Participation rates in sport drop lower and lower for girls during their teen years. How can they be encouraged to keep up the exercise levels? Sarah Greenaway dives into the topic.
Young girls remain the victors of a competition no one wanted them to win. A recent survey of 4,000 girls in the United Kingdom has revealed as many as one million girls have lost interest in sports and exercise.
The survey also found that between 11 and 16, just 37 per cent of girls enjoyed physical activity while 54 per cent of boys still felt the love.
A report released early this year by South Australia’s Flinders University came to a similar conclusion. When looking at participation rates overall, the survey found there was very little difference in the proportion of males (23.9 per cent) vs females (26.4 per cent) who did not play any sport in year 8 but the gap grew in year 10, with 40 per cent of females no longer playing any sport, compared to 30 per cent of males.
When it comes to girls and sports, several factors are to blame. But two of the primary culprits are linked to puberty: body consciousness and period shame.
For many girls, the onset of puberty is accompanied by a sudden increase in body consciousness. They can become hyper-aware of their developing bodies and preoccupied with how they look in relation to their peers.
This, among other things we’ll consider, can lead to girls skipping physical education classes, skiving off from training or ditching sport and exercise altogether.
The Australian Institute of Sport is spearheading research into the impact of menstrual cycles on female athletes. Sports and Exercise Medicine Physician Rachel Harris, who is at the helm of this study, said they hope that additional research will assist more females in continuing to play sports for prolonged durations of time.
"The reality is we see women quitting athletics far more often than men throughout all stages of life, and ultimately we just want them to keep being physically active.”
Athletes like British sprinter, Dina Asher-Smith, are speaking out about the need for more scientific research into the effect of periods on athletic performance.
After developing a calf cramp and limping out of the 100m final at the European Championships in Munich, Asher-Smith chalked it up to "girl stuff."
But she's also been quoted as saying that "every major injury I've ever had has been on my period," indicating that there may be more to consider than just momentary discomfort.
New Zealand golfer, Lydia Ko, made headlines early this year when they told a reporter that they were battling a bad back because they were menstruating.
"When that happens, my back gets really tight and I'm all twisted and it's not the first time [the physical therapist] Chris has seen me twisted, but it felt a lot better after he came," she said.
The interviewer was strangely lost for words, but Ko has been widely praised for normalising period talk, which is rarely addressed in sports.
The AIS findings could help athletes and other researchers better understand the impact of menstruation and how to use that knowledge to develop training plans that accommodate, rather than ostracises.
The outcomes could have a significant impact on how teams and clubs treat the onset of a period for younger girls in sports too.
One girl in the Women in Sport study said, “If I had more confidence, I would participate more.” This lack of confidence is a major factor influencing girls' decisions to drop out of sports.
With 42 per cent of girls reporting that they don't feel confident - compared to only 26 per cent of boys - it's easy to see how gender disparity leads to less female engagement in sports.
One in four are unhappy with their body image at 11-13 years and this figure increases to one in three by around 14 to 16 years.
According to a joint survey of women by PUMA and Modibodi released in 2022, half of the respondents reported skipping sports as teenagers due to their periods.
In addition, three-quarters of women said they experienced anxiety or lack of concentration while participating in sports or physical exercise because they were worried about leaking.
There's no doubt that girls face unique challenges when it comes to their periods. From body image issues to feeling self-conscious about wearing pads or tampons, girls often feel like they're at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with their periods.
Fortunately, there are some great period underwear and swimwear options available that can help girls feel more comfortable and confident when they're on their period. These products can make it easier for girls to participate in activities like swimming and gymnastics, and they can also help girls feel more comfortable in general.
If girls are comfortable and can be open about experiencing pain, discomfort, low mood etc. with their coach or trainer when they're on a period and are then also assured that they'll be able to adjust their session accordingly, they're less likely to resort to avoidance tactics. This not only helps girls to stay active and healthy during their periods but can also foster a more positive relationship with their bodies overall.
Styles such as hi-cut uniforms, shorts that expose the waist, and crop tops can trigger anxiety in girls – even when they are not experiencing a period. Giving girls alternative choices can help reduce this stress.
This might be as simple as choosing to wear something looser or wearing a top over a crop if desired. But rather than making it an all-or-nothing choice, also allowing them to pick something tighter and more performance-oriented when desired would progress easily to achieve.
Additionally, by providing more comfortable clothing options, we can help address the feelings of many girls who report uniforms as being too revealing and unnecessarily attracting attention to their bodies over their sporting prowess.
Everyone sweats and experiences body odour at some point in their lives but when it first comes into play at the time of puberty, it can feel like a very big deal indeed. For some girls, these natural processes can trigger anxiety and low self-esteem.
That's why it's so important to initiate personal hygiene and self-care routines early on in life. By teaching girls how to properly care for their bodies, we can give them the confidence they need to rise above their "do I smell?" obsession.
Three-quarters of British girls aged 11 to 18 polled in the Journal of Adolescent Health said they don't participate in sports as much as they'd like because their breasts are disruptive, either from bouncing or pain.
The survey also found that girls' concerns about their breasts exercising peaked at age 14 - which is incidentally the same age when girls drop out of sports the quickest.
Amanda Brasher, a member of the research group who is leading an awareness campaign for schools, says that “the more concerns schoolgirls have about their breasts, the less they exercise.”
As well as bounce and comfort, girls are also sensitive about the changing shape of their nipples and become embarrassed when they show through their tops.
Even if a younger girl doesn't need the support of a sports bra yet, it's better to introduce them early to avoid potential embarrassment later.
With wider availability and less stigma, more girls are wearing crop tops at an earlier age to stay cool during physical activity and it’s a chance to normalise the changes their bodies will go through.
There's no doubt that girls face challenges aplenty when it comes to the physical changes brought on by puberty and menstruation and staying passionate about sports.
With adequate information and informed support as well as understanding and compassion from parents, coaches, clubs, teams and schools, girls can overcome these hurdles and continue to reap the benefits that come from active sports participation.
Explore our database of everyone working towards menstrual equality in Australia.
Within this article, we may use the terms she, her, woman, girl or daughter. We understand that not all people with uteruses who are assigned female at birth menstruate, and not everyone who menstruates identifies as a female, girl or woman. For more information on this, please see our article about the importance of gender inclusivity when discussing periods and menstruation.