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Women are motivated to take part in golf for many reasons, but the traditional structure, rules, and social etiquette of the game can create barriers to their participation. In the SIRC blog, Lindsay Knowlton, founder of Iron Lady Golf, shares strategies and tips to help golf clubs and organizations create inclusive, welcoming environments for women.

When analyzing the number of “likes” on the Instagram pages of popular women athletes, images that depicted athletic brilliance had the highest like counts. The ability to highlight athletic ability through social media is useful for promoting gender equity in sport and sport media coverage, providing opportunities to combat gender stereotypes surrounding athletes.

On October 7, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) kicked off its 2021-2022 season. After having a season cut short and another cancelled altogether, this season looks different for the OHL. And it isn’t because of the COVID‑19 pandemic.

In June, Taya Currie became the first female athlete drafted to the OHL. Selected in the 14th round by the Sarnia Sting, the 16-year-old goaltender from Parkhill, Ontario, joins the Sting’s 2021-2022 roster. Currie will compete as the only girl in the league.

Undoubtably, Currie’s selection by the Sting is a massive advancement for the league, the sport of ice hockey, and girls and women in sport generally. Although a first for the OHL, girls and women competing exclusively with boys and men isn’t new to hockey. Currie is following the likes of Manon Rhéaume, the first and only woman to play in the NHL, and Shannon Szabados, the first woman to play in the Western Hockey League.

Girl playing flag football At the youth level, girls competing in boys’ leagues happens often and across numerous sports. In fact, for the past 7 years (and for much of her hockey career), Currie had been playing with the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs, a triple-A boys’ hockey team. Whether it be hockey, soccer, baseball, football or basketball, many youths compete as the only girl on their sports team.

The term ”lone girl” has been used to describe this exact scenario in analyses of children’s sport fiction books (Heinecken, 2015). Girls in sport are often perceived as outsiders because they’re participating in an environment historically dominated by boys (Bevan et al., 2020). Being a lone girl further amplifies this outsider status.

For my master’s thesis, I explored the experiences of lone girls in team sports. I interviewed 14 individuals who had participated in sport as a lone girl and asked them about their experiences. In this blog, I share my findings and propose ways that coaches and organizations can enhance the sport environment for lone girls.

What we know about the lone girl

If you type “lone girls in sport” into Google, you’ll find several newspaper articles and social media posts about girls creating #HERstory competing alongside boys. But on the academic front, there are few studies focused on girls who play in boys’ leagues, and none exploring the lone girl.

girl playing on a boys soccer team

The limited research that has explored girls’ experiences playing on boys’ teams has shown the lone girl often results from limited access to a girls’ team or league (Velija & Malcolm, 2009). In my research, I also found that stereotypes surrounding girls sport and the lack of a clear pathway to professional sport can deter girls from competing in girls’ leagues. For example, girls reported joining a boys’ team because their parents thought the girls’ team wasn’t competitive enough. Or, because the girls themselves believed they would have more opportunities for skill development and access to better resources by playing on boys’ teams.

 Regardless of their motives for competing, lone girls expressed unique challenges to their sport participation. These challenges spanned physical and social spaces, leaving many girls to feel both left out and singled out because of their gender. Lone girls also described feeling pressure to perform, despite facing limited opportunities for advancement in sport.

Left out: The physical space

“Having to change in a different space… it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m on my own.’ I have to walk into the gym alone, from a different door than everyone else, across the court to our bench. It gives everyone an opportunity to notice you. That definitely built up pressure and expectation.”

Phyllis, Basketball

Features of the physical setting created barriers for lone girls to experience quality relations with teammates. For example, having to change in a separate dressing room was isolating and limited opportunities to connect. Girls described missing out on pre- and post-game talks and often processed wins and losses alone. Sometimes, the team would enter the playing field without them, leaving them to enter alone and drawing increased attention to their otherness.

 What coaches can do:

Singled out: The social space

“It was hard to create friendships. There’s this feeling of being completely alone. It felt like no one had the same experience as me. We could go through the same game and I could come out with a completely different experience than one of my guy teammates.”

Denise, Baseball

Girls struggled to develop connections with their teammates because of physical barriers, but also social barriers. Girls expressed having to tolerate gendered “locker room” talk and behaviours. They also frequently experienced interactions like opposing players letting them have the ball or puck, asking for their phone number, players’ parents discussing their desire for her to be cut from the team, and spectator surprise ( “You’re good for a girl!”). Such interactions contributed to a social environment that made them feel uncomfortable and that their abilities and gender couldn’t be mutually exclusive.

