Exploring Barriers to Girls’ Enjoyment of PE

Images of period pad, swimsuit, hockey stick and a team - barriers to girls enjoying PE.


On 11th October 2023 the BBC ran an article titled ‘Low confidence and periods stop girls liking PE’. The article reported on the findings of a Youth Sport Trust survey, which showed that only 59% of secondary school girls ‘like’ PE or ‘like it a lot’, compared to 84% of boys. The proportion of girls liking PE has dropped from the last survey when the proportion of girls enjoying PE was 74%.

Among the PE community these results have been met with dismay. Despite the best efforts of PE teachers many girls do not find PE enjoyable.

This blog post explores some of the barriers that girls face – lack of choice, changing and PE kit, feeling rubbish at sport, ability grouping, and managing periods. I then go on to briefly look at challenges that can affect girls who are hypermobile, autistic or have ADHD before concluding with a list of suggestions for reducing these barriers.

Lack of Choice

Whilst some girls enjoy competitive sport, research has shown that a curriculum that focuses on competitive sports tends to favour boys and those who already enjoy PE. As Lee Sullivan writes in his book ‘Is PE in Crisis?, a sports driven model of PE rewards students who are already good at sport and causes those who with less competency and experience to have negative experiences of PE.

One study of teenage girls found they were bored and disappointed by the lack of variety in activities offered in PE. Rather than playing traditional sports like rugby or hockey, they preferred activities like dance, which offered enjoyment without the competitive element.

Introducing girls to different physical activity can help them find what they enjoy. One parent I interviewed for my book told me:

“My daughter hated team games in PE. During lockdown she got into CrossFit. When she was exploring college options she said, ‘I’d like to go there because it’s got a gym’. This from someone who hated exercise! I’m really pleased that she’s found a physical activity she can do for life.”

Changing and PE Kit

Getting dressed and undressed is such a common task that we adults may overlook just how complex it is and how daunting it can be young people to undress in front of each other. Researchers have discovered lots of difficulties that students experience in changing rooms – feeling exposed in front of others, fearing having their photo taken, struggling with the noise and time pressure and dealing with incidences of bullying. It’s not just changing that it is difficult, wearing a PE kit can cause girls embarrassment and discomfort.

School swimming can be traumatic too. Online there are lots of comments about school swimming with people describing the experience as ‘torturous’ and ‘frightening’. One non-binary respondent talked about how wearing a girl’s swimsuit caused them a lot of distress. Others who struggled with eating disorders described the shame of getting naked in front of classmates. Heart-breakingly, some young people posted that they were restricting their eating before school swimming lessons or staying off school because they couldn’t cope with PE.

Being Left Out

A research study of 144 students aged between 9 and 15 looked at the processes students used to select partners or team mates in PE. The study showed that girls selected other girls according to their friendships, their best friend was their preferred partner.

In contrast, boys selected other boys according to how sporty they were. As a result, the least popular girls and least sporty boys were consistently selected last.

Don’t let this happen! Don’t let students select their own teams or partners. Read this article by Andy Milne for great examples of building positive team relationships and reducing anxiety.

Feeling Rubbish At Sport

Being successful at a physical activity is a great feeling. The opposite is also true – there is nothing more frustrating and demoralising than repeatedly trying and failing at a task, especially when those around you can do it. ‘Failing’ at sport can led to girls believing that they are rubbish at physical activity. How can we change this and help girls experience success?

We can use the STEP framework (Youth Sport Trust 2002) to adapt our lessons and enable girls to feel pride, happiness and achievement:

Space – How can you alter the space? Can you make the pitch smaller? Do you need to decrease the distance to the target? What sensory modifications do you need?

Task – How can you adapt the activity? Can you make the activity easier by changing the rules? Can you simplify the activity? Do students need more time to complete the task?

Equipment – How can you offer choice of equipment? Can you provide alternative sizes or weights of equipment? Would a wider bat help or a larger ball?

People – How can you facilitate positive interactions? Can students work with different peers? Have choice in their partners? Can you change the size of the team?

Teachers focusing on sporty students

In a survey of 144 girls, students reported that their PE teachers focused on the students who were the best players. This can happen because teachers who are passionate about sport and PE naturally identify with students who share this enthusiasm. Teachers want to nurture their talent and love of physical activity. Most PE teachers work really hard at making PE as engaging as possible for all students but are stuck in a sports heavy model of teaching PE. Many teachers also feel they haven’t received enough training on making PE inclusive and engaging for all.

