Free sports festival woos women this Valentine’s

A woman's place is on the pitch: Croydon hosts the Valentine's Day LOVE2 festival of free sport and hopes scenes like this will become more regular as a result. Photo: Sport England

Croydon hosts the Valentine's Day LOVE2 festival of free sport. Photo: Sport England

Sporting men outnumber sporting women by over a third – and new statistics show this gap is widening. ELL talks to the faces behind the figures and finds out about the Valentine’s Day sports festival taking place in Croydon that aims to reverse the trend.

“I always wanted to play football. When I was 11 I captained the local boys’ team, Ripon City Panthers. But when I turned 12 I wasn’t allowed to anymore. The FA stipulated that girls couldn’t play with boys from that age. So because there were no local girls’ teams I was basically disenfranchised from then onwards.”

Lucy Mills, now 29, plays for Tower Hamlets Women’s Football Club and has a vital place on its committee as Vice Chair, organising pitches, kit, coaching and funding. She says of a lack of school and local girls teams, coupled with FIFA and FA regulations banning gender mixing from the age of 12, led to an exile from the beautiful game that only ended when she moved to London from North Yorkshire to study at Queen Mary where she joined the college team.

“I missed out big time on my football development during my formative years,” she says with an evident tinge of regret.

Statistics released last month show that Mills’ commitment to sport is atypical for women her age but the story of her teenage years isn’t. According to the figures only one in eight women, compared to one in five men, play sport regularly. The statistics also revealed, to the shock of many, that the gap between the sexes is widening.

The results come from the annual ‘Active People’ survey commissioned by Sport England – the arm of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that invests lottery and government funding – which asks around 113,000 women about their relationship with sport. This year’s feedback showed that since 2008 the number of women regularly participating in sport – as defined by 30 minutes at moderate intensity at least three times a week – has fallen by 61,000 to 2.727million, while the number of men doing the same has risen by 176,600 to 4.203million.

Sue Tibballs, Chief Executive of Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation described the increased divide as “worrying” and urged all sports to “become much better at understanding the barriers preventing women from taking part and then developing an offer which suits their individual needs.”

WSFF campaign to make “physical activity an integral part of life for women” and has highlighted numerous disparities which at present prevent the sexes from becoming engaged in sport in the same way. As well as differences in access to facilities, financial capabilities and the need for childcare, WSFF point to a cultural perception of sport that inhibits women from taking part. Issues with body image, clothing, and parental influences are all concerns that contribute to an environment where it’s easier for females to slip out of sport than take it on.

If sport be the food of love, play on

Step forward LOVE2, a new sports festival specifically tailored to help women get over the hurdles blocking their path to regular physical activity. Deliberately designed to coincide with Valentine’s Day, LOVE2 is hosted by Croydon and six other south London boroughs, and offers taster sessions for a wide range of sporting activities to the capital’s females. Organised by Pro-Active South London, a partnership of sports organisations from the seven host boroughs, and funded by the Mayor’s PlaySport London programme, the purpose is not only to ignite women’s interest in sport but keep them engaged beyond the festival’s end.

Last year’s inaugural series of events reached over 800 women (and 19 men…) and this year’s version has over 25 events scheduled including free ice hockey lessons, a golfing week, and Tai chi sessions for mums and daughters.

David Gentles, the project’s partnership manager, says the LOVE2 festival aims to, “encourage organisations in London to not just help women and girls take part in their sport on a one-off basis but to make it part of their plans to increase female memberships throughout the year.”

Similarly, Steve Macdonald, Cricket Director at Purley Cricket Club in Surrey, which will be running two classes as part of the festival, feels an organised set-up for females to join afterwards is crucial if a lasting effect is to be made.

“The problem with taster sessions is that the kids come along, they really enjoy it, and then say, ‘Now what?’ and the clubs say, ‘Don’t know really,’ and it’s just a bit of a one off and to me that seems a bit pointless.”

Purley CC is putting on two specialist coaching sessions for girls at John Fisher School on consecutive Wednesday evenings (10 and 17 February) to mark its amalgamation with nearby women’s team Redoubtables, the second oldest female team in the world.

The pooled resources mean that once the festival ends the women who take part have a strong, well-supported club of around 50 females to continue playing with. The gender specific coaching sessions will carry on and half the summer’s Sunday games at Purley’s ground will be turned over to the women’s team to play in the recently-formed Surrey Trust League.

In the league’s forerunner male equivalent the “idea is typically to have six players under 21, four of whom have to be under 18, and then the rest are adults,” Macdonald says.

“About two years ago I thought ‘let’s see if there are ladies clubs in Surrey who want to try the same format’ and that’s gradually building up with about 12 clubs taking part in 2009.”

“The structure allows the players to progress and stay social as a group, and that’s absolutely critical; they don’t just want to turn up in isolation. There are some girls who’ve got quite a lot of fortitude and they will join a boy’s team on their own, but at some point they won’t want to carry on doing that so really you’ve got to create something that they might actually want to do.”

Macdonald says the club have received a good response for their event with current female and male players inviting their friends and girlfriends and the mums of colt players (boys under 18) have also registered an interest.

