Emma Raducanu will attract more women and girls into tennis - and we need to make it fun for them
Posted: Mon, 27 Sep 2021 10:25
When Emma spoke about the importance of a fun environment in tennis, it was music to my ears - but it can be so difficult to find that.
fter watching Emma Raducanu win the US Open, little girls all over the world will be inspired to emulate their new tennis shero.
Why? Because she is young and cool and she makes it look so much fun. That was one of the many things that stood out for me about Emma's success, and when she spoke about the importance of a fun environment for attracting and retaining girls in tennis, it was music to my ears. It sounds both obvious and simple, but you would be surprised how difficult it can be for girls to find that.
If we want to retain girls in tennis, we have to understand their world. That world changes as they go through the age groups, so we need an army of coaches who can create fun, learning environments at each of those stages.
From the ages of five to eight, when girls are getting into sport at entry level, they will likely have spent much of their early years with their mums. Then they go to nursery and primary school, where the majority of their teachers will be women.
But when it comes to taking up a sport such as tennis, they will more often than not be met by male coaches – often young men – who do not necessarily understand their world in the same way and, I would argue, are less likely to be able to nurture and retain their interest. If we are to increase the number of girls competing regularly, we must encourage more women into the tennis workforce, as they are far more likely to create environments in which girls can thrive, because, quite simply, they were once girls.
Most girls prefer to compete as a team than as individuals. It is more sociable, less stressful and creates a sense of belonging. Tennis needs more focus on doubles and team events for girls at recreational level in order to boost the number of female competitors.
One of the biggest factors in retaining girls in any sport is friendship. If one or two start to drop out, others will follow. They have not necessarily fallen out of love with the sport, they have fallen out of love with the environment.
Tennis is competing with so many other sports and leisure activities that if any of the three main drivers for participation – fun, friends and fitness – are missing, girls will start to look elsewhere. Drop-out is starting much earlier these days. It used to be between the ages of 14 and 16, when exams, body consciousness and boyfriends kicked in. Now, it is around 11 and 12 because, as we all know, kids are growing up so much quicker.
The stats speak for themselves. Back in 2011, when I became Fed Cup captain, there were almost four times as many boys in tennis at entry level than girls. Our research showed that the two main reasons for early drop-out in girls under 10 were, "It's too difficult", and "I don't like the boys" (in mixed groups). That is why I created the Miss-Hits programme: to make tennis fun, engaging and doable for little girls aged five to eight.
I took into consideration all the things little girls tend to like, such as music, dancing, animated characters, cuddly toys and sparkles, and we sprinkled that around the skill-building activities and games to create a girl-friendly environment. My aim was to develop friendship groups and coordination skills and for the girls to learn about tennis through animated characters such as Bella Backhand and Valentina Volley. In terms of preparing them to go into a mini tennis programme with confidence, competence and friends, it is perfect.
And because it is non-technical, it can be delivered by women and teenage girls who are not necessarily tennis coaches, but enjoy working with children and understand the world according to girls. The Lawn Tennis Association delivers Miss-Hits through its female workforce programme, She Rallies, and one of its projects is with Girl Guiding UK which involves training Guide leaders and Rangers to deliver the content to Brownies and Rainbows.
As Gareth Southgate noted last week, after a conversation with his daughter, we urgently need more women in sport. Even in tennis, where the gender split is pretty equal in terms of players and fan base, we still lag behind in terms of female personnel. We desperately need a significant investment in a bigger female workforce across all sports.
Imagine being the only girl in a training group, going through puberty, and all the coaches are men who expect you to follow the same training programme as the boys. It happens. If the coaches do not understand all the physical and emotional changes a girl is going through during those teenage years, they are not going to be able to create the optimal programme or get the best out of her. They also need to understand the effects of the menstrual cycle on performance and be comfortable talking about it. Girls are way less likely to open up to male coaches on personal issues.
Thankfully, there has been some great work going on in that space by The Well HQ and Dr Georgie Bruinvels. But we need coaches, teachers, coach educators, sports scientists and medical teams to embrace that information and make it part and parcel of their remits. From elite coaches to PE teachers, we have to get this right for girls now.
Every sport's coaching qualifications should include a course that focuses on the differences between working with boys and girls. Whether that is physically or emotionally, you have to be prepared to adapt your behaviour, your content and your communication to get the best out of whoever is in front of you. Coaching is still a very male-dominated domain, so I would like to see governing bodies prioritise workshops on how to work effectively with women and girls.
Emma's triumph has shown what is possible for young girls to achieve through hard work, determination and great support. There is talent out there, that is for sure, but it has to be spotted and then nurtured in the right way, by the right people in the right environments. There is no doubt that Emma will attract many more women and girls into tennis – and we need to be ready to make it fun for them.
Article Source: Telegraph