Performance, competition, comparison, and a gender norm that says that boys are better than girls — this was found by sports scientist Marie Larneby as she followed a cohort of student-athletes through grades 7, 8 and 9 at a secondary school with a sports profile.

Problematising normative patterns

Based on observations and interviews with both students and staff, Larneby describes and problematises the sports and gender-related normative patterns she found and discusses the consequences. 

The focus subjects are tennis, floorball, football for girls and football for boys, and physical education and health. Students are admitted based on a selection process and have to choose their specialty early.

“That’s where the selection starts. The fact that students are admitted based on selection makes competition and comparison a norm,” says Larneby and adds: “It is problematic when such norms grab hold in a school context and this leads to ranking.”

“The students live and breathe sports”

The headmaster and staff are aware that these norms influence life at school, both positively and negatively. According to the headmaster, sport plays such a central role, because “the students live and breathe sports”, but Larneby thinks that it is also rooted in the staff’s own connection to sport and the school’s strong sports orientation.

In a school context, it is the school’s values that should prevail, and the school must find ways to deal with these sport-related norms.

Marie Larneby

“Sport becomes the dominant part at school. The students practise their chosen sport four days a week,” says Larneby, thinking that school can seem like an extension of leisure sports. 

“18 of the 22 boys who had applied for football as their specialty, train and compete for a place in the same football team in their spare time. If they have the same coach in school as in the club, it is no wonder if the competition and ranking extend to life at school. Even teachers find this hard to navigate,” says Larneby.

Accustomed to the logic of performance and competition

Because of their frequent sporting practice, the students are accustomed to the logic of competition and performance. Positive effects are that the students experience this as fun, they want to develop in their sport, and want to compete. Many manage their studies better. They are among like-minded.

“But this often leads to comparison with others, even though in school, unlike in the club, it is not about competing, placing and ranking — sometimes using quite a rough language,” adds Larneby.

Gender norms

The research also shows that the environment reinforces the notion that boys are better than girls. "That's just the way it is," can be heard. 

“It doesn't affect all situations, but there is an overarching gender norm at the school that legitimises that notion. Both girls and boys think that boys are faster, better, stronger, and more technical. Even when the norm is challenged, the notion does not fundamentally change,” explains Larneby.

Larneby says the school she studied is an example of something more widespread, and thinks that elite preparatory schools should be problematised.

“In a school context, it is the school’s values that should prevail, and the school must find ways to deal with these sport-related norms. Secondary schools are allowed to shape their profile based on the syllabus and are responsible for how much space is being taken up by — and is allotted to — sports,” concludes Larneby.

Text: Magnus Jando