Wednesday Wisdom

March 06, 2024

Sporty Saturdays

By Dr Kathy Weston

 Sporty Saturdays


Last weekend, I decided to do what I rarely do, and spend it watching school hockey matches. I realised that both of my children would be playing on adjacent pitches for the first time ever, in an away game, so decided to hop in the car to go and see them play.

Now, the last time I watched them both playing sports at the same time, they were little boys who wanted mummy there admiring every move and supplying them with hugs and cocoa at half-time. How things have changed! ‘Embarrassed’ seems too strong an adjective, but they were, let’s say, more self-conscious than the last time I was a spectator, and clearly not keen on maternal encouragement or any interaction. Even my warm, cosy car was no substitute on a rainy day for the muddy camaraderie of peers on the team bus. So, reader, I spent a solitary time, freezing cold, peering through a wire fence, proud as punch, hoping they might notice me, occasionally clapping (too loudly apparently) when one of them got possession of the ball.

I felt a sense of joy in the ordinariness of the afternoon (it really felt like the perfect springtime Saturday, replete with sun showers and cups of tea from a flask on a wooden bench). When my boys returned home later that day, the impact of the afternoon’s play on them was crystal clear; they were noticeably chatty, cheerful and full of tales from the pitch. It was a reminder of what we all know intuitively; exercise and outdoor time are essential for boosting wellbeing.

Participation in a team sport introduces another protective asset for mental health: belonging. Purposefully pulling in the same direction as your peers and being in pursuit of a common goal is nail-biting and life-enhancing stuff. Successful teamwork requires knowledge of one another, enthusiasm, communication and being able to navigate loss and success collectively.

Sport can be a significant contributor in developing physical, emotional strength and resilience. Unfortunately, whilst adolescence is arguably the most important period for our children to be engaging in sport and physical exercise for mental health, the onset of puberty can, in many cases, deter younger teens from wanting to be involved. It seems that the self-consciousness, so characteristic of normal adolescent development, can also sadly inhibit activities that are essential for promoting mental fitness.


Research shows that there is a steady decline in activity levels for both boys and girls as they reach their teens, but the steepest decline is for girls, once they reach the pivotal age of 13 or 14.

Dr Michaela James’s research explores why some girls might feel inclined to disengage from sport, noting factors such as: feeling pressured and disliking the feeling of pitted against others, not wanting to fail or make a public mistake, and a fear of becoming too ‘muscly’. In the UK, the Women and Equalities Committee has just published a report examining health barriers for women and girls in sport. It highlights numerous reasons, including menstruation, which can be unpredictable, painful and lead to leakage, concerns around PE kit, and other physiology-related barriers and injuries. Breast pain is also a significant issue. One study on sports performance found that 73% of 11-18 year olds had specific concerns about their breasts and exercise, with close to half the sample avoiding sport because of their breasts. Comfort is key. Wearing a sports bra especially designed for teens can help drive comfort, reduce bounce and painful movement. In other words, solutions exist to the issues described above, that a loving parent can support with.

Something else to keep at the back of our minds is how we talk about our bodies in front of children. Are we talking about what our bodies can do rather than what they look like? Are we modelling kindness towards our own bodies when we see ourselves in the mirror? Are we emphasising how good physical exercise feels for mental health rather than for aesthetic purposes? As levels of body dissatisfaction grow among young people, we all need to keep an eye on emphasising balance rather than praising excessive exercise. We need to watch out for the early signs of eating issues amid the commitment to sport and, as families, remain mindful of how critical early intervention can be. In other words, if things aren’t right, seek support.

Puberty is a time where the body changes in ways that can feel exciting for some and worrying for others. It’s an unpredictable process that unfortunately invites social comparison. Some changes emerge rapidly, which can cause alarm for some young people. As adults, we need to provide gentle guidance and understanding, validate how they might feel about themselves and their bodies, and work harder to find ways that they can remain active without inviting the sort of scrutiny they dread.

There is a physical activity waiting for all of us, we just need to search for it. Not all young people enjoy team sports, want to be outside when exercising, relish being in water or holding a racket. Tooled Up subscriber parents can derive inspiration from this resource listing 100 different types of sport and from this beautifully curated resource that lists 50 inspirational female athletes, all of whom model enormous resilience, courage and body appreciation - a fitting tribute for International Women’s Day that is celebrated on the 8th March this year.


Talking to our children about puberty isn’t always easy and many of you reading this might worry about early puberty, the onset of menstruation for your child or how hormones might affect your child’s emotions, behaviour and perception of themselves.

I am often asked about the best books or videos to explain puberty. My advice is to start with what your child knows (we can ascertain this by simply asking them), and it isn’t one big sit-down conversation either. These chats are often precipitated by your child noticing something has changed; a hair has sprouted in an unexpected place on their body, their friend is suddenly taller than them, or they feel really angry or tearful and they just don’t know why!

Puberty is unpredictable in terms of pace and outcomes, so it is understandable why some children might fear it. As parents and carers, we should remain positive about growing up and be calm and clear in our answers, to give them the best chance of coping well.

Don’t wait for puberty to create a climate at home where you talk about everything, with no shame attached. Don’t wait for puberty to plant the seed that all bodies change over time and to model a gentle acceptance of this fact. Don’t wait for puberty to model how necessary and easy it is to buy products in the supermarket that can help with monthly periods. For those parenting children who are neurodivergent, do some reading ahead of time around optimal messaging and explanations around puberty. This previous Wednesday Wisdom newsletter with its focus on supporting autistic teen girls will give you a good starting point.

For those desperately hoping there is a video or a book that can help support conversations at home or at school, there are plenty available from multiple organisations, but you need to trawl through them and decide what feels right for you. It is hard to find a book that has a balance of accurate information, visually described in ways that you think are age-appropriate and that might chime with your own values and beliefs. This questions and answers book is one of our favourites, and we also love this book and journal, designed to inform and prepare young people for their menstrual cycle. We've consulted some of the experts that we work with and they particularly recommend an organisation called Amaze, and this video from Planned Parenthood, which covers not only the physical changes of puberty, but emotional ones too. If you’d like more of a steer on how to open conversations with your children about puberty, check out this short video from Outspoken Sex Ed.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

If you are the parent of a teen girl and would like ideas for encouraging them to be more physically active, check out our video. There is a sport for everyone, so make sure you also take a look at our list of 100 exciting sports to try. You can also browse our up to date list of books for children about puberty, and listen to our interview with Dr Michaela James. We also recently hosted an informative and accessible Q&A session with Dr Anna Colton on supporting girls through puberty. Watch the recording here.

In the past, we’ve spoken with Dr Natalie Brown about menstrual cycle education and Dr Emma Ross about helping girls to thrive in sport and movement (including a really informative section on sports bras). Dr Ross and her organisation, The Well HQ, are mentioned throughout the new UK government report, as an organisation that should be included in addressing the health barriers women and girls face in sport.

If you’d like to find out more about the wide variety of period products and menstrual cycle tracking apps that are now available for teens, check out our article. Primary school staff may also want to watch our webinar with experienced teacher, sex educator and author of This Period in My Life, Saskia Boujo, which is packed with practical tips for classroom use.

Chats about body changes shouldn’t begin and end with teenagers. There is room for conversation about hormonal changes at all stages of family life. Our webinar with Dr Fionnuala Barton, ‘The Menopause Medic’, is a really informative watch.

We also have a couple of relevant webinars next week with Dr Gauri Seth; one on navigating parent-child connection during the teen years (March 12th) and another on emotional wellbeing during menopause (March 15th). We’d love to see you there!