By Greg Bach
As young female athletes progress in sports, the onset of puberty brings many challenges, issues, and questions.
“Girls involved in sports are going to have higher risks of mental health issues, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and dissatisfaction with their weight when they are going through puberty,” says former long-distance running great Lauren Fleshman, author of GOOD FOR A GIRL.
And Fleshman wants to help parents, coaches, and youth sports leaders be more informed and better prepared for helping girls navigate this phase of their lives to reap all the benefits that a healthy sports experience provides.
“Girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys by age 13 and we’re losing half of girls by age 17,” says Fleshman, whose book is part memoir and part a call to action for changing the landscape for female athletes. “This is not just an American problem; this extends to other countries as well. We’re doing a better job of attracting girls into sports but we’re still doing a bad job of keeping them despite our best efforts.”
Understanding what Fleshman calls the ‘female performance wave’ is an important step.
“The timeline of a female athlete’s road to excellence is very long, so that’s why I call it a female performance wave,” says Fleshman, who won five NCAA titles at Stanford, including three straight in the 5,000 meters. “In youth sports we can see that when they are working hard they are getting better and it’s a really rewarding time of life. But when female bodies change in puberty it’s super common for there to be a plateau, or even a short temporary dip, because those body changes are not immediately beneficial to sports performance. They are beneficial in the long-term because your strongest body is going to be your woman body, but those changes in the short-term require ligament and bone adaptations and so that can be a frustrating time.”
It’s during these times that open communication with the young athlete is key.
“It’s acknowledging that there will be feelings of frustration, but we can normalize that for girls and keep ourselves thinking big picture to help them think big picture, too,” she says. “And if you aren’t able to improve in your mile time for a year or two, for example, you can still improve as an athlete because you can improve as a tactician; you can improve as a strategist; and as a teammate. There are so many ways that coaches know that you can measure improvement, but we need to make sure that we are presenting those to girls when they are going through that plateau phase.”
Check out what else Fleshman shared to help female athletes:
Introducing Sports Bras: “Something as simple as a sports bra given to a girl at the right time can completely change the trajectory of her life,” Fleshman says. “We know that 73 percent of girls have breast-related concerns and questions about breasts and exercise so just kind of empathizing with the fact that their movement in their child body suddenly feels a lot different. It can feel confusing.” (Fleshman recommends checking out Bras For Girls, which provides free sports bras to girls in need, as well as breast development education booklets.)
Menstruation Matters: “It’s really important to have a regular menstrual cycle and if your child isn’t menstruating by the time they are 15 you need to talk to a doctor,” Fleshman says. “I know a lot of youth sports occur before those things happen, but girls can get their period as young as 9 or 10 years old and once a girl has started getting it they need to be getting it regularly. If there’s a dysfunction in their cycle and they’re missing periods that is a really important sign that they are not adapting to the training well or they are not fueling enough and that can disrupt essential human functions like building bone density, immune system function, and mental health. If it’s disrupted something is not right and it’s time to look into it and take action.”
Body Shaming: “As parents, be aware of how girls talk about their bodies,” Fleshman says. “One of the highest risk factors for a girl developing an eating disorder is how her parents talk about their body and food. So all of us as adults have work to do on having body positivity with ourselves and modeling eating behaviors that are healthy for our kids because they are watching and those things can affect them for a lifetime.”
Normalizing Ups and Downs: “I found, when looking back, most of my problems came from when my identity was wrapped into my performance,” she says. “When I felt that I was more worthy and more lovable when I won than when I lost. When the stakes are that high you run into trouble.”
So the more parents can help their young athletes grasp that ups and downs are all part of competing the less likely they’ll get tangled up in unproductive thoughts and sabotage their confidence.
“It’s teaching our athletes to feel their disappointment, that it’s ok to care, but always maintaining that bedrock of ‘I am more than this sport, I am more than any performance,’” Fleshman says. “And normalizing ups and downs. Show your athletes the tough performances of their stars. Show them Sue Bird’s bad games and Michael Jordan’s missed shots. Those kinds of things are so important.”
Follow Lauren Fleshman on Instagram @fleshmanflyer and Twitter @laurenfleshmanLauren Fleshman Parenting Coaching Female Body Shaming Sports Bras Puberty Menstruation