The Beautiful Game - a woman's perspective

With the Women’s World Cup now underway, and already producing great drama at this early stage, we’ve been reflecting on the steady growth of women’s and girls’ football in the UK. While the success of the England national team in recent years has been highly visible, football has grown to be the top participation sport for women and girls in England. This is a massive achievement for the sport and something that will hopefully continue to grow and develop in the coming years.

Getting people to participate in any sport is far from easy, and becomes increasingly challenging once people leave education and enter the world of work.

The barriers to sports participation are many and varied, with women’s football no exception

Our very own Head of Qualitative research, Claire Boorman, has embarked on precisely this journey in recent years and now regularly plays football for the mighty Horsforth St. Margaret’s FC Ladies Social Team!

Changing human behaviour is a notoriously challenging endeavour, but behavioural science can help us to better understand some of the elements that can prompt a new behaviour and make it stick. BJ Fogg’s B=MAP framework offers a great lens for making sense of what can drive and inhibit a desired behaviour. The premise of the model is that behaviour is the result of three specific elements coming together: motivation (M), ability (A) and an effective prompt (P).

In Claire’s case, she had historically been a runner, but with injuries taking their toll was looking for a new outlet to stay fit and active. We asked Claire to reflect on her motivations (M) and she observed how “interesting it is that motivations are often layered. There’s no one single driver for me”. Claire had numerous motivations that drew her to the sport, but specifically identified the sense of belonging and community that helps to make it so enjoyable:

“I love the camaraderie. It’s very welcoming, inclusive (we have ladies from uni age up to mid 60s, all ethnicities, religions, some recovering from cancer treatment or new mums trying to lose weight/feel good again) and the style of football is supportive, polite, self deprecating and led by fun! no crunching tackles or falling out on the pitch! And matches are competitive, but caring.”

According to BJ Fogg’s model, Ability (A) is comprised of lots of different facets including Time, Money, Physical Effort, Mental bandwidth, Social Opportunity / desirability and Habit / routine. Football is a bit more demanding of time than other sports, invariably involving travel in addition to the training sessions and matches themselves. And it’s a pretty physically demanding sport too.

The nature of the team dynamic can make it easier to build it into a weekly routine

In Claire’s words:

“It’s a team thing, so I will feel obligated to train, play matches, not let the side down etc (so I will go!) and I’m a little bit intrigued about women’s take on it vs guys. The team is part of the club my boys play for, so easiest to try training with them (but they do actively market themselves as having ‘serious’ and ‘social’ teams (I have gone for social!).”

Lastly in Fogg’s model, there are the Prompts (P) that can trigger someone (who has the motivation and ability) to adopt the desired behaviour. These are often in-situ cues that can in the moment make someone try and achieve behaviour. Claire’s take on this again highlights how a Prompt can take different forms:

“My ‘Trigger’ probably was the winding down of watching my boys play, as they’re older and doing their own thing now, and the need to do some proper cardio. Also, I don’t want to be that kind of woman that does safe/comfortable things, ageing makes you naturally risk averse and I’m damn well going to buck that trend!”

Fogg’s ‘Prompts’ focus on the Sparks (the immediate benefits of participation – e.g. impact on fitness, the natural mental exercise ‘high’), Facilitators (making participation even easier) and Signals (in moment reminders to try / participate) than can be used to trigger someone to do something. All of these elements are key for sports (teams and organisations) to consider when enticing people to join in and play a sport.

The growth of women’s football means the sport has never been more celebrated and more accessible to women. But plenty of barriers remain:

“For women, it’s also about giving yourself permission to do it. There’s a lot of cultural messages still bubbling that make women feel they shouldn’t, couldn’t or would be ridiculed for trying. Whilst the clubs / FA etc all hero women’s football, there’s still constant comparison with the male game, and jostling for superiority and in reality, the 2 will never be played in the same way, so parity is not really desirable? My personal view, is there are many barriers, even once started it’s all too easy to drop out (life gets in the way, sport takes a lower priority).”

As an agency with a wealth of experience in sports research, we are well-versed in helping our clients better understand the multi-faceted challenges people face where participation is concerned. We’re also passionate about using behavioural science inspired tools, techniques and frameworks to help us better understand how to overcome these challenges. So if you’re wrestling with a sports participation question or want to better understand human behaviour in a completely unrelated category, drop us a line and we’ll see how we can help.