Puberty can be a challenging time for young people, with an array of emotional and physiological changes. WUKA experts discuss teens, first periods and sport.
What happens during puberty?
Puberty is a natural life process that we all go through, and one that sets us on the route towards adulthood. For most, puberty begins at around the age of 8, and lasts up until around the age of 19. And for girls and those assigned female at birth, there are many physical changes that take place during that time.
Puberty is split into stages:
- Stage one- approx age 8-11 years: outward signs aren’t visible, but changes are taking place as the body begins to produce hormones that enlarge the ovaries ready for menstruation.
- Stage two- approx age 8-14 years: breast and pubic hair begin to develop.
- Stage three- approx age 9-15 years: height increases and some girls begin to experience vaginal discharge.
- Stage four- approx age 10-15 years: ovulation begins and periods commence.
- Stage five- approx 12-19 years: full height is reached, periods have begun, breasts are fully developed and hips have widened.
Along with the physical changes the body goes through, there are emotional changes too- and this can be a tricky time for many.
How does puberty affects girls in sport?
Studies have shown that puberty affects girls in sports in a significantly different way to boys. The 2018 study, Puberty & Sport: An Invisible Stage, found that by the age of 13, girls are way less active than boys, with only 8% meeting the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day.
Another study carried out by Youth Sport Trust in 2022 found that the issue isn’t that girls aren’t interested in sports- 72% said they liked sports, with 49% saying they wanted to take part in sports for health reasons, and 58% for enjoyment.
But the Puberty & Sport study referred to sport as an ‘invisible stage’, highlighting the girls’ perceived fears of being 'on show’ and feeling anxious at ‘being noticed’. Lots of girls reported feeling a pressure to excel at sport, rather than taking part for enjoyment only, and many dropped out because of perceived ‘failure’ and increased competition amongst their peers.
Many girls reported turning their back on sports because it was more important to them to ‘look good’ and because the ‘sporty look’ wasn’t attractive. Many also reported that physical changes during puberty- including developing breasts and starting periods- made them feel anxious about taking part in sports. In fact, 39% of those surveyed by Youth Sport Trust said that their period was a barrier between them and sport in general.
What can be done to support girls in sport?
So if motivation isn’t the problem, how can we support girls in sport, and why is it important?
Sport is about so much more than just being physically active, although that is a major factor too. Being engaged in sport has been shown to improve mental health and promote emotional well-being.
According to this survey done by Greater Manchester Moving, 78% of girls aged between 14 and 16 years old understand the importance of exercise, and yet just 10% of girls aged 13 to 16 take part in the recommended 60 minutes of exercise per day. These stats sit alongside the fact that 60% of girls aged 11 to 16 also said that they know a young girl who has suffered with poor mental health.
42% of young people said that they felt physically and emotionally vulnerable during puberty, leading to an all-out avoidance of sport during their period. Shockingly, one in four girls also reported that they felt unprepared for their period, with one in seven not knowing what was happening when they had their first period.
So how can we address these issues, and make sport more accessible and available to all young people?
Young people, both boys and girls, need to be fully aware of what a menstrual cycle is, what happens during a period, and how it can affect us physically and emotionally. Young people need to know about period products and how to use them. They need to know what changes will occur to their bodies, and how that could affect other activities in life.
Knowledge is power, and young people need to be taught with honest and open communication, and without prejudice or discrimination too.
Access to period products
Period poverty is a real issue for many young people; having access to period products is essential- and not just when it comes to sports. But seeing as we are discussing sports, it’s worth pointing out that girls need access to the right types of period products too.
47% of girls surveyed for Youth Sport’s 2022 Girls Active study said that fear of leaks was the number one reason why they avoided exercise and sports during their period, and 52% said that pain and discomfort was another reason to skip PE lessons too.
We created the WUKA Teen Stretch Period Pants to tackle this issue. They’re designed to absorb period blood as a complete alternative to pads (which can move around when you do) and tampons (which can be uncomfortable, not to mention potentially contain PFAs)- making them a perfect solution for active girls.
They’re leak-proof and odour free, and they’re worn like a normal pair of pants, meaning that nobody needs to know you’re on your period.
We’ve all been there. The group changing room. The cramped cubicles (if there even are any) and the lack of privacy. All of this can result in a lack of confidence, not to mention a lack of motivation to participate in sport.
In fact, with 21% of girls surveyed by Youth Sport reporting lack of private changing facilities as the main reason why they avoid sport, its no surprise that 7% of girls say that they never take part in sport when they’re on their period.
