• By the age of 13-15 many girls have labelled themselves “not sporty” and are living by this label, with few attempts to counter it
  • The most powerful barrier that prevents inactive girls from taking part in sport and physical activity is not feeling good enough to join in
  • Report shows there aren’t enough opportunities for girls to take part and have carefree fun with friends while being active

Sport Ireland today released the Adolescent Girls Get Active Research Report, which was undertaken to discover how to encourage teenage girls, particularly those currently disengaged with sport and exercise, to take part in regular physical activity.

The research, commissioned by Sport Ireland, and funded through the Dormant Accounts Fund, was undertaken by Women in Sport UK. The project focused on teenage girls in Ireland with the aim of identifying their attitudes, needs and desires in relation to sport and physical activity; identify their experienced challenges and barriers to accessing sport and physical activity and ultimately develop informed communication strategies to encourage increased participation.

Speaking at the release of the research report, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport & Media, Catherine Martin TD commented: “To see the motivations and attitudes of this group of young girls so clearly outlined is insightful. For the first time we have a true understanding of what is causing teenage girls in Ireland to drop out of sport, or what is preventing them from getting involved in the first place. Sport and physical activity can be a powerful force in a person’s life and we are now armed with the knowledge to reframe sport for teenage girls and to make it a positive and powerful force in their lives. My vision for women in sport is that of one where women have an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential, while enjoying a lifelong involvement in sport. It is encouraging to see the research today which supports this commitment with in-depth research and tangible communication strategies that can be adopted to really encourage our teenage girls to engage and re-engage with sport.”

Minister of State for Sport and the Gaeltacht Jack Chambers TD welcomed the study: “The National Sports Policy 2018-2027 sets out the ambitious target of eliminating the active sports participation gradient by 2027. Significant work by Sport Ireland as well as National Governing Bodies and Local Sports Partnerships is lowering this gradient and today’s research, with these tangible outputs and guidance to programme developers, will ensure further progress in eliminating the drop out and inactivity levels among teenage girls. The research clearly outlines the perceived barriers to sport for our teenage girls. It shows that the feeling that they are “not good enough” or “are not sporty” is often rooted in their experience of traditional, more dominant team sports and the stereotypes reinforced in popular culture and experiences. There is however an understanding of the physical health benefits of sport and physical activity, teenage girls value the mental health benefits of exercise and there is an aspiration to be fit and healthy. It is now our job, as leaders in the sports sector, to leverage the learnings in this research, broaden the concept of sport so it is accessible and inclusive to all girls and not just the sporty few and provide more opportunities to engage”.

The qualitative research, conducted online between August and October 2020, involved a deep exploration the lives, behaviours and attitudes to sport, of teenage girls’ aged 13-18 in both rural and urban areas.

Sport Ireland Chief Executive, John Treacy commented, “We are delighted to be able to present the sector with this hugely important body of research and the tangible principles that they can now take and adopt in their work. It is important to recognise that disengaged girls may simply need different or adapted pathways and approaches to attract and sustain their interest in sport and physical activity. The sector is now armed with this knowledge and the insights to really make an impact, to adapt processes and programmes to ensure that girls are engaged in a way that is meaningful to them. I look forward to seeing the impact of the research in participation levels in the future”. 

Despite the physical contrasts in rural and urban living, the research found that the underlying wants and needs of teenage girls are often similar. They feel there is a lack of social space for teens where they feel welcomed, wanted and included. They feel there are limited opportunities to try new things, learn new skills and ultimately feel good about themselves.

By exploring their lives and really trying to understand the desires and attitudes of teenage girls, they researchers have been able to establish five key anchors that really matter to teenage girls.  Unsurprisingly, friends and friendships are central to a girl’s support network and they strongly prioritise time with friends above all else.  Independence and opportunity, social connection, moments of pride and keeping on top of it all and managing the many teenage pressures are all other aspects that matter to teenage girls.

The Adolescent Girls Get Active Research identifies the opportunity for sport and exercise to fill a void in girls’ lives but highlights that an understanding of the anchors, as well as the barriers to participation is essential to make sport and physical activity relevant and meaningful to young girls.

Capability and the feeling of not being “good enough” is the most powerful barrier that prevents inactive girls from taking part in sport. The research shows that teenage girls in Ireland have a narrow, and often negative experience of a small number of traditional (and dominant) team sports in Ireland, and think this is all that sport is and can be. Girls associate ‘sportiness’ with team and contact sports, so girls who are interested in exercise do not feel targeted with sporting initiatives.

Building on the insights and anchors and the knowledge of the barriers, the research established 8 Principles for Success to engage and connect with teenage girls and to support them to embrace sport and physical activity into their lives:

  1. No judgement
  2. Invoke Excitement
  3. Clear emotional reward
  4. Open eyes to what is there
  5. Build on existing habits
  6. Give girls a voice & choice
  7. Champion what’s in it for them
  8. Expand image of what ‘sporty’ looks like

Sports organisations can use these 8 Principles for Success to check and challenge existing programmes to enhance appeal and relevance for the target audience. They can also be used to innovate and develop completely new initiatives through a teenage girl lens.

Director of Participation and Ethics, Sport Ireland, Dr. Una May outlined the need for this research: “Evidence shows that participation levels plummet during adolescence with just 7% of girls aged 14-15 meeting the recommended physical activity levels. We also know that girls who are active in their teenage years and develop a love of sport are much more likely to establish a life-long relationship with sport and exercise in to adulthood. By really understanding the motivations and attitudes of teenage girls we can now confidently review existing programmes to enhance appeal and relevance for the target audience. We can also use these principles to innovate and develop completely new initiatives. ”.

Sport Ireland Women in Sport Lead, Nora Stapleton commented, “There are many organisations, researchers and others who are working in this space to try and develop interventions to encourage teenage girls to be more active, or to simply stem the dropout rate from sport. I hope that this document can support the work that they are doing. From a Sport Ireland perspective, we plan to utilise the findings and principles for success and develop a number of pilot projects to run in conjunction with the network of LSPs.  We have an exciting Hackathon project launching later today which will provide an opportunity to the public to contribute their ideas to get girls active so I’d encourage everyone to keep an eye out for that and to get involved.”


Further Information:

David Gash

Communications Manager, Sport Ireland




Notes to editor:

Full report is available on the Sport Ireland website