Why team sport remains vital for women and girls
This summer of sport has had many memorable moments but one that has stayed with me was something I could not have predicted.
In Rio, rugby 7s for women made its debut. Not something I felt strongly about either way. The Olympics to me is about track and field, the spectacular gymnastics or the chance to watch my first love, hockey, get its all too infrequent TV coverage. As predicted Hazel Irvine and Claire Balding became like flatmates as they took up residence in the corner of the room for a fortnight.
What I did not foresee was how captured I would be by women’s rugby. The setting, the athletic display, the teamwork and skill were enthralling. Being from the Scottish Borders I know rugby. My family history is steeped in the stuff! When I was young the smell of the liniment meant that Dad was home on a Saturday evening. But never did I consider playing myself, aside from a few games of Touch as a student.
What I saw take place in Rio was different and for the first time watching women play rugby I thought “I want a go at that”.
Add to this the way the women’s hockey team endeared themselves to the nation. Their outstanding achievements were made all the more special because of how they presented themselves as a team; consistently quoting their self-devised aims and always referring to the 31 that got them there.
Both of these things made me think deeply about my role as the Head of Physical Education in the largest girls’ school in Scotland. I lead a large PE department that is very aware of the participation and engagement of girls in physical activity all the way through their school careers and beyond. This means we pay attention to what girls want. We offer all the usual traditional games throughout the year but have increasingly included more fitness-based activities and the demand for time in our fitness suite is at an all-time high. I know we are not alone in this. I have been to conferences where teachers in similar positions in similar schools tell me about how they don’t need to build pitches anymore but that they need more studios and indoor fitness spaces.
All of which worries me.
Team sport for women and girls is vital. Achieving success and dealing with failure in a team are shared experiences that build resilience and create memories that last a lifetime. Dealing with different personalities, identifying strengths and weaknesses and taking leadership opportunities through competition should be embraced and encouraged. Universities and employers are increasingly looking for these qualities in their candidates as they seek females who know how to learn from mistakes and have the confidence to deal with the challenges of working in a team.
By diversifying the curriculum to include more individual fitness-based activities, my fear is that we perpetuate the #fitspo culture and focus on what women should look like rather than who we are.
As a mother of two young girls I try very hard to ensure that nothing is “for boys”. Which brings me back to rugby. My husband has been a rugby coach all through their short lives. They see his passion for the game and love to cheer on Daddy’s team, but if you asked them if girls can play rugby I think I’d be disappointed with their response.
I don’t have all the answers. But if legacy is tangible and I have any influence at all over my daughters and the girls I teach, I hope that the value and benefits of playing in a team are something I can give them.
Nichola Aitchison is Head of Physical Education at The Mary Erskine School in Edinburgh, a GSA school