Ability Grouping

This one is a bit tricky. Girls may be helped by matching them with peers of similar ability for certain tasks and games. A study of 60 secondary school girls found that differing levels of ability put some students off participating in team sports.

One girl reported she didn’t want to spoil the game for potential teammates because of her low level of ability. Other girls in the study suggested that if schools formed teams of different ability levels, they would be more likely to take part: “All schools should have second, maybe third teams just so if girls aren’t good enough for the first team they can still play.”

Although this study focused on extra-curricular sports the recommendations are worth considering for PE lessons, too whilst being mindful that putting girls in a ‘lower ability’ group could also be very demoralising.

PE and Periods

Many girls report dealing with periods as something that puts them off PE and swimming in particular,
especially if their periods are irregular or they aren’t confident using period products.

We need positive conversations around periods, as many young people believe menstruating is unclean and something to be hidden. A report found that 56% of 14-year-old girls felt embarrassed about their period.

Whilst this is an issue for many girls, it’s important to remember that girls with additional needs may find this especially challenging e.g. they may have difficulty communicating their need to go to the toilet, or struggle with organisation or physically dealing with pads and tampons.

Additional Needs and Neurodivergence

It is important to consider intersectionality when thinking about the barriers girls face in PE. How does race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, class and disability also impact on girls?

I do not have the experience or expertise to address most of these, but as an Occupational Therapist and mum to autistic children I will briefly talk about how disability and neurodivergence can affect girls’ engagement with PE (I cover these and many more conditions in much more depth in ‘Inclusive PE for SEND Children’.


Studies suggest that autistic girls and those with ADHD are 3.5 times more likely to have hypermobile joints than their peers. Whilst some young people experience no negative effects of hypermobility (having extra movement at the joints) for others it can cause pain, fatigue, muscle tightness, and poor coordination.

Things that can help are allowing students to take breaks and rest when needed, and using circuits and stations to enable students to set their own pace and intensity. For more see the chapter on Hypermobility in ‘Inclusive PE for SEND Children’.


As ADD/ADHD is often overlooked in girls, it is possible that you have a couple of girls in your class with undiagnosed ADD or ADHD. Whilst this neurotype comes with many advantages, it can also bring difficulties with impulsivity, sensory processing difficulties, emotional regulation, transitions, task switching, following rules and processing verbal information. (I go into detail about these challenges and strategies to help in my book).


Autistic girls can find PE very challenging. Again, many girls are undiagnosed and may ‘mask’ to try and fit in. However, they are still likely to find the following difficult: the sensory environment, interpreting and using non-verbal communication in team games, team dynamics, unpredictability, transitions, rules that aren’t explicit, processing information. One parent I interviewed said:

“She really struggled with team games and fairness of who was following the rules and who wasn’t and the popularity context of the ball only being passed amongst the sporty kids.”

Another parent said:

“PE teachers didn’t understand the social and communication challenges – how difficult it is to be liked, chosen for a team and put to work in a pair.”


We have looked at some of the things that are stopping girls from enjoying PE. Here are some suggestions of ways you can break down the barriers:

  • Look at the PE curriculum and the balance of competitive and collaborative activities. Can you increase the variety of activities offered?
  • Use STEP to think in advance about how you could adapt your lessons to help girls succeed. Be thinking, “What can I do differently to help them engage?”
  • Consider creating teams that place students of similar ability levels together. Have teams that are focused on competition and teams that are focused on enjoyment and participation to reduce the
    pressure on playing.
  • Involve girls in conversations about PE kit, swim wear and privacy in changing rooms. You may consider encouraging all students to wear shorts or introduce different swimwear. In Japan, schools are introducing genderless two-piece short-sleeved and long-sleeved tops that don’t emphasise body contours to help students – particularly those who are non-binary or trans or self-conscious – to feel more comfortable.
  • Don’t enforce showers.
  • Provide menstrual products and make it known that these are on offer. This helps girls who experience period poverty and girls whose periods have started when they don’t have any period products with them. Talk openly about periods to challenge stigma.
  • Give girls options and information about their participation in swimming during their periods.
  • Allow students to take rests and go at their own pace.
  • Read ‘Inclusive PE for SEND Children’ to make your lessons more accessible for girls with additional needs and who are neurodivergent. You may also be interested to read ‘Making PE Inclusive for Dyslexic Students’.

The content from this article was taken from ‘Inclusive PE for SEND Children’. Buy here.