Motivating High School Girls To Be Active

This year on International Women's Day, Saint Francis High School in Calgary coincidentally hosted their first All Girls Day. An old friend of mine, and a teacher at the high school, contacted me explaining that her and her co-workers were attempting to organize a day dedicated to their girls where speakers were invited to attempt to motivate, encourage, and inspire. She had recently been noticing that after grade 10, when gym was not mandatory thereafter, girls were dropping out of gym in exchange for other class options or "spare" classes. Since today, the day after All Girls Day, is the school's course selection day, the hope was that a day dedicated to inspiring the girls, would have an effect on the girls selecting gym class or other active options the school offers like Dance, Yoga, Sport Performance, or classic P.E.

My speech went something like this...

Good morning ladies, let's do a little ice breaker. Everyone stand up!

  • SIT down if I say a reason why you are considering dropping out of P.E:

  • You lack of friends in your class

  • You lack role models in P.E.

  • You lack confidence in your abilities

  • You’re interested in other sports/classes/activities

  • You play sports after school, so you don't think you need to do P.E.

  • You straight up, hate it

*Everyone left standing is not considering dropping out of P.E.* Interestingly, in most of the classes I spoke to, there was a very low percentage of girls left standing.

*In Freestyle skiing in Canada, it is suggested that the TOP 5 reasons for girls dropping out of the sport were these*

  • STAND BACK UP if I list a reason why you're considering staying in P.E., or is a reason why you're motivated to stay fit

  • Beating others/winning

  • Looking good/looking fit

  • You “feel” better when you are active

  • Because you have friends in your class

  • Role models

  • You just love sports

*Everyone left sitting is considering dropping out of P.E.*

[This was good information for me, and for the teachers in the room that teach these girls daily. This information also told me that many girls are motivated by how they look and feel when they are active, and very few were motivated by winning. It also told me that many of the girls were motivated to drop out of P.E. because they thought they needed to take more academic classes to get into universities, or because they lacked confidence in their abilities.]

Okay, so we will revisit that a little later, but first, a little about my sport experience growing up and where it's lead me.

I wish I had embarrassed myself.

Back when I was in grade 6 and my best friend was the lanky girl and my teacher was her mother, the lanky marathon mom. When I was asked to join the cross-country team with my lanky best friend, and encouraged by that teacher, but knew I would be slower, at the back of the pack, and embarrassed…

I wish I had embarrassed myself.

Back when we were in grade 9, doing fitness testing, and I refused to try a pull up in front of my teacher and friends. I was more athletic in my class than the average, but my friends were on the best soccer teams where they practiced push ups and pull ups all the time. Meanwhile I was on weird sport teams like diving, karate, and tennis. Instead of trying to do a pull up in front of my class, in that moment, I refused. Looking back....

I wish I had embarrassed myself.

And then…. I finally decided to embarrass myself in grade 11, when we were forced in gym class to sign up for 3 events in Track and Field to compete in. The stipulation was, that we would NOT get marks for how we placed in the events - so it was more of a safe space to try. For whatever reason, that day, I chose the 1500m race, even though I was on the volleyball team... it required no running, a seldom sweat, and never collapsing due to fatigue. So I signed up for the 1500m race, and if you know anything about Kelowna in the spring, it's sometimes really hot out. That day it was upwards of 30 degrees Celsius. I finished last that day in that race, collapsed, sweat everywhere, and took 25 minutes to sit back up on the field, feeling like I was going to puke.

And in that moment… ok maybe about 20 minutes later when I could see straight again… I realized that embarrassing myself actually MOTIVATED me.

It motivated me to be better, to start running a few days per week after school, to trying strength training on my own time, to challenging the boys to sports. And I started to get more fit.

Fast forward to now… a degree in Kinesiology, a Masters in Kinesiology, a certified exercise physiologist, jobs at renoun gyms like the Canadian Sport Institute and Revolution Human Performance training all the way up to National Team athletes, working with the Flames, to gold and silver medals at the Moose Mountain 29k trail running race, and top 5 placements at Calgary half marathons, my own company, Vital Strength and Physiology, a Competitive Athletic Ambassadorship for nuun hydration, and willing to try any sport you throw at me, with enthusiasm!

I had to ask myself, what changed?

What happened was that I learned that pushing myself in sport wasn’t confined to just the sport, it was so much bigger than that. I think what changed was that I realized that girls in general, and myself specifically, were motivated in this order:

1) Acceptance 2) Effort 3) Performance.

What that meant was… the moment I felt acceptance from my teacher or classmates that even if I didn’t win the 1500m race, all would be ok, and I wouldn't lose marks (because those really mattered to me at the time), I could move onto 2) Effort. I could push myself and even though I knew I would come last, performance didn’t motivate me anyways, so I could give it my all regardless.

For boys, the list of importance of the words shifts greatly, as boys are motivated by:

1) Effort 2) Performance 3) Acceptance

Boys want to feel like they are pushing themselves hard, sweating lots, competing against their friends, and they want to Win. We all know those boys that will strap on a snowboard for the first time, and have no fear going off a cliff on the first run. We are not motivated by the same things as them!! We need more information before we try new tasks. I described the following video to them:

This little girl needed to know ALL the cues from her coach before she took off on the higher ski jump. She wanted to know how fast, how to land, what to do with her skis. Eventually, when she was given enough cues, and could absorb them, she took off.... and loved it! Us girls are not unlike this example.... we need more cues than boys when trying new skills. We aren't just willing to "go for it".

So my take-away messages to you are these:

  1. Don’t be afraid to be embarrassed. It IS scary to be embarrassed in athletics, but the benefits are so much greater than that moment, and so much bigger than you.

  2. Find an accepting environment, or ask for opportunities to be accepted by asking for more information about the task or skill. The boys in your class might be willing to try backflips, but if you’re not comfortable, ask for a progression, or more information, until you too can get there

  3. A woman’s enjoyment of a sport is often enhanced through the social aspects, and through tight relationships. Find activities that elevate you and allow you to flourish.

  4. Trying hard and pushing yourself physically is so much bigger than yourself. It’s so much bigger than having to deal with your crush seeing you with sweaty hair, so much bigger than not being able to do a pushup, and so much bigger than the sports themselves. Do it for a healthy you, a happy you, and to elevate those around you (especially other girls!!)

  5. THINK LONG TERM! I know its hard to get distracted by the boys in your class, or the girls that are mean to you judging you in sports you're bad at. The likelihood of you ever talking to these people again after high school is LOW. Remember that. Do what's right for yourself by pushing your boundaries, remembering that it feels good to move, and pick up the skills in gym class that will allow you to be more likely to participate in activities as an adult!

Thank you!

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