What's in a word?
If we are to make sport and coaching more inclusive, it requires a fundamental rethink of the language we use to draw in new participants.
As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the impact that words can have on people. Take the word ‘sport’, for example. For too many women, it still conjures up memories of smelly changing rooms, embarrassing sports wear, being forced to run around outside in the freezing cold, and of exclusion and failure. It’s seen as something that’s competitive, uncomfortable and unfeminine.
Put the word together with ‘coach’ and it can bring yet more negative images to mind, such as the coach haranguing players from the pitch/court side. For many people outside the sport and physical activity sphere, the coach is someone who is an expert in their field, most likely a current or former competitor, who is able to teach other people the right way to play. They are focused on honing technique, on hard work, and on winning. For women who see themselves as ‘unsporty’, the suggestion they could become a ‘coach’ will be met with utter bewilderment.
It’s no surprise, then, that the early projects supported by Reach are avoiding the terms altogether. Rather, the ‘fun activities’ are run by ‘leaders’, ‘activators’ and ‘facilitators’, and even ‘hosts’. The latter is a particularly interesting one, with its connotations of welcoming, of making sure everyone’s needs are catered for and that they are having a great time.
It’s also interesting to look at the interpretations of the word ‘coach’ in the business field and in the context of ‘life coaching’. Here, it’s very much seen as a process of collaborating with someone to help them unlock their own potential. It’s personalised and enabling; it involves a lot of listening and asking the right questions. It’s these soft skills that are particularly important in the new breed of entry-level coaches, and it chimes very well with the Reach project’s aims of finding out what activities women want, and also what they want from these activities, and ensuring that’s delivered.
It’s also a change in emphasis that aligns itself perfectly with Sporting Futures, the government’s new sports strategy, which signals a move towards a more holistic approach in tackling the inactivity crisis. The strategy finally begins to break down that unhelpful division between ‘sport’ and other forms of non-competitive physical activity, such as dance or walking. It also recognises the role of physical activity in enhancing mental and social wellbeing.
If we want more women to experience the fun, exhilaration, camaraderie, and sense of wellbeing that comes with physical activity, careful consideration of the language we use to present the opportunities on offer has to be the starting point.
Caroline Roberts, Freelance journalist