24th March 2000 at 00:00
GIRL TO GIRL: Sports and You! By Anne Driscoll. Element Books pound;3.99

London schoolgirl Hannah Dart likes playing quietly, reading Harry Potter books and chatting with her best friend. Nine-year-old Hannah used to like running - until her classmates teased her about her running style. So she stopped playing games. Anyway she didn't enjoy competing against her best friend.

"To Hannah, sport was something she was never very much interested in," writes Anne Driscoll in her latest self-help book for teenage girls - Girl to Girl: Sports and You! But then Hannah discovered cricket and, writes Driscoll, it "changed her entirely". According to Driscoll, "research suggests that girls who play sports have better self esteem, more confidence, higher test scores, lower teen pregnancy rates and are more likely to go to college."

Anne Driscoll, a former social worker turned journ-alist, thinks British schoolgirls need a law like the one passed nearly 30 years ago in the United States. The 1972 US law required schools to provide girls with the same access to sports as boys. It covered not only PE lessons but also team sports. The result is that one in three American girls now plays high school sports, compared with one out of 27 in 1971. There are 44.7 million US youngsters playing in a competitive team and 43 per cent of them are girls.

Compare that with the situation in Britain. A recent survey by Nike, compiled with the Youth Sport Trust, reveals that British schoolgirls are far less motivated to play sport than their American counterparts. According to Sport England figures, the problem intensifies at secondary school. In primary schools in England in 1994, 87.3 per cent of girls played one sport outside lessons compared with 89.9 per cent of boys. In the last two years of secondary school, the equivalent percentage of boys was 91.3 per cent compared with 80.6 per cent of girls.

Tocompile the book, Driscoll sent questionnaires to girls in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and Ireland, and followed up with telephone interviews. She intersperses the girls' experiences with quizzes, fact files and time lines. She admits that the book is likely to sell best in the US, if only because so many more girls there play sport. British girls might well find the message too relentlessly upbeat. For me, one of the most unconvincing aspects of the book is Driscoll's use of "research" to underpin some of her assertions.

She tells me that the book is partly inspired by "research coming out of Harvard university and Wellesley college - especially the work of psychologist Carol Gilligan - about the different nature of boys and girls." In the book we are told that "experts believe" that boys are by nature competitive, girls co-operative; that "for girls relationships are the most important thing in the world". This is all quite hard to swallow - especially when the book doesn't tell us who these experts are or detail the research studies drawn on.

But for Driscoll it's just a short step from such research findings to arguing that because of their co-operative nature, girls naturally find the notion of competing difficult - and need practice at it. "Girls may play the same sports as boys but may not be playing the same game," says Driscoll. "They worry over things like 'If my coach is screaming at me - does it mean he doesn't like me? What will boys think of me if I play soccer?' It all relates back to the fact that girls are concerned about their relationships and their experiences get filtered through that prism."

One conclusion is that girls need to be encouraged to compete. Most teachers would accept that playing sport has benefits. But is it necessarily true that playing competitive sports is better for girls than playing sport just for enjoyment and to keep fit?

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