 What coaches can do:

Pressure to perform

“Just having the ponytail come out of your helmet, the players, the people watching, people are going to notice and keep an eye on you to see if you’re holding your own, ‘Can the girl keep up, or does she fit the stereotype of not being as good as the boys?’”

Mary-Lou, Football

Girls often felt pressure to perform when they competed. They described feeling like they were representing more than themselves, but all girl athletes. Therefore, they felt they had to put in extra work to not reinforce stereotypes. Engaging in more structured practice (Côté et al., 2007) to prove themselves often led to burnout, injury, and decreased enjoyment in their sport. Despite this, they were denied opportunities to advance in their sport or earn leadership roles because of their gender. They also described missing out on university scholarship opportunities because being in a boys’ league hid them from scouts.

 What coaches can do:

Making #HERstory the norm

While these tips may help to improve sport outcomes for lone girls, it’s easy to see that many of the challenges reported by lone girls stem from old-fashioned stereotypes and expectations of girls and women.

Young girl holding basketballModifying the environment to improve lone girls’ experiences is certainly a start, but clearly bigger change is needed. That is, people of every gender should be given the same opportunities and resources to be able to participate, enjoy and succeed in sport.

Ultimately, we want girls to make #HERstory not because they’ve overcome barriers, but because the barriers have been removed entirely.

“Senior decision-makers in community sport organizations need to create opportunities for program leaders to share their experiences and knowledge. Staff know the barriers and challenges experienced by participants, but those barriers and challenges can persist if insights aren’t filtered up the organizational hierarchy.” – Amina Haggar, a University of Ottawa graduate student, shares insights from her research on the sport experiences of second-generation African Canadian girls.

In a first of its kind report on the status of elite women’s soccer, FIFA has found that the success of a national team is correlated with the proportion of domestic clubs that offer youth programs for girls. For leagues in which 80% of clubs have girls’ programs, the average national team ranking is 13th—compared to an average ranking of 28th for all other countries.

I started playing golf for the hot dogs. As a 14-year-old girl, I wanted to make friends with the other kids at my golf club. My major motivation after 9 holes was celebrating with friends over a hot dog and a chocolate milkshake.

Photo of Lindsay Knowlton, founder of Iron Lady Golf.
Lindsay Knowlton, founder of Iron Lady Golf and member of the PGA of Canada

Flash forward 25 years, and golf is my passion. I’ve played and competed around the world. I’ve also taught more than 10 000 women how to play golf.

Like me, these women are almost always interested in more than learning how to play golf. They learn to be included in their work events or to spend more time with their partners and families. They learn to find new friendships and travel companions, to exercise, spend time in nature or get some fresh air.

Now more than ever, golf is about much more than just the game. Community is the glue that makes golf stick. In this blog, I offer strategies and tips, based on research and my own experiences, to help golf clubs and organizations create inclusive, welcoming environments that help women say “yes” to golf.

More than just a game

Women standing together and smiling on golf course. Members of Iron Lady Golf. My personal experiences have closely mirrored research about the drivers and benefits of women’s golf participation. Research findings largely revolve around the health benefits of exercise through golf and the social aspects of the game. For example, in a recent study, 76% of women cited “exercise and health” and 68% of women reported “socializing with family and friends” as their primary reason for playing golf (The R&A, 2018). Compared to men, women are less likely to be motivated by business networking, tradition or building mastery (McGinnis & Gentry, 2006).

Unfortunately, golf courses aren’t always perceived as welcoming places for women. The game’s structure, rules and social etiquette are often rooted in a male-dominated environment. All that can lead to anxiety and a lack of confidence among women, especially if they’re new to golf (McGinnis & Gentry, 2006). Additional barriers for women, especially those with busy family schedules, include the time commitment and cost of lessons, practice and memberships (Syngenta UK Ltd., 2014).

In my experience, golf communities that work well for women, especially for beginners, are communities where rulebooks and scorecards take a back seat to fun. They’re safe and inclusive environments that allow women to spend time outside with friends and improve their game at the same time. They create a feeling of belonging, places where laughter and discussions about life, work and what to order at the clubhouse are most often heard across the fairway. Following the time on the course, the debrief afterwards is just as important. That is, celebrating with a meal, discussing the day, and maybe even talking about that golf trip the group will take together some day.

Creating welcoming golf spaces

Ensuring that golf courses are welcoming places, where participants feel included, is the most important start for golf clubs and organizations (Sports & Leisure Research Group, 2010; The R&A, 2018). I recommend starting that before potential golfers set foot on the course. That can mean an informational email, phone call, or even better a video meeting to welcome the women. During that welcome, let the women know what they can expect, and how and where to show up to the course.

