Monday, April 22, 2013

Is Swimming A "Girl's Sport"?

I have been part of many meetings recently; in which people have vented their frustrations about the number of boys active in certain groups, age ranges and/or clubs. While I do not disagree with the thinking that we need more boys in the sport - is it actually true, or is it just perception? I decided to contact +Swim Ontario for some statistics about the gender breakdown in Ontario. Full disclosure: I used only Swim Ontario for this sample group because I felt that 17,000 members is a pretty good sample size (approx. 0.1% of the total provincial population) & because no other PSO responded to my request (I am not sure why this information is not easier to find).

Total Registered Swimmers with Swim Ontario: 16,807

Non  Competitive - 5763 (34.28% of Swim Ontario Registration)
Female – 3090 (53.67%)
Male - 2673 (46.38%)

As we can all see, in the non-competitve realm, the statistics are pretty well uniformed. All swimmers Swimming with a sanctioned club (non-competitve, lessons, fitness, etc) must be registered with Swim Ontario as non-competitve swimmers in order to be covered under insurance. I would assume that most of these swimmers are either in a lessons program or a fitness based program. 5763 swimmers swimming solely for the love of the activity is great; and it seems as if there is a more equal number of boys to girls in this section (only a 7.2% difference). If we are to assume that the bulk of these registrations are swim schools and learn to swim programs, having over a quarter of the total population of Swim Ontario in the development and learn to swim stage, waiting to get into competition (being sold "the Olympic Dream") is a great thing. So my question at this stage is "how many of these athletes actually make it into the competitive stream?"

Competitive – 11044 (65.71% of Swim Ontario Registration)
Female – 6703 (60.69%)
Male - 4341 (39.31%) 

Oh... I see...

Alright, so we've established that the female population of competitive swimming in Ontario is over 21% higher than boys. This means that if we make some assumptions about what the non-competitve sector is comprised of, maybe we can make some assumptions about why girls outnumber boys so much in this sport.

1.) If Swim Schools & Lessons make up 75% of the non-competitive sector, boys seems to spend longer in the non-competitive sector (diluting the number of competitive swimmers) or just do not make the jump into the competitive sector. Why? Anyone who has been to the Central Region Championships or Ontario Provincial Championships between 2008-2012 knows how few 10 & under boys there are compared to the girls. Are they taking longer in the non-competitive sector (coming in around age 10-13) or are they just not making the jump?

2.) If they're not making the jump, are they being absorbed into other sports, or are they sitting at home on the couch?

3.) If we do assume that Swim Schools & Lessons take up 75% of the non-competitve sector, then we have to also assume that 25% of that non-competitve group (about 1450 swimmers) either never entered the competitive stream or were competitive and dropped down to non-competitve. In any event, I am curious why they do not want to compete.

4.) What drives girls to be 21% more likely to be in the competitive stream than a boy? Is this a sociological thing (swimming is a girl's sport, hockey is for boys?) or a demographic thing (are there just more young girls than boys)? UPDATE: actually the population of Ontario is pretty evenly split at 50.7% female & 49.3% male.

I don't think that we have enough statistical information go really go any further than this (or even this far if we want to do more than hypothesizing), but this is a pretty interesting question - and one that I feel needs to be answered if Canada wants to move up in the world in this sport. As I have said on numerous occasions, in order for Canada to thrive in swimming, Ontario must thrive in swimming (I believe it is because of the population).  If we only have 100 men over the age of 20 competing (hypothetical example, not an actual statistic), statistically, we stand only a 25% chance against a country that has over 400 men of the same age competing. 

My summary is that swimming appears to be a girl dominated sport, but not a "girl's sport" at all due, to the vacancies and massive opportunity for boys of all ages. The lingering question is how to get those boys involved and how to make sure that we can bolster the number of "Olympic aged" men competing for National Team spots and training & pushing those contenders. 2:01 for 200BK* may sound pretty fast for a 13 year old boy, but for a 23 year old, it is much more obtainable.

Finally, is changing that social climate, perception of the sport, or offerings the responsibilities of SNC, PSOs or individual clubs? Regardless of whose responsibility it is, leadership is needed in order to come up with a plan... mostly because I'm not even sure that any of those people would agree on the answer of whose responsibility it is...

*200BK was won by 18 year old Russell Wood. He is pretty fast for an 18 year old, yes, but he cannot possibly be our fastest 200 backstroker, being 10 seconds off the world record. We can produce better than that, we just need the numbers.