Sport Sister Podcast - Season 2, Episode 5

Episode 5 – The importance of sport for girls: Catherine Sluter & Linda Fox.

Catherine Sluter and Linda Fox

Catherine Sluter is Director of Tennis at Queenswood School, the number 1 school in the UK for girls’ tennis.  Linda Fox is Chair and Secretary of Actonians LFC, a women and girls football club based in West London.

Catherine and Linda join Natalie Doyle to discuss why sport is so important for girls, including the skills that are developed by girls taking part in sport, the impact of positive role models, and how to involve girls in decision making.

“For me it’s all about developing girls and young women as a whole. There’s so much that sport can bring to the whole person that you can take out into the wider world.”

- Catherine Sluter

Read this episode’s transcript

Natalie Doyle:

Welcome to the Sport Sister Podcast, where we bring together professional experts with grassroots pioneers to discuss key topics for grassroots sport.

I’m Natalie Doyle, and this week we’ve got another all-female episode, which I absolutely love. Two women with a lot of experience engaging girls in various sports. Linda Fox has been chair and secretary of Actonians LFC, a women and girls football club based in West London for over 20 years, and Catherine Sluter is the Director of Tennis at Queenswood School, the number one school in the UK for girls tennis. 

We’re going to talk to them today about why it is important for girls to take part in sport, and they’ve got some fantastic things to share with you. Let’s have a listen.

Catherine and Linda, thank you so much for giving up your time to chat with me today. I feel like we’ve spent quite a lot of time both on the podcast and through my day-to-day work with Sport Sister talking about how to engage girls into sport, but I don’t think we’ve spent enough time talking about ‘why’ we want to engage girls in sport, and that’s what I really want to get into with you today. 

If I start with you, Catherine, I’m going to chuck you right in at the deep end. Why do you think it’s important for girls to take part in sport?

Catherine Sluter:

I think it’s massively important. Obviously the classic ones are confidence and self-esteem for girls. You know, it’s hugely important. We know the stats surrounding girls participation levels, particularly as they get older, they reduce. So self-esteem and confidence is massive, but for me really importantly it’s all about developing girls and young women as a whole. There’s so much that sport can bring to the whole person that you can take out into the wider world in job opportunities, personal life, a sense of wellbeing, a sense of belonging in teams and communities. I just think it’s a bigger picture. Sport brings so much more than just participation and playing in sport I think for girls certainly. I don’t know if that’s how you feel, Linda?

Linda Fox:

Yeah, exactly. I think one of the big things like you say, you learn skills that you can use in normal life, and certainly resilience I think is a really big one. You learn to deal with adversity and disappointment. Obviously you’re going to have highs, but you’re always going to have lows. So learning to deal with that is something that you can then take into your life as you grow older and like you say into the workforce.

Natalie Doyle:

Absolutely. I think that’s really important, isn’t it? That thing around not just developing people as sports people, but as people and what can they get from sport that they can then take into their wider life, into their later careers, whatever it is that they decide to pursue at a later date?

Catherine Sluter:

I think employability and, I always say to the young girls that I work with, look at leadership skills within sport. You can transfer that into the roles that you take on as you leave school. I think role modelling is hugely important. The lesson of paying it forward, if you like, being a role model to the younger girls. So role modelling is huge. We know we say it all the time, but we don’t have enough role models in sport. So I think that’s hugely important, that concept of role modelling.

Natalie Doyle:

You both got heavily involved in girls sport in various guises. You must have seen some great examples of developing young girls and then seeing that change in them that they get from taking part in sport?

Catherine Sluter:

Yeah, for me, it’s the confidence building. I’m lucky enough to work somewhere for long enough that I see girls come in at 11 and they leave at 18 and you see them leave on speech day and they’ve developed into these confident young women that have so many transferable skills that they can take on in the world. 

