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"Gymnastics presents a unique and powerful opportunity" Says Women in Sport UK

Women in Sport UK, spoke at a webinar hosted by Gymnastics Ireland about the research they conducted about teenage female participation in Ireland this 20th of November called "Opportunities to Support and Retain Teenage Girls in Gymnastics" where they mentioned that "Gymnastics presents a unique and powerful opportunity" retaining teenage girls in sport, an important problem that Sport Ireland is trying to tackle.

According to Women in Sport, a charity with the purpose to give every woman and girl the opportunity to take part in sport and inspire her to do so, gymnastics has the power to support girls to develop a love of sport and physical activity at a young age with potentially far-reaching consequences on activity levels later in life. Some of the reasons for this are the following:

It engages girls at a young age

Gymnastics (rhythmic, artistic, aerobic, etc...) follow an early specialisation model. Early specialisation refers to the fact that some sports require early sport-specific specialisation in training. Therefore most gymnasts start before puberty, which makes gymnasts very well physically literate, and experienced in physical exercise. This ensures that later in their teenage years they are used to a gym environment and they are physically and psychologically able to commit to the sport on a regular basis.

Desirable/aspirational for many girls

With 24,000 female gymnasts, it is safe to say there is a huge interest in gymnastics among young girls. The sport is, in fact, oversubscribed, with many clubs having long waiting lists. Gymnastics is a sport very appealing to watch due to its aesthetic and expressive nature. It's important to remember that teenagers are ‘Generation Z’: digital and social natives. Gymnastics is a visual sport that has gotten more attention since social media became more prevalent.

Attracts more female participation than male

85% of Gymnastics Ireland members are female, and all gymnastics disciplines have a huge female audience. Female gymnasts have more choices in terms of disciplines than males too.

Boys are not naturally seen as better than girls

Men and women compete in different gymnastics events and they are scored differently, so some people consider them to be totally separate sports.

Sports carry out most of their policies, regulations, and research based on their professional or top athletes and major international events. This means that the rulebooks and or code of points are often tailored to the physicality of these groups.

In gymnastics, top competitors at various levels are young females. Therefore, research and regulations are tailored to their bodies, their potential injuries, and their physiological needs, whereas in other sports like GAA and Rugby the sport has been developed to the capacities of males in their mid-twenties, as there are more data points on the of players in this other demographic.

This doesn't only make gymnastics safer in some areas for teenage girls, but it also means that it's the skills that their body type can master that are desired and persued.

Encourages healthy risk-taking and builds resilience in a safe and supportive environment

Healthy risk-taking is a valuable skill that may be useful in many aspects of life. Gymnastics teaches young girls how to assess risk, and how to manage performance anxiety. Risk-taking is so important that it has proven to be what sets successful gymnasts apart from their competitors. A great example of this is the gymnastics superstar Biles.

Her willingness to take risks in the face of failure has undoubtedly helped her become one of the greatest gymnasts in history.

Says Forbes in their article "Simone Biles And The Power Of Risk-Taking". This topic has even been researched by scholars, who believe tournament structures provide a unique opportunity to assess the factors that affect an agent’s decision-making in their study, "The superstar effect in gymnastics".

Isn’t just one sport – includes a variety of different types of skills/disciplines

The gymnastics governing body, FIG -Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique- recognises eight gymnastics disciplines which include gymnastics for all, men's and women's artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, trampolining, acrobatic, aerobic and parkour. Disciplines not currently recognized by FIG include wheel gymnastics, aesthetic group gymnastics, TeamGym, and Mallakhamba.

Although all disciplines require strength, flexibility, coordination, stamina, and aesthetics, they do so through different mediums and by highlighting different physical qualities. This means that there is a variety of choices that can fit many different body types, training preferences, and skills; making gymnastics a very inclusive option.

Provides great foundational skills for other sports

According to Gymnastics Ireland, it's internationally recognised that Gymnastics as a sport provides key skill sets that can assist other sports to develop the complete athlete or player. John Tracey, CEO of Sport Ireland has said in the past:

"It is a great basis for any child coming into sport is that they are involved in gymnastics, and if they go on and do other sports later in life, they are better athletes because of it".

Although there are many opportunities within the gymnastics community to point adolescent girls in the direction of a healthy and active lifestyle, Women in Sport, Sport Ireland, and Gymnastics Ireland acknowledge there are some challenges to face trying to retain teenage girls in sport.

Sport Ireland reports the following in their Adolescent Girls Get Active Research Report, published in January 2021:

Women and girls have long been an underrepresented group in sport and teenage girls in particular take part in sport and physical activity far less than the national average in Ireland. Evidence suggests participation plummets during adolescence with just 7% of girls age 14-15 years meeting recommended physical activity levels.

Gymnastics Ireland has made some changes to make teen gymnasts feel more comfortable and happy in the gym and competition environment, such as allowing artistic gymnasts to wear shorts during competition if they wish to do so. However, there is a lot more work to be done.

In the Adolescent Girls get Active Research Report, the importance of a relatable and wider range of visible role models who’ve shared their fitness journey and empathised with their anxieties. And although the 85% percent Gymnastics Ireland female membership rate, when it comes to the promotion of high-performance athletes that could serve as role models, it is males that get more attention, mainly from the artistic discipline.

Sport Ireland and Women in Sport collaborated to get female teens more engaged in sports through some guidelines for clubs and coaches to use:

Wings Rhythmic Gymnastics is working on its own initiatives to get teenage girls involved in sports, particularly rhythmic gymnastics. It already has a yearly "teen star" award to encourage participation and our coaches have implemented the 8 principles for success to keep them involved.

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