How to solve the problem of teenage girls dropping out of sport in Scotland

I can still remember the moment when my sporting life changed. I was in my mid teens and was sprinting for the tape at my school sports. I saw all the faces staring at me, there were plenty cheering me on but I also registered some giggling among boys and suddenly felt so self-conscious.
Only 11 per cent of 13-15-year-old girls in Scotland meet the official guidelines for physical activity. Picture:  Getty.Only 11 per cent of 13-15-year-old girls in Scotland meet the official guidelines for physical activity. Picture:  Getty.
Only 11 per cent of 13-15-year-old girls in Scotland meet the official guidelines for physical activity. Picture: Getty.

In that second, I was all too aware that my growing breasts were not as static as they used to be and for the first time in sport – which hadn’t only been part of my life, it had been my life – was no longer fun .

Pulling a baggy top over my sports vest the minute I crossed the finish line, I watched as other girls ran, jumped, and hurdled. I saw some self-consciously wrapping an arm over their chest as they moved and felt a tinge of jealousy as others, unburdened by such curves and such cares, simply gave it their all.

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Growing up I played football, netball, hockey, tennis and badminton. I did athletics, I swam, danced and cycled. We played rounders and touch rugby and I went to the gym. Athletic, I enjoyed sport and my pre-pubescent body was built for it.

But as I was forced to deal with changes in my body, like many others I shied away from sport more and more. There was still PE, of course, and finding sports venues where there was no viewing gallery prevented me from becoming a complete sports drop-out. And, luckily I had already fallen hard. So, after an unhappy break of a few years, I reunited with my first love.

I had discovered a decent sports bra and if things still jiggled, I didn’t really care. Returning to sports I had shied away from and working my way through a series of new ones, there were still moments I cringed as I heard a comment from the sidelines but I was older and wiser, more comfortable in my own skin and, to be honest, the joy of playing eclipsed the negativity.

Looking back I do regret the years that were lost, though. Not because I could have been a contender (I probably couldn’t). But because of all that sport imbues, the health benefits and because, ultimately, I’m annoyed I was so weak.

But the fact remains, girls are still dropping out of sport around the time of puberty. According to a recent report commissioned by the Observatory for Sport in Scotland, only 11 per cent of 13-15-year-old girls in Scotland are currently meeting the official guidelines for physical activity. A figure than is significantly lower than boys of the same age.

We can lament that all we like, but until certain issues are addressed, many of which are gender specific, that trend is unlikely to alter.

In a study carried out by Portsmouth University, entitled The Impact of The Breast on Sport and Exercise Participation in Schoolgirls, researchers found that 5 per cent of schoolgirls are concerned about their breasts during sport and exercise, citing embarrassment, breast bounce, pain, the way they look, and concern that their breasts are too big.

At an age when kids suffer from low self-esteem and poor body image, those concerns simply exacerbated the problem and contributed to the significant drop.

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“The University of Portsmouth got on board following my interview with Hilda Miller, who designed the first sports bra,” said broadcaster and research associate at the university, Alison Walker. “They asked me to help raise awareness of breast health and exercise.

“I remain involved with them and I would love to take a presentation around schools and help educate young girls. There is a huge lack of knowledge even among PE teachers and coaches. Invariably, they tend to be quite sporty and don’t have big boobs so they don’t understand.”

Which is why it is a vicious cycle as those with whom the problem resonates probably dropped out in puberty themselves and are not in the position to help inform schoolkids who are struggling with the awkwardness of it now.

“Unfortunately, many in positions with the power to help just don’t get it and that huge lack of awareness is the issue,” added Walker.

“I would love to see one of the big shops , such as Marks and Spencer, do something to help address it and perhaps offer discounts on sports bras for young girls coming into the store for their first bras.”

But it would be ludicrous to suggest it is only girls with sizeable breasts that are falling short of recommended activity levels.

The reasons are many and variable but most could be addressed with the right insight and an awareness that the obstacles facing boys and girls are often different.

With teenage girls more aware than ever of their looks, extra hairdryers could be provided in leisure centres or in schools so they don’t need to head to the next class with dripping hair, or give them five minutes longer than the boys so that make-up can be reapplied.

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A lot of work is being done through Active Schools to attract girls into sport and keep them but periods and body changes will always be a factor. It is about dealing with those sensitively and avoiding embarrassment. And offering some leeway on sports attire.

“Instead of skimpy shorts or skirts, let them wear leggings and t-shirts,” said Maureen McGonigle, of Scottish Women in Sport. “It is also making it sociable and offering them role models and making it clear that sport is for girls as well as boys. Thankfully, things are moving on and there aren’t the old stigmas attached to girls who are sporty but when it comes to advertising a ‘come and try’ day, let’s try to make sure there is a photo of a boy and a girl on the promotional material so that everyone can relate.

“Let’s be honest, we are gaining momentum and we wouldn’t have got this far without male allies but as much as a man can empathise with a young girl worrying about her breasts he can’t fully understand that or many of the other issues. So we need a greater balance of men and women in powerful positions to influence change. But women’s sport is being taken more seriously and there are wonderful role models out there for young girls now.”

And now, unlike the days of Tessa Sanderson, they don’t have to bandage up their breasts when competing, they just need a good sports bra, some understanding and plenty of encouragement. Sport will do the rest.