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David Turner
Females Young people

Girls' Participation in Sport: When Does the Drop-off Begin?

Coaches are well placed to identify girls at risk of dropping out and can offer high quality options to help to maintain their participation in sport and physical activity

I feel it is fair to say that the fact that there is a drop-off in girls' participation in PE and sport in the UK is undisputed. Alarmingly, this was first identified in 1957!  Likewise, I do not feel I am on too shaky ground if I go on to state that the health benefits – physical, mental, social, emotional and even in terms of fertility for girls who remain active in sport – are well stated. 

Not long ago I saw an official press release that claimed girls' participation in PE and sport begins to drop off at age 14 (Key Stage 4 in academic terms). I have to confess this irked me somewhat.

Admittedly, the drop off can be seen to accelerate among girls as they reach approximately 14, but this is an acceleration which could easily be exacerbated by the social effects of earlier drop-out among peers.

In my opinion, it would be more beneficial to focus our attention on the origins of the drop-off, a period that seems to coincide with the transition from primary school (Year 6) to secondary school (Year 7).

One of my oft-quoted facts to friends and colleagues is that most children in the UK report a positive primary school experience, yet several pieces of research have listed our children as the least happy in Europe by the time they reach high school. Where it’s all going wrong is for a Master's dissertation rather than a blog!

So for me I’d like to focus on what we can do, either as coaches of children or as PE teachers, to minimise this drop-off. 

I hear quotes such as “My friends stopped playing sport a while ago, so now I have too”. Surely the place to focus our efforts and resources is on those girls who drop out first?

Maintaining interest through quality sport options

My belief is that offering girls more opportunities to take part in both high quality PE and sport during the 5-12 age range is the best way to ensure continued participation in sport.

I’m not saying anything new here, but I do feel it is important that we are aware of when the drop-off begins (rather than when it accelerates) and recognise the positive role the development of fundamental movement skills and holistic coaching can provide.

To enjoy sport and remain active, and hopefully successful, I believe that girls (and boys for that matter) need to be confident physically and socially to participate in sport.

I would argue that elite level female sport is in a very healthy situation in the UK – I present our latest Olympic Gold Medallist, Lizzy Yarnold, as Exhibit A (a javelin thrower in a previous life, I’m proud to say).

So for me this is a priority in terms of the health of the nation rather than the Olympic Medal table. The counter-argument, of course, is how many children are realistically able to participate in the sports in which we are winning gold medals, but each elite success has the potential to inspire young people to participate in every sport. 

The more girls we keep interested in sport the better, throughout the sporting landscape.

Related Learning

  • Coaching Children 5-12: The Next Generation

  • How to Coach the Fundamentals of Movement

  • How to Deliver Engaging Sessions for Young People


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David Turner