When was the last time you were in a gym? Not one decked out with treadmills, squat racks, and a fuel bar. I mean an actual gymnasium complete with backboards, bay lights and painted lines on the hardwood floor. Okay now what about an ice rink, swimming pool, or athletic field?
For women, getting or staying active commonly means defaulting to
fitness activities like running, yoga, or ubiquitous group training classes. But those don’t have to be your only options. With its positive attributes and copious ways to play, sport can and should be a serious consideration for women seeking challenge and enjoyment in their physical activity. Making the shift to sport has unrivalled physical, social, and professional benefits for women at any age.
Whether or not you consider yourself an athlete, you can get in the game with sport as an alternative, or to complement your fitness routine. If you’re suddenly thinking about that tennis racquet in your basement, that neighbour who does triathlons, or that record you broke in junior year? That’s okay! Those are all great starting places, but don’t feel limited to what you know. The motivation, connections, contrasts, and practical considerations that follow will help you consider one or more sports that fit your skills, interests, and lifestyle.
STARTING POSITION: OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH SPORT
The Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport (CAAWS) reports that, “as girls reach adulthood, more and more stop playing sports with only 16% of adult women reporting sport participation.”
It stands to reason that the other 84% are women who as girls played sports, swam, danced or skated and then stopped—and the women who never played at all. Those of us who played for a school or competed with a club once upon a time, may have fallen out of love with, lost touch with, or developed an unhealthy relationship with the sport.
We now have the opportunity as women to reconnect with our inner athletes, awaken latent abilities, take on new challenges, test our limits and add a fresh element of fun to our lives. For myself, competing in Masters Track & Field has done all of that for me and more.
For those who never really connected with sport, I understand that this
whole subject may conjure unpleasant memories of eighth grade gym class. Biases and barriers may have distanced you from sport in the past, but understand this: You’re not fourteen anymore. You can start anew with sport that’s fun, therapeutic, plays to your strengths, and encourages you to feel good about yourself.
EQUALING THE PLAYNG FIELD: WOMEN IN SPORTS AND AT WORK
“It is no accident that 80% of the female executives at Fortune 500 companies identified themselves as former “tomboys”—having played sports.” In writing about the benefits of female sport participation, the Women’s Sport Foundation goes on to explain that, “Sport is where boys have traditionally learned about teamwork, goal-setting, the pursuit of excellence in performance and other achievement-oriented behaviours— critical skills necessary for success in the workplace.” And that “women who don’t know the written and unwritten rules of sport are at a disadvantage in understanding business models of organizations based on sport.”
This tells us that experience playing sports can help women gain an advantage at work— particularly in male-dominated industries and organizations. Understanding the written and unwritten rules can translate into better understanding the values, confidence and decision-making of male colleagues and clients. This of course in addition to the leadership, work ethic and poise under pressure that sport develops overall.
THE MATCH-UP: COMPARING AND CONTRASTING FITNESS AND SPORT
As a fitness enthusiast, I appreciate a sweaty spin session and yoga flow, but as an athlete, I know nothing beats the discipline of sport training, the camaraderie of a team and the rush of championship play. Following are areas where sport comes out ahead:
Physical performance and skill development: An ultimate functional fitness workout or game of ultimate frisbee—either way, you get a full body workout that burns calories, conditions muscles, and benefits your overall health. Engaging in a sport however, sets the stage for more dynamic movement on courts, rinks, and athletic fields. It encourages the development of new skills and provides challenging application for existing ones. For example, forward lunges performed for reps or time in fitness, translates when making a catch in baseball, a dig in volleyball or an attack in fencing.
Weight management and body image: Of the numerous physical, mental and emotional benefits of exercise, weight management—especially fat loss, is a common motivator. Weight loss challenges offered in club or online can be effective, but also be very number focussed. Engaging in a moderate to high intensity sport such as soccer, squash, or cross-country skiing can help you achieve your goals while shifting attention away from the scale. With sport, you’re more apt to focus on and appreciate what your body can do versus how it looks. That’s not to say that athletes are immune to body image issues, but research shows that girls and women who play sports have a more positive body image and experience higher states of psychological well- being than girls and women who do not play at all.
Structure and accountability: Consistency is key to achieving any fitness goal. Although we’re often advised to add workouts to our calendars and to schedule them with friends for accountability—it’s interesting science that our effort and results improve with competition, more so than with social support.
A University of Pennsylvania study observed that “competitive groups frame relationships in terms of goal- setting by the most active members. These relationships help to motivate exercise because they give people higher expectations for their own levels of performance.” There’s no doubt that having a schedule of practices, upcoming games and a team relying on you is powerful motivation on those days when your couch, a glass of wine and the newest Netflix series are calling after a long day’s work.
A tight knit group of fitness buddies may sweat and socialize together, and some studios and gyms will even host events and outings for members—but fitness can also be very individual and homogenous. As anyone who plays with a baseball team at work or curling club can attest, socializing is
a significant part of the experience. Team sport in particular, has the unique attribute of uniting like-people while also promoting teamwork among people with different backgrounds and personality traits. Learning to respect and work with diverse groups of men and women benefit us long after the game whistle has blown.
KEEPING SCORE: FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Consider these thought-starters and practical questions to help assess potential fit.
What do you want to gain from participation? I.e. sense of accomplishment, new friends, skill development.
Are alone time, the culture of the sport, female-only leagues or inclusion and diversity priorities for you?
Energy and environment
Are you more energized on the open road, in nature or in a gritty hardcore setting? Do you feel like a kid again in a dance studio, gymnasium or swimming pool?
Interests and strengths
What are you good at, curious about, or physically well-suited for?
Time and budget
How much are you willing to invest in practice time, games and tournaments, equipment costs, membership fees and competition expenses?
Injuries and health
Do you have injuries or health conditions (recent or past) that make participation a risk?
VENUES AND PLAYERS
When you’re ready to take the first step, these local and online resources can help you find places to learn and play:
• City, parks & recreation community centres, pools, parks and courts
• Local sport meet-up groups
• College/university sport and recreation departments
• Work and church teams
• Private sport and recreation clubs (i.e. cycling, golf, martial arts, racquet, ski)
• Provincial sport organizations and local sport clubs (I.e. Ontario Masters Athletics, Volleyball BC)
• Your personal trainer, fitness instructor, colleagues, or friends, who have played or competed and can point you in the right direction.
Debbie is one of our 2020 Top 100 Health Influencers in Canada, check her out here.
Author: Debbie King is a multi-sport athlete who is on a mission to medal at the 2020 World Masters Athletics Championships. Under the tagline “Supafitmama,” she produces content that connects active women with resources across sport, fitness, and wellness. You an find her here at SupaFitMama.