This Girl Can: do women’s sports require a different psychological approach?

In 2015, Sports England launched a nationwide ad campaign called This Girl Can inspired women of all races, sizes and ages in the UK to hit the pitches.

The campaign, which attempted to overcome the fact that men are unanimously more active than women, was estimated to have urged more than 2.8 million women to take part in sports as a result of having seen the ads, which showcased women - including disabled women - reaching their potential in a range of sports and activities, from football and rugby, to kickboxing and climbing. The campaign, which attempted to overcome the fact that men are unanimously more active than women.

The campaign struck the nation at a time when #MeToo and gender equality movements were sweeping different sectors, including the media, film and music. Sports was no different: traditionally one of the most masculine-defined areas, attitudes towards women’s equality have entered the sports arena with a vengeance, and the resulting rise in competitive female sports is one of the most significant and necessary developments in the sector over the last decade.

The latest statistics show improvement in women’s participation at both amateur and professional level. According to the latest statistics, 37% of women exercise or play sports at least once a week, compared with 45% of men; 83% of sports awarded men and women equal prize money in the last year and for this year’s delayed Olympics in Toyko, it is predicted that female participation will reach a record 48.8%.

But, like most areas of change, progression is never quick or easy. Women still face barriers in the competitive sporting world, including: pregnancy and early mothering, and lack of female representation at higher levels (including coaches and leadership roles): fewer than 1% of coaches of men’s sports are women.

In her 1994 book, The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football, Mariah Burton Nelson suggests that competitive sports still hold their masculine image and sexist attitudes, partly as a reaction to greater advocacy for women’s rights in sports. And she would know, being herself a former professional basketball player with the New Jersey Gems.

These difficulties are why the psychological barriers which have faced male athletes for centuries - lack of confidence, self-belief and resilience, fear of being an imposter - may be even more apparent for female competitors.

According to a report from Sports Coach UK aimed at providing advice to coaches of female athletes - female brains are wired slightly differently to men’s and coaching should be tailored as such. The study, based on research published in The Female Brain by psychologist Louann Brizendine, found that there were cognitive differences between men and women which would have an effect on the overall attitude, drive and motivations in women in sports.

On the whole, men have stronger competitive (and self-interested) instincts and a fight or flight response to stress or conflict, whereas women’s emotional capacity to empathise and connect with other people (in response to stress) is greater than men’s. Whilst men approach situations through a logical and analytical perspective, women tend to process information by seeing the ‘bigger picture.’

These gendered differences have clear implications for sports, not least in terms of emotional response to pressure. But is there enough psychological support for women? And does this support take into account these differences?

It seems as though sports psychology is an area which has to catch up a little with exciting activist campaigns like This Girl Can. But it’s a step in the right direction.

Recommended links: