Leeds Trinity lecturer contributes to study on the role of friendship in young women’s sports participation

Are peer groups a barrier to girls engaging in physical activity?

Leeds Trinity University’s Associate Principal Lecturer in Health and Physical Activity, Dr Nicola Eccles, has developed a series of guides for national sports charity, StreetGame​​s​, on how to get more teenage girls physically active through understanding the role of friendship groups.

Dr Nicola Eccles was commissioned by StreetGames to produce the guides for its initiative, Us Girls, a Sport England​ project which is designed to increase and sustain young women’s participation in sport and physical activity within some of the nation’s most disadvantaged communities. To produce the guides, Dr Eccles undertook an in-depth analysis of past Us Girls sessions, examining how friendship groups influence participation in sport and exercise.

Dr Eccles consequently developed two guides for StreetGames – one on friendship groups (which has already been published) and one on leadership and girls (which will be published soon). The guides are disseminated as a ‘how to’ for all practitioners working with girls on physical activity programmes. They are used throughout the country as handbooks, specifically for those involved in StreetGames and Us Girls, and are also available on the StreetGames website.

Dr Eccles has become renowned for her work on how friendship groups impact on girls’ engagement with physical activity. This work stemmed from her PhD, which was titled ‘Creating Snapshots – a wider picture of girls and physical activity’. She undertook a long ethnographic study, spending two years in a North London School, and found that peer groupings play a key role in access to sport and physical activity.

Dr Eccles regularly speaks about national and international conferences on this work, which was where the opportunity to participate in StreetGames’ study arose.

Dr Eccles explains:

“I was commissioned to develop research specifically within StreetGames’ Us Girls programmes to see if the barriers and inhibitors I discussed within and between peer groups, were also at play in their own programmes.  Importantly, they also wanted to know why more girls were not taking up opportunities in leadership roles and coaching opportunities.

“I was able to show them that the influence of peers can deter girls from stepping out of the peer group.  Girls often do not want to ‘lead’ one another.”

The release of the guides coincides with research published by StreetGames, which suggests that friendship is key to securing young women’s participation in sport. A study of 1,000 young women aged 18-25 found that nearly two thirds (63%) would shun any sport or physical activity if their friends were not involved. With over three-quarters (77%) citing the opportunity to catch up with friends as the number one reason for taking part in any sport or exercise, StreetGames suggested that  sports organisations need to harness female friendships or risk failing to encourage new participants.

Dr. Nicola Eccles adds:

“We found that girls often view their world through the lens of friendship groups, which can have a huge impact on their relationship with physical activity. Sports leaders need to understand the vital role that friends play in the lives of adolescent girls and help them to manage these relationships effectively within the sessions they organise.”

A specialist in the teaching of health, physical activity and behaviour, Dr Eccles explores these issues through her Level 6 module at Leeds Trinity University, Physical Activity and Behaviour Change, and also in her work on Leeds Trinity’s MSc module Exercise Behaviour Across the Lifespan.

Us Girls is an award-winning initiative from Street Games which has successfully engaged over 34,000 young women from disadvantaged areas in England since 2011, helping them to become more active by providing them with fitness and sport opportunities within their local communities.

Read more here on Leeds Trinity website.