Women playing football
Photo: Getty Images


Why aren’t more women embracing team sports?

Researchers claim that joint participation gives a sense of belonging that reinforces our own identity, says Natalie Olah. So why not give it a go?

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By Nathalie Olah on

When I first read about the adult ball pit that recently opened in Shoreditch, east London, my first response was to assume that I (sadly) belong to one of the most infantile generations ever to exist. And, while I still stand by this assessment to some extent, with time I’ve also taken the more forgiving view that the ball pit, along with so many other novelty venues and events like it, speaks of a fairly depressing crisis among adults in finding satisfactory ways to let off steam.

I’m not just talking about exercise, which I tend to view as a way of burning calories and getting fit, or even going out, to drink and catch up with friends, which more often than not leads to all of us sitting next to each other, staring into our phones. I’m talking about actually escaping everyday life and its stresses for a few short hours every week. In our endless pursuit of novelty, it seems the old ways of achieving this have been lost. Recently, though, I’ve been on a campaign to persuade my friends of the endless benefits of playing a team sport, after joining a football club and seeing the transformative effect it has had on both my mental and physical health.

According to US non-profit Live Strong, the benefits to children in playing a team sport include a heightened sense of responsibility, self-awareness, time management and patience. As adults, we’re no less obliged to learn and improve these skills throughout our lives. But it was a recent report by LSE, which also found that team sports can dramatically increase life satisfaction, that seemed to ring most true with my own experiences, along with claims I found elsewhere stating that team sports can also enhance communication skills, focus and group understanding.

Yet, despite the many benefits, team sports are still failing to win fans among women. According to a 2016 report by Sports England, nine per cent more men than women currently play a team sport (where men are more likely to play sports like Rugby Union, women will opt for more solitary activities, like swimming and exercise classes). On top of this, the sports that are more popular among men also tend to last longer and be more intense, therefore having an overall greater impact on their health.

Team sports are still failing to win fans among women. According to a 2016 report by Sports England, nine per cent more men than women currently play a team sport

Further research found that women tend to avoid team sports due to negative past experiences. And is it any real surprise? For most people, their first and last encounter of team sports was at school – and we all know how loaded with potential embarrassment that could be (if not for the fear that you wouldn’t be chosen, then for the body-shaming and sideway glances that often went with it). The beauty of taking part in a team sport as an adult, however, is that everyone involved has far bigger concerns than staring at the size of each other's thighs, or sniggering at their teammates' less-than-perfect ball skills. In fact, falling over and making a fool of yourself is half the fun, I find.

Our football team was created out of a WhatsApp group, which these days is used as a message board for chalking up all of our sporting accomplishments and flounderings. This, along with a very funny Instagram authored by one of the founding members, has a way of making all of us who participate feel involved long after play has finished. We’re not alone, either. Several similar groups now exist within my wider friendship circle, including mixed and all-girl football, netball, basketball and even rounders teams, each with their own names, their own hashtags and their own, impenetrable in-jokes. Sickening, sure, but also really very fun.

And, while technology might allow us to organise and engage, the sensation of leaving your bag, your phone, your cares and your concerns in the locker room for one whole hour, and engaging with people for no other reason than to play, is invaluable. Not playing in the infantile sense, but in the truest, most human sense of simply riffing off those around you, role-playing combat and engaging in meaningless competition. It’s this aspect that researchers at LSE attribute to the overall sense of wellbeing achieved by playing a team sport, claiming that the joint participation gives a sense of belonging that reinforces our own identity, as well as a sense of joint accomplishment.  

So, here’s a thought: how about saving yourself the indignity of sploshing about in an adult-sized children’s soft-play centre and rediscovering the basic joy of kicking a ball around instead? Radical as it might seem, this age-old game – and all other team sports like it – potentially offers all of the same benefits as your gym membership, your therapy sessions and your social life combined.


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Photo: Getty Images
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women in sport

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