girls celebrating a goal

Researchers wish to promote well-being among young girls in sports

There are many things happening in the body of teenage girls. Anna Melin is leading a new research project that includes short educational films covering topics related to the biological, psychological and social challenges for young female engaged in organised sports. The aim is to promote the well-being of the girls and to increase their commitment within sports.

The physical changes taking place with girls in their teens are different from the changes taking place with boys. These changes are something that not the least affect girls active in sports.

– During their teenage years, most boys gain more muscle mass and they become faster, stronger and increase their performance. For girls, on the other hand, it is generally the other way around. They can during a transient period become slower since the changes and development during puberty lead to increased body fat, says Anna Melin, associate professor of sports science at Linnaeus University.

Therefore, girls often face other biological, psychological, and social challenges than boys do. Furthermore, if the sport discipline or the sport environment focuses on low body weight and performance, there is an increased risk of developing unhealthy and harmful behaviours.

– Mental illness is increasing among teenage girls, unfortunately. The psychosocial stress that an unhealthy sports environment entails may increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Adults among these girls require knowledge of how to support the girls in this transitional phase when a girl becomes a woman.

Assistance for girls, coaches, and parents

In a new project, Female Inclusion & Development in Exercise and Sports; Athlete Development Program (FIDES ADP), Anna Melin and her research colleagues therefore aim to make 12 short films intended to increase the knowledge of the challenges that girls often face in their teens when they participate in organised sport. These films will cover aspects such as body image, self-perception, social media, and the changes and developments during puberty, but also nutrition for health and sport. The films are primarily aimed at girls between 13 and 16 years old, within the five major sports (football, handball, athletics, swimming and gymnastics), but also at their parents and coaches.  

– Coaching of girls often takes place based on the same principles as for boys, and many coaches do not have the requisite knowledge of what the girls’ physical, social, and psychological challenges entail in terms of sports. Therefore, to further support the girls’ well-being, the aim is also to increase the knowledge among coaches and parents.

coach talking to three swimmers

Regular physical activity and training is important for our health and well-being, in the short as well as the long term. Therefore, we need to ensure that girls may exercise in accordance with their own physical status during puberty.

– If you feel sad, alone or depressed, participating in sports and its social context where you can meet friends in a safe environment may become increasingly important. Furthermore, training in itself may improve mental health and well-being. Therefore, the project has a long-term goal in contributing to encourage girls to be engaged in sports as long as possible.

Important to deliver the message in the right way

The films will be 8–10 minutes long and it is important to deliver relevant information in an interesting and appealing setting. To gain understanding of what the target group needs and wants, the researchers intend to involve the girls in creating the films, by using surveys, interviews and a reference group consisting of athletic girls of different ages.

The project is funded by the Kamprad Family Foundation for Entrepreneurship, Research & Charity by 5 million SEK and is conducted in collaboration with RF-SISU Småland and RF-SISU Skåne. The two regional sport organisations are important collaboration partners to the researchers in terms of recruitment of sport clubs who want to participate in the study.

An additional collaboration partner is the University of Agder in Norway, that is developing a coach education focused solely on coaching girls and women. This will hopefully have a ripple effect on this important issue, Anna Melin concludes.