Body image and emotion: Investigating why many adolescent girls drop out of sports

PHOTO: iStock
PHOTO: iStock

Seeing a rink occupied exclusively by female hockey players isn’t the rare sighting it was 15 or 20 years ago. Yet while the opportunities for girls in sport continue to grow, participation numbers remain lower for girls. Moreover, girls tend to drop out at higher rates, often at a time when they are experiencing physical changes as young as nine or ten years old.  

Associate Professor Catherine Sabiston is conducting a study exploring how feelings about appearance—both positive and negative—influence girls’ likelihood to stay involved in sport. Her findings suggest that the more negative a girl feels about her appearance and fitness levels, the less likely she is to enjoy, and remain enrolled in, her sport or physical activity.

Sabiston’s study began in summer 2014 and has followed over 300 girls between 14 and 18 years of age throughout two seasons of sport participation.  This study is the first to explore a wide range of body-related emotions. To date, most analysis of girls and sport has focused on simply whether or not girls were satisfied with their experiences or examined negative moods connected to body image.

During just the first phase of the study, six percent of the girls dropped out. “Self-consciousness related to the body is one of the key reasons why girls drop-out of sport during adolescence as their bodies are changing,” Sabiston explains. Girls in her study reported that they felt growing shame and guilt, in particular when they compared their bodies to those of their peers.
This self-criticism often leads to distorted views of their bodies. In Sabiston’s study, 24 percent of the girls reported that they thought they were overweight. In reality, only three percent were. Sabiston says that these negative emotions likely influence the girls’ confidence in their ability to play well. Forty percent reported that they were worried that they would perform badly and 27 percent said they felt anxious about sport in general. The good news is that 70 percent of the girls said they thought they played well and 64 percent were proud of their fitness accomplishments.

Sabiston says that focusing on and encouraging these positive emotions can help to thwart the drop-out trend. She also suggests giving girls a choice of uniform style to help build confidence. “There can be small but important modifications to uniforms that could make more girls feel more comfortable,” she explains. It’s also important to discourage girls from comparing one another’s performances and physicality. Together, these types of efforts could create a more supportive environment for girls and allow them to reap the benefits of sport participation, both physical and mental. 

From her other related research, Sabiston has found that team sport participation is particularly beneficial for mental health, including body image. “Depression and anxiety outcomes are lower and general mental health is higher when adolescents are involved in sport, team sport in particular.”

Research also finds that if girls form these positive relationships with sport early on, they are more likely to continue an active lifestyle into adulthood. “It starts as early as 10 years old. We need to help more at that level, as girls are going through body transitions. We often say that participating in sport is also a coping strategy for all of these physical changes,” Sabiston points out. But if the girls are too self-conscious to play, they will never reap those benefits. “It’s an unfortunate cycle.”