She Plays Project: Keeping girls in sport through holistic programming and dedicated resources

Jul 12, 2022

In the spring of 2020 amidst the uncertainty of a developing pandemic, viaSport initiated a year-long pilot project called She Plays. Using a participant centred design strategy, this project aimed to increase retention of girls in sport, specifically targeting girls between the ages of 11 and 141. We were fortunate to embark on this journey in partnership with eight sport organizations that implemented participant-designed strategies to enhance their program development and address the unique challenges faced by girls in their sport.

It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since the completion of the She Plays project! In light of reaching this milestone, we are celebrating the success of two of our partner organizations, Freestyle Whistler Ski Club and Nanaimo Diamonds Artistic Swimming Club. We caught up with these two clubs to see how things have been going and what kind of an impact the She Plays project has had on their organization.

Through the monitoring and evaluation of the She Plays project, it became clear to viaSport’s project managers that understanding each organization’s unique community and sport-specific context is crucial to meet the needs of sport participants. Freestyle Whistler and Nanaimo Artistic Swimming are perfect examples of differently positioned clubs that took distinct approaches to engage girls based on their organizational environment.

As a traditionally female-dominated aquatic team sport, Nanaimo Artistic Swimming focused their efforts on increased team bonding opportunities and developing coaches to offer more holistic programming. This holistic approach is something they have continued to build since the completion of the She Plays project.

“This year, [the athletes] were asking for help with nutrition, dealing with competition stress, failures, etc.,” said the Club’s President, Nicole Barberie. “This month we are running a whole day workshop to address the following topics: Nutrition, RED-S [Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport], Owning your Journey, Dealing with Failures, Competitor stress. In aquatic sport, the female athletes need support around menstruation and how this affects training. This topic needs to be normalized between athletes, coaches and staff.”

In contrast, Freestyle Whistler operates in a traditionally male-dominated individual winter sport environment. Their participant designed strategy sessions led to an approach that focuses on creating separate spaces for girls where they can build their skills with dedicated coaching. Freestyle Whistler’s Executive Director, Chris Muir, shared the success of this new approach.

“We implemented a girls-only program called ‘Girlstylerz’ which has been used throughout Canada but our club had not jumped on board. It was hugely successful. We saw a 150% jump in female registration [in the last year].”

Chris and Nicole’s descriptions clearly highlight the different needs of the girls in these two clubs, yet both were able to successfully identify challenges and implement strategies that aligned with their sport-specific contexts. It’s wonderful to see how these organizations have taken their learnings from the participant centered consultation process and continue to attend to the needs of their athletes.

While this project established the need for a targeted approach, She Plays also uncovered some patterns that were consistent across girls’ sport environments. For example, the participant centered design process revealed that team support and friendship were the most commonly identified motivators for these girls to stay engaged in their respective sports2. A year later, both Freestyle Whistler and Nanaimo Artistic Swimming illustrate how fostering a supportive team environment has led to increased enjoyment and engagement.

“[She Plays] has created relationships that will outlast the winter season we have. They have all become friends they socialize with outside of sport,” Chris reflected. “The year was incredibly positive. The level of support and team spirit within the program was fantastic.”

Similar to Freestyle Whistler’s positive outcomes in relationship building, Nanaimo Artistic Swimming placed an emphasis on team building.

“We have put a lot of energy into club culture this season,” said Nicole. “We started the season with vision board creation and team value statements, where each team created eight values that they wanted their team to strive for during the season…Because of the team values exercise that we implemented at the beginning of the season, the athletes who went to the national level have had steep development curves this year and are very engaged.”

Nicole’s comment alludes to another common challenge identified through the She Plays project. In girls’ team sports that have lower participation rates, organizations often struggle to balance competitive and recreational sport environments. For example, if a club only has enough athletes to fill one or two teams, they are likely working with athletes whose motivations and level of sport commitment are quite varied. This leads to risk of drop-out on both ends of the spectrum: highly competitive athletes might seek out a greater level of competition in another sport, whereas more recreational athletes might find an activity that is more focused on having fun. In addition to their team building focus, Nanaimo Artistic Swimming took a collaborative approach to meet the needs of all of their girls.

“Our club is too small on its own to run a national level program,” Nicole explained. “We managed to keep five elite athletes in the sport by offering an inter-club national level team with Victoria Artistic Swimming this year. This definitely prevented five athletes from leaving the sport because of lack of challenge as they had been at the top of their provincial class for the previous three years. We did not lose any athletes since we did the [She Plays] program.”

By putting girls and women at the centre of program design, these clubs demonstrate how retention, engagement, and participation can be improved by asking girls what they need to feel supported and included in their sport environment. While this project was designed to improve the experiences of youth participating in sport programming, it is clear that the project had an impact beyond the athletes, extending to coaches, staff and administrators.

Chris identifies Freestyle Whistler’s biggest learning from the She Plays project as “asking athletes to provide more feedback on their programming and what they need to be successful, as well as feel included.”

Similarly, Nicole has noticed a mindset change among the Nanaimo Artistic Swimming Club’s leadership group.

“Participation in the project has created a shift amongst the people who run our club, the board of directors and the coaches, towards a more holistic athlete focused program,” she said. “We will be meeting in the next months to discuss next year’s planning and we plan to implement more land-based sport skills (ball sport, weight training, etc.) to round out the aquatic heavy aspect of our sport.”

Ultimately, Freestyle Whistler and Nanaimo Artistic Swimming highlight the success of the She Plays project. viaSport is incredibly grateful to all eight organizations who dedicated their time to the improvement of sport programming for the girls in their respective clubs. Their stories demonstrate how successful sport organizations can be when they develop creative solutions to meet the needs of girls and women in each unique sport context.

Are you looking to improve retention rates for girls and women in your sport organization? Visit viaSport’s resource hub to learn more about the She Plays project and participant centred design strategies!

This project was made possible by funding from Sport Canada.

1. This target age range was based on research findings that by age 14, girls drop out of sport at an increasing rate and are less likely to take up team sports in the future if they have not already done so.

2. Observations from the human-centred design process are outlined in pages 8-12 of the She Plays Final Report.