The whole kit and caboodle

Traditional PE kits are locked in the 20th century and aren’t really fit for practical purpose. It’s time to embrace technical kits, says John Dabell

PE kits stink. It’s not the bouquet I’m talking about but their design and function. They need a complete overhaul. It is very important that students have the correct PE kit for the right type of sport they are doing in order to keep them comfortable and safe.

The ‘athleisure’ trend for activewear means that technical and high-performance products are now available for everyone, not just for top athletes. But this has not necessarily filtered down into schools.

A colleague of mine told me that he had recently noticed that an increasing number of students were attending PE lessons wearing the ‘incorrect’ PE kit. Upon closer inspection, this had more to do with the fact that PE kit was old-fashioned.

Some students hate PE and it isn’t because of the activities, it’s because of their outdated, impractical and dysfunctional kits. Students ‘forget’ their PE kits for good reasons and deliberately opt out of being active because their kits are crummy and embarrassing. They don’t look the part and if students don’t look good, they don’t feel good.

Schools have a policy whereby pupils who do not bring their kit will be given detention at breaktime or lunchtime. But if the kit is at fault we can’t punish pupils for decisions out of their control; schools have incredible power to dictate how their students feel by selecting the PE kits they wear.

PE kits can be a barrier preventing students taking part in sport because they make students feel very self-conscious. Rather than empower young people and motivate them to take up sports, PE kits are doing the opposite which is why some students call PE ‘public embarrassment’.

Research has consistently found that the struggle to get students active at school, particularly girls, could be reduced be redesigning PE uniforms. According to figures by Virgin Active, nearly 50% of girls aged 16 say they enjoyed being active but hated their school PE kit. What put girls off were low-cut V-necked polo shirts and uncomfortable materials. What girls said they wanted instead were opaque leggings, high-necked collared training tops and dark colours that hide sweat patches and keep the body cooler.

Schools can therefore do so much more to promote exercise by thinking more carefully about what they ask students to wear.

Jennie Price, Sport England Executive has previously told school leaders that teachers should allow female students to wear a more comfortable kit rather than the traditional short skirt still widely used in primary and secondary schools. The latest trends are crucial but what do these look like for schools? Is it still itchy tops that are user-hostile?

Squadkit is leading the way in school sports working with world-leading fabric manufacturers and international athletes, like Olympic hockey player Hollie Webb, to make innovative products such as Climaskin, Hydrocool, Stormex and Performatex.

Squadkit noticed that female activewear has often been based on male sports clothing but just in smaller sizes which meant the fit was all wrong and both unflattering and uninspiring. They’ve listened to what girls were wanting and they’ve created a range of fashionable, high-performance apparel called Fitness Kit featuring flattering T-shirts made from breathable fabrics and new running shorts featuring a dual fabric design.

Taking inspiration from the movement of wearing yoga pants both in and out of the gym, one of Squadkit’s most popular products for girls is the multi-purpose Fitness Legging. This has been tailored to fit adolescent girls, designed with a deep waistband and using high-performance fabrics to form a flattering garment that makes girls look the part. Squadkit hope to inspire girls to get back outside and active again saying: “The highly technical product features a moisture-wicking inside layer, and a smooth friction-minimising upper surface. The result is a product which will keep girls warm, dry and comfortable so that they can perform at their best – without compromising on style.”

PE kits are an often overlooked feature of the psychology of participation. The physical and mental experience of wearing fitness and activewear kits can have a huge impact on students. Research has shown that clothes systematically influence our own behaviour and the way we think and act.

In recent years, there has been evidence of disturbingly high rates of mental ill health among adolescents and even younger children. PE plays an important part in developing resilience, grit, determination and the will to succeed. PE is powerful education but the basics have to be right in order for students to feel the part and this means clothing our minds and our bodies for success.

PE teachers used to say that a PE lesson was not a fashion show, and it isn’t, but that doesn’t prevent kits being fashionable and technically up to the job.

Students need to move easily and freely and looking slick in action shouldn’t be seen as some sort of extravagance or just reserved for matches. As Pete Kennedy of O’Neills Sportwear noted: “Many educational establishments now want to replicate what the pupils wear in games lessons to what they wear competitively. Gone are the days when pupils wear a heavy cotton fabric one minute and then a bespoke garment for fixtures.”

Some PE kits might not have moved with the times but students’ expectations have. They hear about high-tech football shirts that contain massage strips that maximise muscle power by allowing the body to recover from exertion more quickly.

OK, they might not expect PE kits to match the luxury of this hidden technology but they do expect it to be technical and something closer to what sportspeople wear. They, too, want to feel professional and proud, not amateur and second-rate. They want innovative sportswear design using the very latest performance fabrics.

Why can’t PE kits incorporate temperature-regulating technologies commonly found in sportswear? Not only are breathable performance fabrics healthier and safer for the user, they are designed for stylish and comfortable wear too.

Students are fashion conscious, tech-savvy and it is essential that they feel both up-to-the-minute and comfortable. A great-looking, stylish PE kit that is versatile and can ‘perform’ is compulsory for students, although not always for schools oblivious to the impact a poor kit can have.

The PE checklist for pupils is simple: it needs to be wearable, functional and, above all, on-trend with a modern edge. The relationship between physical education, sport and social inclusion shouldn’t be down to what clothing students wear but this is clearly an important consideration we cannot overlook. It’s a classic requirement for schools to insist that “PE kit should be named and kept in school at all times” which shouldn’t be a problem if that kit is practical and something students actually want to wear.

Physical activity is positively associated with good mental health, particularly in relation to children’s self-esteem. If pupils are kitted out with clothing that is practical, professional and stylish then they are going to want to be active and take part, not sit out and find ways to avoid PE.

Clearly schools, policymakers and manufacturers need to listen to their students, listen to the research and consider implementing fresh ideas so that PE kits are inclusive and they increase participation, confidence and performance. If a school’s vision for PE, sport and physical activity is “to make sport and physical activity an everyday part of everybody’s life,” then it needs to start with intelligent decision-making about the clothes students wear, and that needs to be done in conjunction with suppliers who actually understand schools and can cater for demand.

Stevensons is the largest independent school uniform and sportswear provider in the UK, and launched its own sportswear brand into the market three years ago called XXV. It supplies some of the UK’s most prestigious schools including St Paul’s Girls School, Abingdon, St Edwards and Robert Gordons College. They have aligned and integrated their systems with the leading manufacturers of sportswear in both Europe and the UK.

It’s important that suppliers anticipate trends and, according to its Joint Managing Director, John Stevenson: “Schools stay ahead of the competition by aligning with a supplier that can deliver what others can only dream of. We welcome our key customers to come and view their production so we can demonstrate the technical processes such as seam-bonding and laser-cutting.”

If students wear their PE kits with pride then you know that you have got things right. They will be great ambassadors for your school and they will look forward to PE, not dread it. Schools often send home messages to parents such as: “It is vitally important that children are correctly dressed for PE lessons as without the correct PE kit pupils cannot participate safely in PE,” – but do they really consider what this means from a student perspective?

Uniform, including PE kit, is an important part of a school’s identity. It reinforces what that school stands for as a community and helps allow students to feel pride in their school. However, PE kits need to move with the times and be professional-quality, high-performance and make students want to wear them so they can perform to the best of their ability in any sport they wish to participate in.

John Dabell:

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