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Puberty & Sport: An Invisible Stage

The impact on girls’ engagement in physical activity

Executive Summary

Girls are less active than boys and by age 13 – 15, only 8% of girls meet the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendation that young people aged 5 – 18 should do 60 minutes of physical activity every day. From our Girls Active (2017) research we know that girls’ motivation, confidence and enjoyment of sport reduces during their teenage years and therefore, it is vital to tackle these issues to improve resilience during this time.

In 2017-18, Women in Sport conducted qualitative research to explore whether coming to terms with puberty is having a long-term impact on how girls engage with sport and to identify the key barriers and issues girls face during this time. We conducted focus groups in triads and friendship pairs with 24 girls, both active and inactive and from a mix of ethnicities.

Key Findings

  • Puberty is a confusing time of significant physical, emotional and social change for girls, which they feel unprepared to deal with due to a lack of education.
  • During this transition to adulthood, girls can form negative attitudes towards sport due to parents being less engaged, increased studying and pressure to perform well at school, a desire for new, more mature experiences and wanting to be accepted and acceptable to peers.
  • What impact does puberty have on sport?
    • Sport is an ‘invisible stage’ where girls feel everyone is noticing them.
    • Sporting activities previously enjoyed, may now seem childish and not in keeping with their emerging adult identity.
    • New responsibilities and interests fill their time and they become more independent of parents.
    • The perception of ‘having to be good’ at sport in order to participate increases, whilst playing sport for fun appears less acceptable.
    • There is an upsurge of competition and animosity between girls.
    • The sports environment is a breeding-ground for gossip.
    • Looking good becomes increasingly important. Becoming ‘overly sporty’ can lead to negative stereotyping.
    • Coming to terms with their changing body and periods creates anxiety.
    • Puberty is a significant turning point for girls – attitudes to sport formed during this time are important and long-lasting.

Next Steps?

In 2018 – 2019 Women in Sport will be using the themes uncovered in this research to design new solutions and initiatives to support girls. This will be through collaboration and co-creation sessions with sports organisations and teenage girls.

Key Partners

Funded by Sport England