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This teenage girl can: lessons in inspiring young women into sport

The insight behind the Studio You launch

Jenny Anderson is associate director at Hopscotch, a social impact consultancy specializing in education programs. She shares lessons from a recent partnership with Sport England targeting teenage girls.

As we reveled in the glory of seeing tennis player Emma Raducanu’s remarkable victory in the US Open, or watched aghast at Sky Brown’s skateboard tricks to secure her Olympic bronze medal, we were witnessing teenage girls showcase extraordinary sporting abilities.

But while these new sports stars offer welcome inspiration to a generation of young women to take up sport and see what pinnacles they can reach, their success is a long way from the broader trends of teenage girls taking part in exercise.

As Sport England research has shown, the reality of young girls participating in sport and exercise is bleak. It found that more than half (57%) of girls aged 13-16 are not meeting the guidelines of physical activity for their age. And teenage girls are more likely to be less active if they come from less affluent families, have a disability or long-term health condition, or come from a Black or Asian background. These girls are more likely to rely on school-based provision to be active and exercise.

The insight supported what many working in the sector already sensed. Teenage girls face more obstacles than boys when taking part in exercise – and this creates an activity gender gap that lasts into adulthood. Research from Sport England’s Secondary Teacher Training program, conducted by Sheffield Hallam University, shows the main barriers for girls are self-consciousness (57%); a lack of confidence (53%); and not having found anything that they enjoy (32%).

This was recently supported by further research from the Youth Sport Trust, which found that periods have become the biggest factor preventing girls enjoying sports, with 37% saying their periods stopped them getting active in school.

So, there is clearly an issue to be addressed, and one that requires a program that engages teenage girls and instils new habits with lasting behavior change that will take them through their school careers and beyond.

Since the hugely successful and creative This Girl Can campaign launched in 2015, Sport England has been focused on building women’s confidence to be more active on their own terms, regardless of the type of exercise, their own body shape and ability – to remove the fear of judgment and embrace the joy of being active.

Building on this thinking, along with the latest insight on teenage girls specifically, has proved a springboard for new work that goes beyond traditional comms and behavior-change marketing techniques. To that end, we have worked with Sport England and a £1.5m National Lottery investment to develop Studio You – a free video-on-demand (VOD) platform to help teachers encourage less active 13-16-year-old girls to be active through fun and engaging PE lessons.

With a teacher hub offering resources including schemes of work and discipline cards, and a library of hundreds of video lessons that focus on enjoyment rather than competition, Studio You has been created in collaboration with teenagers and teachers.

We worked with a range of partners and stakeholders, including the Association for Physical Education to align with the curriculum; the national governing body for exercise, EMD UK, to create content that is safe for teenage bodies; and Activity Alliance, the charity for disability inclusion in sport to ensure the lessons are suitable for a range of abilities. Nike has also been involved, supplying clothes for the shoot and a series of videos to test in the pilot.

Hitting the right tone was critical. This program must appeal to, inspire and entertain those teenage girls least likely to take part in sport – potentially the toughest crowd to win over. And this isn’t just about pushing up the metrics of sports participation – it’s about women’s long-term health.

So, the content is all about offering the girls what they want – not what fitness experts want them to do – with Studio You featuring dance, fitness, yoga, Pilates, barre and combat, all activities that girls have told us they want to try. Each of its videos is energetic, confidence-boosting, flexible and achievable for all abilities, so the focus remains on the benefits of physical activity for a healthy body and mind. While it has been designed with less active teenage girls primarily in mind, it can be used by all students to give teachers the flexibility they need.

Our insight pointed to how important the instruction is – so we skewed to younger instructors, fitting more of a big sister/brother role, with a warm and positive manner and who represent young people in England today. It was vital the platform proved to be a non-judgmental place, accessible to all abilities, giving teenagers the chance to challenge themselves without having to compete.

The best education and social marketing requires innovation – to break out of the established thinking, to approach a subject from a different angle and to maximize take-up. This Netflix-style digital platform empowers teachers, and it innovates with new resources in new forms to give them freedom as well as support.

The challenges are complex – as with many marketing campaigns it requires short- and long-term goals – but they are not insurmountable. In this case there is the short-term win of encouraging 13-16-year-old girls to participate in PE classes and enjoy their exercise, and a clear long-term goal of making exercise and activity a part of their lives going forward. Both of these would have much-needed immediate and longer-term impacts on their physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Our pointers for brands trying to reach and inspire enjoyment of physical activity among teenagers:

  • First and foremost, make it fun!

  • Take inspiration from what teenagers want, but also what teachers need.

  • Authenticity is key, so normalize real-life situations such as sweating and being out of breath.

  • Make it relatable, with the right people fronting the campaign who fit an older sibling mould.

  • Make sure your offer is accessible and inclusive, working with partners to deliver something that works for everyone.

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