Schools and sports clubs need to consider how vulnerable some young people can feel when it comes to getting changed for sports, and steps should be taken to address this. These changes need to be fully inclusive, making it a safe space for all- regardless of gender, disabilities, religion on cultural backgrounds.
Adaptations to sports kits
WUKA period pants are a step in the right direction- they can be worn by themselves in place of bulky pads or tampons, they stay put without sliding around awkwardly, and they absorb period flow without a fuss. But period pants are only part of the solution- lots of girls shy away from sport due to the kit they’re required to wear.
This is evident in the recent announcement of Manchester City Women’s team, who have switched to darker coloured shorts as part of their kit- replacing the white shorts they previously wore. A statement by the team’s sponsor, Puma:
“As a result of player feedback and the underlying topic of women wanting to move away from wearing white shorts while on their periods, we have decided to implement changes to the products we offer to our female players.”
An appropriate kit, teamed with period pants could be the key to helping more young people feel confident to play sports during their period.
As Alice, who plays for Titans Wheelchair basketball team told us,
“Using WUKA products allows us to be the best we can on the court, no matter if we are on our period… WUKA is supporting us both to have the best defence when playing, but also have the best defence against leaks.”
Inspire girls to re-think sport
Young people also need to be given the chance to understand how sports can positively impact their lives. Girls in particular drop out due to a fear of failure, so work needs to be done to reinforce the physical and emotional benefits of participation and the enjoyment that it can bring, over awards and trophies.
Women and girls are already on the back foot when it comes to sports, for many reasons- the very obvious pay gap (whether in sport or in general); less exposure on media and mainstream TV; discrimination against women in sports and, of course, the drop off of sports in teenagers (due to periods, lack of access to facilities and lack of body confidence), to name but a few.
Young girls need encouragement, praise and above all, a voice. They need the chance to look up to positive female role models, to aspire to use sport as much more than just physical exercise. They need to feel empowered through sport.
How can WUKA Teen Stretch help girls in sport?
Here at WUKA, we want everyone to be able to Wake Up and Kick Ass. Every. Single. Day- no matter where you are in your cycle. And we know that we have a generation of teens who are not only passionate about climate change and planetary health, but who want to go out there and smash taboos, reach their goals and make their mark. For some, this will be via sport- and we need to do all that we can to support this.
WUKA Teen Stretch aren’t just period pants- yes, they will absorb period flow with ease, allowing more young people to participate in sport, but they’re made a little differently to the other pants in our range.
They’re constructed in such a way that they can grow bi-directionally, to custom fit a large range of sizes. This means that one pair will fit body shapes up to three different sizes- from 2XS (ages 8-12), S-L (ages 12-16) and XL-4XL- so parents and teen period pant wearers do not need to worry about buying new pants every time their size and shape changes. They grow with you, not against you.
The fact that WuKA Teen Stretch adapt to a large range of sizes and shapes means that they’re inclusive to all; it means that they will continue to support young people during the time in their lives where they’re most likely to want to drop out and give up.
Support our #TackleAnything Campaign
#TackleAnything is WUKA’s campaign to support women, girls and sportspeople with periods.
Did you know that the average menstruating sportsperson, training 3 times per week, will have on average 39 training sessions on their period, per year. We’re here for you.
We’re proud to support the Welsh Rugby Union’s women’s team, Watford Football team’s women’s team, Titans Wheelchair Basketball team and Hatfield Swim Club- because we believe that nothing should hold you back, no matter where you are in your cycle.
Read more about our partners, and download our Spotify playlist so you can take us with you next time you get out there and kick ass!
Can I play sports during my period?
Yes! There is no reason why you cannot play sports during your period. As long as you’re feeling well, your period should never be the reason why you stop exercising- in fact, studies have shown that moving your body can help with some symptoms of PMS during your period, so it’s actually recommended!
Do periods affect exercise?
During your cycle, your hormones fluctuate, and this can affect energy levels and motivation. There are a number of natural remedies that you can try to ease the symptoms of PMS, as well as lifestyle changes you can adopt to stay fit and healthy.
At the end of the day, you know your body best- so if you feel less than optimal, listen to your body and reserve your strength for the days where you know you’re more than ready to smash it at the gym or on the pitch.
How does puberty affect sports?
Puberty is a time where lots of changes take place, both physical and emotionally and this can have an affect on sports. For some young people, the physical changes can lead to a lack of confidence and low self esteem, which can make sports more difficult. Young people need support through this time, and education on the benefits of exercise in order to better understand why they should continue to stay active.
Girls need access to sufficient period protection and appropriate clothing that will allow them to continue to participate in sport.