generally. Thus they may not necessarily experience a balanced, mature appreciation for what is really involved.
The growth spurt increasingly recognised among young girls, many still children, resulting from their penchant for the fast food diet riddled with steroids has meant that they look older and more physically mature than their age would suggest. This poses a major problem in and of itself.
In Barbados it has been found that girls are engaging in sexual activity as early as nine years old. The same holds true in Guyana and an increasing number of Caribbean countries. This phenomenon has left parents and governmental agencies literally stumped. They are now caught up in trying to devise ways of coming to terms with this reality even as the response of some agencies is to facilitate education about such encounters.
The interests of girls are therefore shifted radically as they attain puberty. They are suddenly driven to seek out television shows that address teens in developed societies and act out the behaviours observe din their local situations.
Not surprisingly therefore girls leave physical activity and sport in particular to focus on getting in with the boys, many of whom are much older than themselves. Once taken down this road they find immense difficulty leaving it.
Even girls who play sports early in their school careers find themselves withdrawing from it as they attain puberty and immediately thereafter, opting instead to engage in heavy dating.
It is something of a contradiction that while some girls use the issue of physique to drop out of sport they turn around and date many of the boys and men who are heavily involve din physical activity and sport because of how the latter look as a result of exercise regimens to which they have committed themselves.
Quality of coaching
Perhaps one of the most important factors impacting girls’ and women’s involvement in physical activity is the quality of the coaching available to them.
While efforts continue to be made at the global level to expose coaches to training methods there is no guarantee that they would all emerge with appropriate pedagogical skills.
Passing an examination following the conclusion of a coaching course is one thing. Being able to deliver what they were taught.
Coaching, like teaching, is much more than a profession. It is a vocation.
Some coaches engage in bullying tactics forcing athletes to work with them and do whatever they are told without question. While this may appear to work it is not something that allows girls to want to stick around for some time. It is the reason that some girls run as far away from some seemingly successful coaches and never return to the sport.
Coaches often forget that they are dealing with human beings who are capable to thinking and acting based on rationalising what they have to do. When this aspect of an individual is forgotten or ignored completely with coaches demanding blind obedience the athlete leaves the sport, not just the coach.
In a previous Column the point was made that we are in an information age. There is hardly anything a coach can say to an athlete or ask an athlete to do that the latter cannot investigate in his/her own time on the Internet. It is therefore necessary or coaches to engage athletes in their charge in meaningful dialogue.
Coaches are trained to be at once counsellor, friend, brother, sister, mother, father, all at once in addition to coaching. These are tremendous responsibilities and one that is often not taken seriously enough.
It is therefore often the case that coaches fail in their responsibilities and the athlete feels let down in several ways, opting to leave the sport forever.
We have utisiled three editions of this Column to address the issue of the decline in participation of girls and women in physical activity.
The hope is that everyone, from parents to the girls and women in our society, physical educators and coaches alike would take an interest in examining the approaches we adopt in this country to getting our females involve din physical activity.
We need to satisfy ourselves that we are doing the right thing.
We need to engage in research on the best practices available to us so that we can do better.
While we have had recent successes in Shafiqua Maloney and Kineke Alexander in international competitions this must not detract is from the real issues confronting our society – declining involvement of girls in physical activity.
The work needs to be done.