The challenges of puberty can lead many girls to drop out of sports, but there are a number of good reasons to keep their head in the game.
Alex Morgan began playing soccer almost as soon as she learned how to walk. Growing up in San Dimas, California, her father was one of her first coaches and playing with the American Youth Soccer organization, she dreamed of one day going pro. But when she turned 13, around the same time she started puberty, her confidence was shaken when a coach suggested she wasn’t a good enough player. “I clearly remember myself questioning whether I was good enough to play, or whether I could compete with the boys,” she says. But Morgan pushed through, and now she’s a pro in the National Women’s Soccer League with a FIFA World Cup championship and an Olympic gold medal under her belt.
Most young athletes are not like Alex Morgan. A staggering amount of research suggests that once girls and people who menstruate begin to go through puberty and get their first period, the number who participate in sports drops significantly. Survey data suggests by the age of 17, once puberty is finished, at least 51% of menstruators who once played a sport, will have given it up.
So what’s the reason behind this alarming data linking puberty and sports? More than anything, it comes down to pressure. Girls and menstruators who play sports often feel like they’re on an invisible stage, according to a 2018 study done by Women in Sport. At the best of times, they’re are under a lot of scrutiny from their peers and playing a sport can exacerbate the sense that everyone is paying attention to you– whether you’re playing competitive lacrosse or just participating in PE. And when all of this happens during a time when you’re still trying to adjust to – and figure out how you feel about – the brand new changes in your body, it can feel like too much to handle.
Most of the puberty-related changes that might affect a teen’s game are physical. Sweat glands begin to ripen and you might notice they smell a bit…different (ahem, like body odor) after practice. They might also feel self-conscious about how they look and worry about other people judging their body in the changing room.
But there are social factors to consider as well. You might notice that what once seemed like a fun game to your teen has become more competitive than usual. Some people begin to take sports very seriously around puberty and if a teen can’t keep up, they might start to lose self-confidence and begin to doubt their own abilities (kind of like Alex Morgan did).
It could be that academics have kicked into high gear and sports have taken a backseat — their after school hours are now filled with studying and homework. It could also be that as they grow up their interests are expanding and they find they’re more passionate about other areas of life, perhaps math or creative writing, than they are about sports.
Not to mention, getting a period adds an extra layer of anxiety on top of these valid concerns.
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Most menstruators are concerned about period leaks at school (no sweat, this handy guide will help) and the same goes for sports practice. Survey data shows that 3 in 5 teens will skip sports practice because they’re afraid of leaking or revealing their period and almost half reported wearing more than one pair of underwear at a time to avoid leaks. A whopping 70% of girls ages 12-18 said they feel uncomfortable playing sports on their periods. (While it’s annoying, light exercise really does help alleviate cramps.)
The ironic thing is that the lack of self-confidence that leads girls and menstruators to withdraw from sports can often be reversed by…playing sports. Studies show that girls who participate in sports have increased confidence (62%), teamwork (64%) and leadership skills (54%) compared to those who don’t. Participating in sports teaches discipline, drive, teamwork and a sense of healthy competition a.k.a crucial life skills that will not only help them excel on the field, but off of it later in life.
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The best part? The discreet liner (the absorbent part) is so thin that they look just like a regular pair of leggings (or shorts).