View from the Street: National team health service?

@Darrylbroadfoot

View from the Street: National team health service?

This article was originally intended as a gentle reminder of the promised ‘springboard effect’ the Scotland women’s national football team reaching its first-ever European Championships could have on participation among girls and young women.

That was until The Herald reported this week that only one child in 10 is doing the recommended amount of daily exercise, according to the Growing Up In Scotland survey.

The devil was in the detail.

The criterion is defined as “moderate to vigorous physical activity” – hardly enough to burn-off a popular sugar-coated morning cereal, far less conducive to spawning the next Kim Little.

Significantly, in all measurements boys were found to be more active than girls, even within the minority who were actually hitting the recommended physical activity levels. Which, at a time when the Scotland national team returns home from its maiden finals, means that the lamentably overused word ‘legacy’ has never been more important to the Scottish Government’s health agenda.

Anna Signeul and her players returned with respectability intact, courtesy of a 1-0 closing win against Spain, after catching stage fright in their opening match against England. The real work starts now if this progress at the top level is to have a transformational effect on a country whose collective weight problem is now of Champions League proportions - with 28% of children either clinically overweight or obese.

So, while the Scottish Government’s investment in the Active Scotland and Active Girls programmes is to be applauded, the well-worn response to the latest obesity stats - the increased proportion of schools offering two periods of PE per week - was as predictable as it was unsatisfying.

How much actual exercise is undertaken within the period never mind the actual exercise per pupil has long been the subject of anecdotal mirth. It is certainly insufficient to make a dent in the poor diet that has compounded the chronic lack of exercise, the levels of which are unsurprisingly higher in areas of deprivation.

While the men’s team has been absent from major finals for almost two decades, our most successful international football team should be used not only to inspire future generations but provide the step-change needed for the country’s health problem.

Girls’ Soccer Centres launched by the Scottish FA across its six regions are designed to encourage primary school-age girls to participate in football, with each centre named after – and formally endorsed by – a local member of the national team.

It is an excellent initiative but one that won’t turn the tide on its own. Europe-wide research has shown that the transition from childhood to teenage years - from primary school to secondary, in effect – can have a disruptive impact on participation among girls and young women.

From the ages of five to 12, parental influence plays a huge part in decision-making but opportunities are limited in and out of school. Teenage years bring new and unique challenges and obstacles to participation among girls: from puberty, a more profound body consciousness, peer pressure, and even practical disincentives such as ability to shower and change in time to make the next class, to lingering stereotypes, lack of girls-only school teams or even lack of willing friends with whom to participate.

Increasing participation in girls’ and women’s football, and fighting the ongoing battle with Scotland’s obesity epidemic, should not be mutually exclusive. In the parlance of physical literacy, the left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing. 

We need to look beyond the always-at-hand government investment figures - £11.6m in increased PE and £50m in Active Schools – and question whether they are delivering true value for money.

We also need to strive for better than simply meeting minimum requirements, by encouraging and ensuring more than the ‘moderate’ exercise decreed, and to make the next generation fitter and healthier, not just more active.

 “I hope the achievements of this team will raise the profile of women’s football in Scotland and inspire many more women and girls to take up the sport.” So said Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and the women’s national team patron, back in February.

 Let’s get a move on.

Darryl Broadfoot is a Partner at Frame PR. He is a former Scottish FA Head of Communications and Corporate Affairs and former Chief Football Writer for The Herald.