Sheila Hearsey, 66, who is running Croydon Judo Club’s taster sessions, was also inspired to become active after seeing her children enjoying themselves. “I started judo because my kids were having more fun than I was,” she says. “My oldest son started, then his brother took it up. My youngest couldn’t start till he was eight, so we took the beginner class together when he was old enough. I was 35 then – now I’m a third dan!”

Hearsey’s LOVE2 course runs over three days in an effort to fit into everyone’s format. “There will be mothers and daughters afternoons and one evening session tailored to people who may have college or work during the day.”

“It can be either a fun introduction to judo or a reason to get people who may have tried it years ago, and given up for whatever reason, to come back.”

British Judo’s development officer is onboard, evidence of the fact the sport’s governing body is actively searching for women players. Despite its place as a relatively high-profile Olympic sport, Judo is only the 30th most popular women’s sport according to the Active People survey. It’s a fact Hearsey is hoping to address by providing a variety of options to hold people’s attention.

“The aim is to increase the female membership at the club. There are so many aspects you can take if you if you wanted. You can be a recreational player, who chats in the pub afterwards. We have kids who come once a week to get their badges but never go any further. We also have the structure for people to take it on seriously, to compete and grow in confidence, going from club, to county, to area, to national, to international.”

Giving women a sporting chance

Hearsey’s illustration seems to inadvertently map out the various levels of support required to truly effect a shift in the numbers of women taking part in sport – from local to global.

In part at least, that mobilisation is underway. While the LOVE2 festival demonstrates how the desire for female sport is blossoming at a community level, the gender imbalance in sport is becoming a big issue on the national landscape too. In November Sport England offered up a £10million cash pot to sports clubs and initiatives which specifically target females and make their activities more accessible. The fund is primarily aimed at groups which help women on low incomes or sporting mums through ‘pay as you play’ schemes or by offering child care options.

Denise Lewis, heptathlon gold medallist at the 2000 Olympics, says: “As a mum, I know how difficult it can be to prioritise yourself and find that personal time to play sport and be active.”

Lewis’s words ring true for footballer Mills who says the few mothers who train with THWFC can’t play every week due to childcare responsibilities. As well as time, the club also requires a financial commitment from its members in order to pay for running costs thus creating a rather narrow (and, for Tower Hamlets, unusual) definition of a typical player. “Our members are typically white, middle-class women.”

Mills explains that funding of the kind Sport England is offering would be crucial in keeping costs for members down, helping to pay currently-volunteer coaches, and enable the committee to go out into the community to promote their team to people who might be unaware they even exist.

“Keeping committed players and making the club sustainable is our biggest challenge. We want to encourage a younger age group, 16 to 20 year olds, and young mothers. It would also be great to encourage more Asian women to participate.”

While location means THWFC can’t take part in the south-London LOVE2 event, the club could reap some of its benefits as sporting interest ripples out across the city. But, as Tibballs says, a change of attitude at the top of sport is essential if this hive of activity is to be harnessed nationwide.

“We need to look at wider factors which impact on the state of play for women’s sport and influence grassroots participation,” she says, highlighting the startling fact that only four per cent of sports news coverage focuses on women. “Without the profile, the money won’t come in. And without the role models, women won’t feel inspired to take part.”

Tibballs may not have long to wait. Last year saw a cluster of female athletes take starring roles in the public eye. After a dominant display in picking up World Championship heptathlon gold, the ever-smiling Jessica Ennis went on to claim third place in Sports Personality of the Year amid a highly competitive field. Also on the 10-strong shortlist for the BBC prize was gymnast Beth Tweddle, who won an unexpected gold medal with a flawless floor routine at her sport’s World Championships.

England women’s football team had their most successful year to date when they reached the European Championship final in September, while a month later their coach, Lewisham’s Hope Powell, was touted as becoming the first female to secure a role in the male game as manager of Grimsby Town. “Hope has been a fantastic advocate for the women’s game – her dedication, commitment, and achievements are amazing,” Mills says. “She’s a great role model for women.”

2009 was also a watershed moment in cricket, with Wisden naming Claire Taylor as one of its five cricketers of the year after the England team swept all before them. It was the first time such a prestigious accolade had been bestowed on anyone without a Y chromosome and Macdonald reckons that recognition, coupled with a noticeable rise in standard, made the men sit up and take notice. “I watched a lot of games and really enjoyed it, the batting was really good and the matches were competitive. So there was a lot more respect between the men’s game and the women’s game and that’s important because if you’re going to establish ladies cricket sides at clubs those clubs have got to take it seriously.”

With Victoria Pendleton’s continued success on the cycling track and Rebecca Adlington’s triumphs in the pool, young sportswomen have a growing wealth of success to be inspired by. Maybe it won’t be that long till women’s sport is in rude health after all.

Events in the LOVE2 festival begin next week and run over the following fortnight. For information on what’s taking place, where and when, as well as how to sign up, go to

Applications for Sport England funding are now closed. Grant winners will be announced sometime in April.

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