And that’s through being involved in sport and the confidence that it’s brought them from never having picked up a hockey stick or a netball or a tennis racket, just through being part of a team and being part of a community, you see them grow and flourish. It’s a powerful thing. And then you try and encourage them to do the same thing when they go on and become adults and maybe become involved in the world of sport.

Linda Fox:

Yeah, I agree. We see the same sort of thing even just in a very sort of short-term basis. When the girls first come down to our sessions, a lot of the time they’re very shy and scared, and they join in the session and even just an hour later they are already part of the team. 

They’re talking, chatting, laughing, and the next week they come back and you can really see just over a few weeks sometimes how they grow so quickly. I think it’s finding a group that, they’ve got something in common with where they can be themselves. They can totally just enjoy themselves.

Catherine Sluter:

I don’t know about you, but I work in an all girls school, but it’s that all-girl environment that makes it feel safe for them to make mistakes, to get things wrong. They’re not worried about maybe what peers are thinking. It’s creating that safe place, that safe environment for them, for them to grow, I think is important.

Linda Fox:

100%. Yeah, definitely. I think that’s a big thing really is to have an environment where they feel it’s for them. It’s not a side project or it’s not an add-on or it’s not a tick box, it’s for them and they have an input. They know they’re the number one priority, and I think that that’s, that’s really important.

Catherine Sluter:

I think that’s a powerful message that we need to have more of because we know, the stats surrounding how girls feel about participating in sport and to just reinforce that message that they are the number one priority. I think obviously the Lionesses did a huge, huge thing for that this summer. We can all talk about that, but we need more of it. We need these girls and young women to think that they are the priority, seeing female presenters on TV shows, you know, I didn’t have that when I was young. I didn’t know that that was even possible. I didn’t even know that a career in sport was possible. 

When I was growing up, if you were an athlete, the only sort of opportunity really was PE teaching. I didn’t see athletes as a career. I say that to the girls now, you could actually be a professional athlete. Whereas, 10, 20 years ago we didn’t have that and we need to shout about that more to make girls feel that it’s a real career path that they can take.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, that’s a really interesting point that you both raised there around providing that safe space about making sure that the girls feel that they are the priority and they see themselves in that way, but also it’s an environment where they feel that they can make mistakes and it’s going to be a safe place for them to do that. Do you think that helps with that sense of belonging, of them getting more confident every single week, every time that they’re taking part in the sessions? Do you see that change happening?

Linda Fox:

Yeah, you really do see it. And I think the difference with girls and females maybe in general quite often is that we want to know why are we doing this? Or we question things, you ask them to do something, they don’t just go and do it. 

They want to know all the background reasons why, how, and I think it’s important that you encourage that environment so that they can get that need fulfilled. And also they feel more part of it, they feel that they have an influence and they can shape their own environment as well. I think that’s also important.

Catherine Sluter:

Yeah, I have that a lot from tennis coaches. In the tennis world, we don’t have as many female coaches and sometimes male coaches can struggle when they’re working with young girl tennis players. Girl tennis players compared to boys, they want to talk about the whys, like you say. Why do I need to have my arm in that position? Why do I need to hit the ball then? We want to talk about it, we want to know the details. Whereas boys are a little bit different, aren’t they? They like to just get on with it. So yeah, I guess it’s creating that confidence in coaches as well to understand how women work in general. 

We are quite critical of ourselves. We as women we’re hugely critical. So it’s working with young players, so coaches need to understand how girls and boys are different and how they need to change things in their coaching program or things they’re saying. Sometimes it’s just the language that they’re using that we need to change and maybe give a bit more CPD around coaching and teaching in the language that we use.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. You probably both when you were younger would’ve tried various sports, and I’m sure you’ll see girls who are trying different sports. What do you think about the benefits of people trying out different things?

