Volunteers key to more girls & women in community sport

Victoria University researchers are exploring how community sport clubs can better recruit, train and keep volunteers to drive more women and girls to play.

Unpaid team managers, coaches, referees and first-aid support are critical to the running of community sport, but their numbers dwindled in the return-to-sport after COVID-19 lockdowns.

Led by Professor Rochelle Eime, researchers will explore how community clubs develop and allocate resources to build the quantity and quality of their volunteer bases. Female volunteers are most likely to be team managers, but they are under-represented as coaches and officials, which can influence how clubs operate.

This is due in part to a reluctance from clubs to change their culture so it is more inclusive of women and girls, and to promote gender equality and female leadership.

The researchers will study community clubs in the sports of football (soccer), cricket, and netball in partnership with state-level sporting associations.

“Volunteers are vital to the delivery of community sport, and we cannot increase participation for women and girls in these sports without their involvement,” she said.

Male-dominated sports increasingly popular for females

Since re-engaging volunteers is one of the biggest challenges now faced by sport administrators, clubs will need to innovate to attract and retain volunteers, especially female ones, she said.

Previous research indicates participation of girls and women in community sport had increased markedly prior to the pandemic, especially in traditionally male-dominated sports such as Australian football, soccer, and cricket, and particularly for girls aged 14 and under.

Ironically, many girls who play within a male-dominated sport are passionate about being volunteers themselves, as future coaches or role models to ‘give back’ to their sports, said Professor Eime.

“The challenges of volunteer capacity and club cultures were evident pre-COVID-19 but the issue is worse now, with anecdotal evidence indicating volunteers are concerned about their health and COVID-19 restrictions and policies,” she noted.

Football Victoria’s Executive Manager of Growth and Inclusion, Karen Pearce, said the research would not only provide insights about the challenges that volunteers face, but also reveal data to help state associations develop long-term strategies to boost the participation of females in community sport.

This study is funded by the Victorian Government’s Change Our Game research grants program aimed at identifying and preventing barriers for women and girls to engage in sport and active recreation.

Professor Rochelle Eime is an expert in community sport participation trends and leads VU’s Sport and Recreation Spatial research team, which measures longitudinal trends and patterns of participation. Other researchers in this study are Professor Hans Westerbeek and Dr Aurelie Pankowiak from VU and Dr Meghan Casey from Federation University.

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