New research shows many young Kiwi women and girls want more flexibility, fun and freedom of uniforms around playing sport, as drop-out rates aren’t helped by a pandemic. 

More young women in New Zealand want to play sport or be active – but under their own terms.

Our 12 to 17-year-old girls are facing issues that are being felt in society at large, not just in sport, Raelene Castle, CEO of Sport New Zealand, says.

“Body image is important to them, having fun is important, having time with your mates is important,” she says. “Having uniforms that are appropriate is important. Having flexibility and being able to fit in sport when it works for you is important.

“Young women aren’t saying they don’t want to participate. They’re saying they want to do it how they want to, when they want to, and in the clothes they want to do it in.”

These issues have been highlighted in the latest study out of Sport NZ focused on female rangatahi (teenagers), to try to understand and address their significant drop-out rate from sport and active recreation. Especially when a pandemic is keeping them away from the fields and courts. 

Young women are also the focus of this year’s Women + Girls Summit, a day-long online event on Wednesday – with a programme designed by young women.  

“They are our ‘problem child’ – we see a marked drop-off in their participation in sport,” Castle says.

“So, anyone who has views, ideas or learnings to help improve the situation, we want to discuss them. If we can create active habits in that age group, it’s something they will carry with them for a lifetime.”

The downslide is not new. Research carried out by Sport NZ back in 2018 showed young women spent less time in weekly participation than young males (10.3 hours compared to 11.6 hours).

There is a significant decline in teenage girls being active when they reach 15 to 17 (dropping from 11.7 hours a week at 12-14 years old, to 8.2 hours in that next age bracket).

But 71 percent of young women want to be more physically active.

This latest research highlights the barriers young women face – what’s making it harder for them to participate in sport or active recreation – and how they’d like to change that.

And part of that process may lie in convincing their elders, including their parents.

Sport New Zealand chief executive Raelene Castle. Photo: Sport NZ.

There will always be young women and girls who love the competitive side of sport – “girls who want to be the next Black Fern, Silver Fern or Dame Valerie Adams”, Castle says. “And that’s absolutely great, and we want to keep encouraging those girls.  

“But at the same time there’s another group of young women saying ‘You know what? We want to do it when we’re ready to do it, and we want to do it on our terms’.”

Sport NZ is working with national sports organisations, as part of their Women and Girls strategy, to think beyond the traditional sport they offer. “We want them to think about flexibility and fun as a focus, like allowing girls to play with their mates. Evolving the product they’re offering so that they can be more contemporary,” Castle says.

Research shows women aged 17-19 are choosing active recreation like pilates, jogging, walking and going to a gym over organised sport.

“We also want to help parents understand that dancing in your bedroom is still physical activity and anything that gets you moving is a good thing,” says Castle. “TikTok is actually great if you’re doing dances or jumping rope.” Remember, breakdancing is a sport at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“Our parents have to understand physical activity doesn’t have to be defined by the traditional criteria of sport. Physical activity is good for young women regardless of whether it has a whistle, a referee and rules. Finding your own way to be active now is important.”

It’s become more obvious that some young women are put off playing sport by what they’re expected to wear.

Uniforms that are uncomfortably revealing or aren’t designed for different shapes and sizes can also stop girls playing sport. Body image is a big deal for young women – especially those who don’t want to wear short skirts, tight dresses, leotards or even bikini bottoms.

“I agree a uniform can make sport egalitarian, which is a good thing. But sometimes it’s a barrier – size, shape, cost,” Castle says.

“The other reason for uniforms is to identify one team from another, but you only need bibs. Like in indoor netball and cricket – red plays green. I’m a great believer in that.”

Volleyball, touch and 3×3 basketball are games experiencing growth because the barrier to entry is low. Photo: Vince Fleming | Unsplash.

Making it easy for whānau to play together is another important way to make young women feel included.

“Volleyball, touch, 3×3 basketball – these sports are gathering big momentum because the barrier to entry is low. Four t-shirts marking out the corners and a ball is all you need,” she says. “It’s just offering the opportunities to make it inclusive and welcoming.”

Finding the time outside of school, homework, working part-time or family commitments is another barrier to play.