On the course, I suggest programs start with a meet-and-greet with other golfers and a tour of the golf course and facility. Beyond offering various options for membership and informational packages with advice for new members, research shows that clearly marked directional signage and an opportunity to learn the course layout makes golf more accessible to women (Sports & Leisure Research Group, 2010; The R&A, 2018). Even including a brief session on etiquette and how to find their way around the club can help. Next, move on to skill development to increase their confidence with the game, for example, through structured lessons (The R&A, 2018).

Once they’re comfortable, encourage golfers to head out on the course together, during quieter times of the day. That way they’ll feel less rushed and can enjoy 9 holes. For women, especially those with busy family or work schedules, it’s important to have flexible opportunities, such as family-friendly events or playing fewer than 18 holes (The R&A, 2018, 2019). Lastly, include social components around each program and event to help build fun and community. For example, something like a sip-and-chip event where people can practice golf skills while also connecting with others and enjoying a meal or beverage. That’s the glue to make golf stick.

Growing the game

Group of women golfers smiling and taking a selfie. Members of Iron Lady Golf. Increasing and retaining the number of active women golfers has potential to significantly grow the golf industry. For new golfers and seasoned players alike, golf offers ways to prioritize health and wellness while connecting with others. To help women “say yes” to golf, creating a sense of community is key. Welcome a new community of women to golf, and witness the game grow.

Reflecting on how to create a “fun” atmosphere for girls and young women, a participant in an evaluation of the Keeping Girls in Sport online training commented, “Coaches take this as ‘we have to play games all the time and never push the girls outside of their comfort zone.’ Once girls love a sport, being challenged and competing IS fun to them.” Learn more about the insights from the evaluation project between JumpStart Charities and the University of Alberta.

“… as a mom, it’s really easy to tell your kids what you expect. But to show them what you expect is harder. And so I think the benefit of Swim Together is feeling good about what I’m modeling for my kids.”

– mom participant in the Swim Together program 

Parents and guardians are frequently left on the “sidelines” watching their children participate in sport. By prioritizing their child’s involvement, adults often don’t participate in sport and physical activity themselves, and their own well-being may suffer (Misener, 2020). In particular, mothers may view recreational sport for themselves as either a guilt-laden activity or a luxury due to both cost and time (Jones et al., 2010).  

Research suggests that while mothers recognize the benefits of physical activity, they often put the needs of their children, household or employer above their own needs (Hamilton & White, 2010). With adult obesity and daily working hours on the rise (Statistics Canada, 2016), coupled with greater social isolation and many pandemic challenges, this lack of participation in sport and recreation among parents may persist. That could have detrimental psychological and health consequences, particularly for women.  

When it comes recreational sport, girls also face many barriers to participation, including stigma associated with body image, negative peer influence, and lack of social support and positive role models (Canadian Women & Sport, 2020). Research also tells us that parental involvement plays a critical role in motivating children to remain active in sport. In particular, girls who were engaged in more sports and practised more often per week were those who had a mother practising organized physical activity regularly (Rodrigues et al., 2018). 

This blog shares early findings from a mother-daughter swim program. It also encourages sport leaders to think about sport programs differently and re-shape how to offer sport to female youth and their parents. A SIRC Researcher/Practitioner Match Grant and a Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRA) Gender Equity in Recreational Sport – Community Grant provided funding support for this research partnership and program.  

The Swim Together program 

In fall 2020, a swim club piloted an 8-week, co-participation swim program at the Woolwich Memorial Centre in Elmira, Ontario. The program design stemmed from talking and consulting with stakeholders, including coaches, researchers in community sport, swim club administrators, a municipal facility manager, women, and girls (ages 8 to 13).  

Titled Swim Together, the program brought mothers and daughters to the pool at a shared time for 45 minutes of weekly coaching (individual, small group and large-group). In all, 14 moms and 18 girls participated in sessions on swimming technique, cardiovascular fitness, and having fun in the water. Some sessions focused on particular peer groups (moms or girls) and others were mother-daughter activities.  

Impact for women and girls 

Other than alleviating constraints that women and girls face, Swim Together aimed to contribute to positive outcomes like improving physical and mental health, increasing self-confidence and mastery, opening doors for parent-child role modeling, increasing social connectedness, and giving sport clubs a model to implement organized, intentional opportunities for family health and well-being, particularly for women and girls. The pilot program’s early impact included:

Physical activity and fitness 

Swim Together showed that women and girls both experienced significant positive change in their physical activity level and perceived fitness. Participants appreciated that the program was designed to be fun and non-competitive. The organized nature held mothers accountable to attend and helped motivate them to be physically active. 

