Sport teaches you so many important life skills and one of the most essential is resilience. My life has been dedicated to one simple mission – changing girls’ and women’s lives in sport and through sport. It has not been easy and there have been many setbacks, but the strength of my purpose has helped me to recover and continue the journey.
I started my professional career as a PE teacher in Manchester and later became chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust and chair of UK Sport, supporting our Olympic and Paralympic teams to achieve success at London 2012.
For the past seven years I have been director of women’s football at the FA. Throughout that time there have been many barriers to overcome and challenges to meet. Being resilient has allowed me to keep moving forward to ensure all girls and women have the opportunity to enjoy being physically active, and, for those with talent and ambition, that they can achieve success at the highest level. Witnessing the Lionesses sweep to Euros victory was a wonderful example of a group of women who have not allowed prejudice and barriers to stop them achieving success so they can make their dreams come true.
The adage “You cannot be what you cannot see” rings true: as the visibility of women’s football has increased, more girls feel it is a space they can be in.
We are now seeing great changes in grassroots girls’ football. Sport England’s latest Active Lives Children’s survey has found that, since 2017, more teenage girls are now active and playing sport – with an increase of more than 100,000 girls now playing football.
This type of change isn’t quick, but there is still much work to be done for all girls to have the same opportunities as boys. It’s why initiatives such as the FA’s Squad Girls’ Football programme, supported by Sport England, are vital. Coaches are trained to ensure every girl has a voice and choice during their session, ensuring their needs are met and giving them confidence.
Studio You, from the This Girl Can campaign, is another great example of giving children a choice to support them to be active. It’s a range of videos of fun activities like yoga and boxing, co-designed with girls, that PE teachers can use – a change from traditional PE offerings which don’t appeal to all teenage girls.
Choice and voice are essential – because if every child and young person has positive experiences with sport and physical activity, they are more likely to grow into active adults. With increasing reports that children’s mental health is in crisis, and the latest Active Lives Children & Young People survey finding that more children than ever are using sport and activity to help manage their wellbeing, it’s never been more important for everybody to prioritise the experience of children in sport.
So I am delighted that Sport England’s survey also found that children’s activity levels have recovered to pre-pandemic levels. This is testament to everyone who worked hard to make this happen.
But sadly the recovery hasn’t been equal. Too many children are still missing out on the benefits of sport and activity. Activity levels haven’t recovered for children from lower income families or those going to school in deprived areas. Sadly it is still the case that children from culturally diverse communities are less likely to be active. We have a collective responsibility to tackle the inequalities that cause this.
And fewer children are saying they enjoy or feel confident about sport and physical activity now than before the pandemic – showing that the disruption of Covid-19 is still having an effect. Active children have higher levels of physical and mental wellbeing, leading to them feeling happier and less lonely.
Joy from sport comes in many forms. It’s not all about winning. It’s about feeling a sense of community or achievement at overcoming obstacles. It strengthens our bodies and minds – and we can see that through the way the Lionesses lifted the mood of a nation and put the wheels in motion for a women’s football revolution in England.
Physical activity can also help pupils’ academic achievement and help them develop essential life skills. Schools are under a lot of pressure after the pandemic and I am so grateful to all our dedicated and committed teachers. Following the pandemic there has been a massive push to ensure children catch up on their academic subjects; we now need to do the same for their participation in physical activity.
Providing a range of opportunities in schools for young people to adopt an active lifestyle requires careful planning and consultation with pupils. There is much to learn and enjoy through a well delivered, high-quality physical education and sport programme for every child.
Providing an active start to life is not a “nice” to do – it is a “need” to do.
Baroness Campbell is the director of women’s football at the FA.