“We can reduce some of the issues of time, cost and complexity – you don’t have to have a coach, you don’t have to provide a referee, you can play with your mates and wear bibs for identification We need to work hard to remove all of those barriers.”


Rachel Froggatt, the CEO of Women in Sport Aotearoa, now puts the issues facing our female rangatahi into “two buckets” – one for long-standing traditional barriers, and the other, for those that have emerged from Covid-19.

“There are the deeply embedded systemic issues we’re slowly trying to unpick”, she says, around a one-size-fits-all approach to sport. “That women and girls should plug into an existing system and deal with it.”

Women in Sport Aotearoa (or WISPA) advocates for sports to be more ‘consumer-orientated’, around issues like equitable access to facilities like changing rooms at sportsgrounds, or the times allocated to women to play sport.

“There’s been some fantastic work done, particularly at the high performance end, with the women’s World Cups [coming to New Zealand in the next two years] creating gender-neutral facilities. That’s setting a real benchmark and target for all levels of sport to have equitable facilities around the country,” Froggatt says.

“We have to think about wellbeing and safety in sport – some facilities aren’t physically safe for girls and women to use. And there are some people in the system girls don’t feel safe to be around. We should be pushing for more opportunities for women coaches and administrators, so girls coming into sport feel safer.”

And then there’s the other bucket – dealing with the impacts of Covid-19 on young women and girls and their participation.

There’s evidence coming through, Froggatt says, showing participation rates have dropped further for women and girls in the last 18 months.

“I can speculate on a number of reasons why. First, the prioritisation for getting men’s and boys’ sport up and running after lockdowns. Then the family dynamic, especially in families that are medium-to-low income, where the requirements of work and family take over and health and wellbeing is deprioritised.

Women in Sport Aotearoa chief executive Rachel Froggatt. Photo: WISPA

“And where money has become a challenge and you’re making decisions on what to spend money on, then seasonal fees, uniform costs and transportation all become barriers to continuing sport.

“We appreciate the sports sector is under enormous pressure – especially those sports reliant on annual competitions to keep income flowing in. But at the same time, we’d really like to see people stop and take a breath, and think about those at the heart of it, their consumer, what do they need and what can sport do to help them?”

Froggatt commends the work of Sport NZ through these testing times, especially in their ‘Balance is Better’ philosophy creating quality experiences for all young people to keep them active and involved in sport.

Castle says research shows young women and girls tend to do “polite exercise, like walking” during lockdowns, but when they return to some normality, visiting friends, part-time jobs and studying for exams can take priority

“We’re very conscious of that and we’re working closely with all our sport and recreation partners to really focus on that rangatahi age group, making sure they’re engaging with them to return to a more organised environment,” she says.


This year’s Women + Girls Summit, delivered by WISPA and Shift Foundation, has been “designed by young women for young women,” Froggatt says.

“The idea is that everyone coming to the summit should sit down and shut up and listen to the stories and experiences of our young women, listen to what’s happening for young women and girls in sport. Rather than assuming they know best, or that the issues aren’t prevalent and don’t need to be dealt with.”

The price of registration was made a lot cheaper for young women so “their voices could be heard to help guide the sports sector”. So far, around 70 have registered.

Among the ‘storytellers’ at the summit are outstanding young sports leader Arizona Leger and 16-year-old Leilani Hakiwai, who dropped out of school at 14, struggling with dyslexia, and is now a group fitness trainer playing rugby for the Hawke’s Bay women’s team.

Moving the summit online because of Covid level restrictions may be a blessing, as it serves as a test event for next year’s IWG world conference on Women and Sport, hosted by New Zealand. “We’re using the same virtual platform, so we’ve got a lot of observers from around the world tuning in,” Froggatt says.

Castle hopes the summit will achieve two things.

“One, we will be open minded to the possibilities, and recognise that young women want different options in different ways, and we should listen to them,” she says.  

“And I’d like it to be an opportunity for us to think about more collaboration – opportunities across sports and active recreation organisations to collaborate and offer young people more full experiences.”

* The Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit, delivered by Women in Sport Aotearoa and The Shift Foundation, is a one-day online event on Wednesday, September 29. You can register to attend here.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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