“When (the kids) swim at other times, I don’t really do a whole lot of physical activity. So this was nice to be able to actually do it with them and get that physical activity instead of just hopping in the car and dropping them off and then going back half an hour later and picking them up.”

– mom participant 

Self-confidence and mastery 

Moms like being coached! Coaching was central to helping women and girls develop their skills and see improvement in their own abilities. The program’s consistent, weekly training translated into greater confidence for participants. As their skill level developed, they were more likely to come swim lengths on their own at other times of the week. 

Social interaction 

Despite COVID-19 restrictions posing some barriers, Swim Together still created a sense of community among women who didn’t necessarily see themselves as “active” or “athletic.” Now, they ‘re swimming regularly with new friends who enjoy a similar recreational pursuit.  

“Especially because of COVID, I am struggling to find a social circle. Swim Together has given me a social circle on a regular basis… being able to actually be in a group in a safe space again, it’s something that I’ve definitely been missing.” 

– mom participant 

Positive role modeling and shared interest within families 

Positive role modeling was particularly important for women who felt like they weren’t necessarily modeling the values that they were trying to instill in their children. For example, values like being lifelong physically active individuals and trying new forms of physical activity. Women appreciated the structured opportunity to demonstrate these values and behaviours to their children while cultivating a shared interest.

“I value health. And yet, I’m not living a life where it looks like I value my health. And so for me, I think the benefit is twofold…. as a mom, it’s really easy to tell your kids what you expect. But to show them what you expect is harder… I think the benefit of Swim Together is feeling good about what I’m modeling for my kids.”

 mom participant 

3 strategies for sport clubs to build a co-participation program 

1. Use your club’s capacity strengths to experiment with co-participation  

The swim club had strong coaches with shared values (that is, promoting positive outcomes for women and girls, and supporting positive family dynamics). Coaches and swim club administrators worked together to embrace new ways to use the pool facility for a program that wasn’t exclusive to youth. By successfully applying for grants to cover part of the participant fees, they were able to offer a low-cost program. If future grants are unavailable, it will be vital to communicate during the registration process that coaching has value, even though it adds to registration costs.  

2. Embrace evaluation through research partnerships 

To facilitate co-participation programming, all stakeholders must have a voice in the program’s planning, implementation and evaluation. We used a community-based partnership model that involved sport practitioners, university-based researchers, and participants. By conducting focus groups and interviews throughout the program, we learned about people’s experiences and adapted the program on an ongoing basis. Particularly for new sport programs, conducting evaluative research alongside the program provides stakeholders with new insight into specific mechanisms that can help enhance participation. 

3. Use co-participation to develop pathways for lifelong participation 

Swim Together linked many aspects that lay the foundation for lifelong physical activity and sport participation. Because their mom was present, younger girls found this program made them more comfortable participating. Some girls even expressed interest in joining the regular swim team. Whereas others, who were former members of a swim team, preferred the non-competitive physical activity in the Swim Together program. Some moms said they wouldn’t have been comfortable going solo to swim lanes, but with their daughter involved, they felt more willing to participate. While women and girls face barriers to being active at different points in life, this program offers participants an activity to help mitigate those barriers.  

“[Swim Together] brought in more interest in swimming – both competitive swimming and swimming as a health activity. I also love that the program is bringing more girls into our centre. It’s getting parents involved and promoting mother-daughter bonding. I think it’s bringing a whole social aspect as well, so that the moms are working together and getting to know people, especially during this time with COVID.”

– Municipal Director of Recreation 

Moving forward 

Our program shows that having a child participate in sport doesn’t necessarily mean parents miss out on participating in sports themselves. However, sport leaders must think differently about how to organize sport and intentionally create opportunities for family health and well-being. 

Swim Together offers a new co-participation model to engage women and girls simultaneously in a sport pursuit. This model has potential to help sport clubs re-imagine programs that promote the health and well-being of women and girls by allowing them to participate together in organized sport.  

As SIRC’s recent #MomsGotGame campaign noted, our sport system needs to provide new resources and supports to overcome the unique challenges and circumstances for moms’ sport participation (Allan, 2020), particularly due to the positive influence active mothers have on encouraging their children’s sport participation (Rodrigues et al., 2018).

For more information about this research, please contact Katie Misener at k.misener@uwaterloo.ca

Female youth involved with community parasport programs identify four benefits of their participation – social development, physical development, self-perceptions (feeling more confident), and athlete development (a desire to continue with parasport). Learn more in the SIRC blog.

Research about the community sport experiences of second-generation African Canadian girls identifies several challenges to participation. Tips to support participation include all-female spaces, providing concurrent programming for younger siblings, and engaging multicultural health navigators to build trusting relationships with families.