Linda Fox:

Yeah, there’s no harm in it really and I think especially at a young age, I think that you should try different things because how else will you know what you enjoy the most? And just thinking back to myself, when I was younger I tried a few different things in different environments. Some things were mixed, some things were girls only. And yeah, of course, I loved football, but at that point, I could probably have done something else if I’d enjoyed that session more. So it is about thinking how it makes you feel, if you haven’t got a natural talent or you’re good at something, you’re just trying things, it is about how, how it makes you feel and I think that’s going to have a big influence on what you end up doing. But I would definitely encourage people to try loads of things.

Catherine Sluter:

I think as well with different sports, there’s transferrable skills that you can bring to other sports which I think is so important. I see children specialize in sports so much earlier than we used to, which I don’t always massively agree with, specializing in one sport if they’re going to play that sport for the rest of their life, you can often see burnout a little bit earlier than we used to perhaps and boredom and the pressure of one sport. So I think it’s super important, especially for me in tennis, I like some of my younger players to play in team sports to have that team environment around them, playing with their friends, enjoying sport. That’s the most important thing. If they’re not going to enjoy it, they’re not going to play and continue playing for long, they’re going to burn out and get bored. So yeah, I think it’s hugely important to have a variation of sport.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, that’s a good point, when you mention the difference between individual and team sports. Do you see that, Catherine, in terms of if you’ve got tennis players who are playing singles, is it different in terms of the outcomes that they get from the sport to what they might take get if they were taking part in a team sport?

Catherine Sluter:

Yeah. My girls, they go out and compete internationally and it is individual and it is tough. The pressure on themselves, they’re on court, on their own, which is why in my environment I like to place quite a big emphasis on the team stuff because they don’t get that as much. 

And there’s so much confidence that they can gain from each other, you know, talking to each other. They can see skills and qualities in each other in a team environment that they can use and adapt into their own game. Statistics and research show girls work better collaboratively in groups and teams. So for me, the team environment is super important. But yeah, you can definitely see the change

Natalie Doyle:

And presumably, it’s an easier environment to step into, isn’t it? If they’re stepping in as a team, for example, Linda, if you’ve got a young girl come along to a football session, although that can be really intimidating, it’s probably slightly less intimidating than it is stepping into tennis, for example.

Linda Fox:

Yeah. I would’ve thought so especially on match day or your first competition, if you’re taking part in competitions in a team sport, you always have the backing of your teammates, whereas obviously individual sport that pressure must be quite a lot to deal with. I think girls are very good at encouraging each other. They’re good at having each other’s backs. So that will help for sure.

Natalie Doyle:

You both talked earlier about bringing out leadership skills and confidence in girls that are taking part in the sports that you’re involved in. Is that a conscious thing? Is that something that you see coaches working on specifically or is it just something that comes out as a natural byproduct from their taking part in the sport? Or are there things that people can do to try and encourage those skills to come out?

Linda Fox:

Yeah, there’s definitely things you can do. We’ve introduced a few things where sometimes the girls themselves will pick the team, the formation, the tactics, focusing more on the development than the results. And we let them organize themselves and it works really, really well, most of the time, especially with summer tournaments and things like that, we just let them run it. They pick two teams, two fair teams and they manage to do it all without any issues. 

And in terms of the club, we try to have things like a player forum. So you have a couple of people from each team that come along to a little leadership group and they’ll bring the ideas and issues, if there are any, from each team and suggestions. And that is really useful for us because we’re not 10-year-old girls anymore, so we don’t know exactly what they want. We think we do, but it’s always really useful to hear it from them.

Catherine Sluter:

Yeah. I think, student voice or team voice, making them all feel like they’re heard and that they can contribute. Teams are made up of so many different characters and I think it’s really important for teams and clubs to value each and every one. You get the one that’s really good at bringing everyone together, someone that’s really good at the team talk, someone that’s really good at behind the scenes letting you know that someone’s not feeling so well. So there’s different roles within teams and all of them need to feel like they have a role within a team, and I think that’s important. When they feel that, that’s when you create that safe environment, and success only comes from that, whether it’s increased participation rates or actual competition success. It builds.

