Most children seem to love sporting activities – whether running around, kicking or throwing a ball. So why do so many stop playing sport once they reach adolescence? And why, across all age groups, do women and girls have lower sport participation rates than men?
For more than 15 years, Dr Meghan Casey has been tackling these difficult questions. A lecturer in sport management at Federation University, she works closely with organisations such as Tennis Victoria, Netball Victoria, Ballarat Basketball, the YMCA, AFL and football clubs to understand and improve sport participation rates, particularly among women and girls.
“I’m really interested in helping sport and community organisations work through those issues and develop plans to engage and keep people participating in sport throughout their life,” she says.
Dr Casey says there are many perceived barriers to ongoing participation in sport. One is that teenage girls are conscious of their skills and image. “There’s a mentality that being a beginner is not okay – we need to change that,” she says. “It’s okay not to be an athlete. Sport still has plenty of benefits. But the reality at the moment is that if you are 14 years old and you’ve never played tennis, it’s unlikely you’ll pick up a tennis racquet and join a club.”
With a $25,000 grant from the Victorian Office for Women in Sport and Recreation, Dr Casey recently collaborated with other researchers to examine the experience of women and girls in male-dominated sports such as AFL, cricket, soccer, rugby and rock climbing to inform equitable sport development strategies.
“We looked at a broad range of issues because the experience isn’t just about the individual, it’s also about the social environment, the club and its policies and practices,” she says. “Women and girls’ teams are increasingly valued by clubs, but some may not get priority of grounds or training facilities, and there are still gender biases within the community that privilege men’s participation.”
Another recent research project looked at basketball players and volunteers in her local community of Ballarat and their motivations and intentions to participate in the sport after the COVID pandemic.
“Overall, they were very positive. For them it was all about having fun and enjoyment. So that’s got to be at the heart when we are delivering sport programs. That’s why people play and volunteer.” Dr Meghan Casey
Understanding such motivations becomes particularly important to ensure sport participants continue to have positive experiences and keep returning to sport. “We can use this information to help identify strategies to support the sector meet the participant’s interests and retain them. This is really important during adolescence when we see a dramatic decline in participation”, she says.
In recognition of her role in the local community, Dr Casey has been invited to participate in a Ballarat leadership program called Future Shapers, with 18 diverse community leaders from different spheres of life and make positive change in our community. “This provides opportunities to connect research with the community and use my professional skills in community evaluation and project evaluation and help organisations in their decision making around challenging issues”.