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Stop black women and girls missing out on sport

To celebrate this year's Black History Month theme, Saluting our Sisters, Women in Sport's people and project officer reflects on her experience as a black athlete and how a supportive environment helped her overcome the difficult times and progress in her professional career.

20th October 2023

by Shereen Charles
People and project officer, Women in Sport

Recently, we at Women in Sport have been exploring the devastating statistics from Sport England's latest Active Lives' Surveys around black girls’ participation in and enjoyment of sport.

These numbers paint a depressing picture, as only 36% of black girls in England are meeting recommended activity levels, compared to 48% of white girls, and in the past five years the number of black girls saying they enjoyed taking part in sport and physical activity has plummeted from 50% to 39%.

This sudden and worrying decline in enjoyment amongst black girls is heart-breaking because for me, sport has been a real joy and backdrop to my life for as long as I can remember. 

Shereen poses with her team and friends outside the stadium

During my school years, my love of sport and exercise fueled me and taught me to manage my time and juggle it with my studies, a skill I’ve carried throughout my working career.

On top of that, sport has always provided me with a great sense of freedom and helped me to keep positive.

Different experiences

However, even before I went away to university, many of my female peers had stopped participating in sport so all the team experiences I'd once enjoyed became impossible, unlike for my brothers.

For them, weekly football practice and games were never questioned. These were almost a weekend ritual.

They didn’t need to justify why they wanted to play, worry that there weren’t going to be enough players for a team or about finding a suitable place to play that wasn’t already dominated by men’s five-a-side games.

I did keep running though.

At university, in a predominantly white community in the north of England, I was away from home and suddenly much more aware of my difference.

I was facing adversity and, in all this, I was also missing sport as my source of joy.

This sudden and worrying decline in enjoyment amongst black girls is heart-breaking because for me, sport has been a real joy and backdrop to my life for as long as I can remember. 

I looked for sport opportunities but I found sprinters were a rare breed and I didn’t feel like putting myself forward to be selected for the team sports as I was concerned I wouldn’t fit in.

I wonder how this experience might have been for my brothers - would they have felt so alienated? Or would the men's team sports have naturally swept them up as potential talent? I’ll never know.

But in my case, I was limited to gym-based activities and my motivation and passion started ebbing away.

During this challenging time I missed the sisterhood and the support network it provided – something that I now value deeply.

Thankfully, after university and several years away from sport, I decided to dip back into athletics and the feelings I had long missed just came flooding back.

Once again, I thrived on the sense of belonging, the socialising, the motivation, and the familiarity of those around me, plus the cold and rainy winter training sessions, which I can’t say I missed but were definitely character-building and a source of camaraderie.

Funnily enough, I remember telling my first athletics coach that I wasn’t sure how long I wanted to train for but then it went from a hobby to a habit of a lifetime.

Helping me to keep the joy

All my coaches have been supportive and empathetic as I navigated life as a teenager through to adulthood with various challenges, experiences and responsibilities along the way.

Struggling to balance their lives with being active is often a challenge for girls and why it is so important to ensure they have the right guidance and support to embrace activity and experience the joy that I have.  

Being an athlete is a lifestyle which requires time, energy and commitment, but it has taught me discipline and focus, and how to overcome failure and build resilience.

Through all of this I’ve learned to enjoy the journey and it’s formed a big part of my identity.

I have had the opportunity to travel and work with fantastic coaches, therapists and athletes representing my club and county, running at national competitions and in recent years, as a GB Masters athlete.

The opportunities are vast and that’s why no girl should ever be made to feel excluded.

I’m fortunate that my training environment has always been diverse and open to all, embracing people from all walks of life and abilities. My safe space.

But I know it isn’t that way for everyone.

Far too many women still face discrimination and negativity in sporting settings and this must change.

Sport has allowed me to celebrate some of the greatest achievements of my life and seeing so many inspiring and influential black women in sport and their contributions is empowering and shows what we are capable of.

And while Black history may seem like a thing of the past to some, it lives through us every day as the past connects the present and future.

It is important to recognise that all women need a voice and a chance to be represented by someone who looks like them - and Black History Month helps by providing a platform and celebrate these women.

I am truly fortunate to be surrounded by many beautiful and brilliant black women and I salute my sisters by celebrating our community.

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Women in Sport

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