Natalie Doyle:

And that links back to what you mentioned earlier around the importance of girls understanding why a certain thing is happening, why you’re focusing on a certain thing. If you start to involve them in those conversations, is that something that you try and integrate into what you’re doing as well?

Linda Fox:

Yeah, exactly. It’s just opening that door and making them feel comfortable to do that.

Catherine Sluter:

Yeah. They always want to know why. Girls always want to know, why am I doing this? What’s the point in this? And I think once they understand that, they’ll crack on with things, but it’s really important that they understand why they’re doing something.

Natalie Doyle:

Great. You talked earlier about the importance of role models and showing girls what opportunities there are for them later down the line. Do you try and integrate role models into what you’re doing as much as possible?

Linda Fox:

Yeah, definitely. In terms of us, we try to obviously recruit as many female coaches as we can, because that’s a good start. And it’s not always easy because quite often you get dads volunteering, which is brilliant as well. 

But we try to then have some of the young older girls also come down to help work with the younger girls so they can see that you can still play when you’re 16 or whatever. And then also in terms of some senior players inviting them to be mascots on a match day, so they know that there’s somewhere for them to go if they want to carry on playing. So yeah, it’s really important.

Catherine Sluter:

Role modelling is so, so important. It’s just visually seeing someone older than you or that’s still playing, that’s going out there developing their leadership skills. We have a tennis festival where some of our tennis leaders run a session for an afternoon and the little ones can see, oh wow, look at those players. I can be like that one day. You know it’s super important.

Natalie Doyle:

It helps with retention as well, doesn’t it? Because if people see that there’s a pathway through the age groups and it’s in a setting that they understand and are familiar with, it’s much easier to retain them as they get older.

Catherine Sluter:

Yeah. And you want to look up to someone and you want to be just like them. And if we haven’t got those just like them, where are they going to go? We need that.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah. Right, I’m starting to dig into getting some advice and tips out of you. We’ve already got some, which is great. If you were giving some advice or tips to clubs and organizations that want to engage more girls in sport, what would your top tips be?

Catherine Sluter:

I think for me it’s find out from your club or your group, what exactly they want. We know some girls really love competition. They thrive off it, they really want to do well, but we also know that girls just want to go out and play with their friends. So I think it’s creating opportunities to cater for all of those things. Certainly, competition is super, super important, but it’s not the only thing. Remember we want girls to stay in physical activity lifelong. So we need to find a way to engage them in that. So it’s just providing opportunities for all types of girls. We are not all the same. We don’t all like to just compete and try and win trophies. We want to be with our friends and hang out and stay fit.

Linda Fox:

Yeah, exactly. I think creating that welcoming space for sure, and focus on the enjoyment first but then of course, as you say, if people want to take it further, then there needs to be the opportunity to do that as well. Or if you can’t offer that, you can at least maybe signpost them to somewhere where they can go on to do that. And like we said earlier make sure they feel that they’re the priority and not a reason for a club to get some funding or whatever. Set up some girls sessions, needs to be the main priority

Catherine Sluter:

And I think as well, the language that we use, terminology that we use in the club space. What are the messages that we’re putting out there? Are there posters of girls in your club? Are there female coaches? How many female coaches are we recruiting? It’s what it looks like for girls. If they go into a club and they see lots of male coaches, lots of male teams, lots of boys teams, that can be an intimidating space. So it’s the language and the vision that we have in our clubs and spaces.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, it’s almost like it’s one thing about what you think you’re doing, but then it’s another thing thinking about if you were a young girl walking into that situation for the first time, what does that look like? Are there certain areas there that they might feel anxious about? Are there certain things where you could maybe make improvements to make them feel a bit more comfortable? And then reviewing what it is that you do at the moment and how you can change that a little bit better.

Catherine Sluter:

I remember when I was younger, we always used to play after the boys and we always used to get the boys smelly bibs, you know? I didn’t want a boys smelly bib on or have the boy’s shirts or borrow the boy’s socks, I wanted a girl’s shirt. I think a lot of the time it’s little things like that that can really make a huge difference.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah. Kit is another one. I remember when I first played football at school, I think only started when I was about 15. We got given this kit, which I think must have been an old boy’s kit from about four years ago. And it was just massive on all of us. We were just running around with these enormous shirts on. You’d just think, in terms of a first experience and feeling like this is an environment where you are the first priority. I 100% did not feel like that.

Catherine Sluter:

<affirmative>, definitely.

Natalie Doyle:

Linda, you talked about or you’ve both talked a little bit about signposting and about if you don’t have that offer that the girl is maybe looking for, how do you then build those relationships with other organizations who might have a more suitable offer? So for example, if your focus is very much on fun and development, but you’ve got a player who wants to maybe play a bit more seriously and a bit more competitively, how do you develop those relationships with other organizations who can provide signposting opportunities for you?

Linda Fox:

Well, I suppose you have to be nice and friendly, <laugh> and talk to people. There’s so many options now, certainly in football anyway. Other sports might be harder, I don’t know, but football is certainly getting way easier. There are loads of options in different areas as well. So sometimes we get people wanting to join us, but they live on the other side of town.

Natalie Doyle:

I just want to try and squeeze every last bit of advice out of you both. So is there one final bit of advice that you would give to clubs or organizations that want to engage more girls in sport, or just another thing that they might want to think about?

Catherine Sluter:

I think we’ve said quite a lot of it. It’s just making that space really engaging for the girls. You know, not just maybe competing, maybe socializing. We know as women we love to socialize as well, and that’s really important. And I think bringing part of the family in, being able to have an opportunity for dads to come along and support like a dad and daughter day, bringing your younger sister in or your younger brother in, making it a family thing. I think that socializing is hugely important around that and making sure the family are involved. Just making it a safe and engaging environment for young girls is so important. If a girl feels engaged within the first minute of the environment that they’re in, you’ve got them, and I think that’s super important.

Linda Fox:

Yeah. I agree. We have covered a lot of it and like we say, in a welcoming space that they feel is for them, suited to their needs. And yes, I suppose like you say, the families are also important. So if you get the parents on board early on as well, then that certainly helps to create that sort of general atmosphere that you want at your club where people are engaged and supportive of what you’re trying to do as well, because you do need that as a club. You need to have people behind you, to support you.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, it’s so true that you’ve both focused on the parents there because if you do have a child who’s involved in sport or multiple sports or goodness knows how many activities that they’re doing, you do need to have them on board, don’t you? And I think it’s important to make sure that you can demonstrate to parents the benefits of their daughter taking part in your sessions and why it’s important that they support them in that way. So I think that’s a really good point that you flag there about making sure that you try and engage with them as much as possible.

Linda Fox:

Mm-hmm. <affirmative>,

Natalie Doyle:

Well, thank you very much both of you for all of the really helpful tips and advice. I think people will have a lot of great stuff to take away there. And thank you very much for giving up your time.

Catherine Sluter:

No, thank you. Thank you for having us. 

It was great to talk.

Linda Fox:

Thank you very much.

Natalie Doyle:

That was great to talk to Catherine and Linda about the why. Why do we engage girls in sport? Why is it so important? And they pulled out some really key points. I think it really does help to develop girls’ confidence and self-esteem, but also it enables them to develop resilience, develop their leadership skills, find a sense of belonging. And these are all fantastic things that you can get from sport regardless of whether it’s an individual sport or a team sport. There there are pros and cons to each, but it really is important that we look at how we’re providing these opportunities for girls to take part in sport. How do we create that safe space for them? How do we make sure that they’re enjoying themselves? And I think Linda and Catherine have some fantastic advice about how you can do that.

I hope you enjoyed the conversation. If you did, leave us a review. Feel free to subscribe if you haven’t already. And we’ll be back with another fantastic episode with two more great guests very soon.

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