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Experts, athletes, coaches, and parents agree that raising young female athletes requires careful navigation through many challenges, especially during and after puberty. We’re only starting to understand what it takes to help them flourish. Partly, perhaps, because we’re only starting to understand what it takes to help ourselves truly flourish.
In this five-part investigative report, we examine both how to #FixGirlsSports and raise a stronger, healthier next generation; as well as how to re-evaluate our own body image for the better, including the resources you need to rebuild or fortify one of the most important relationships of all—the one with yourself.
Although the issues facing young runners are as old as time, most experts agree that little has changed since Lauren Fleshman and Sara Hall were growing up. “I just showed my book proposal to an athlete who just graduated from college two years ago,” Fleshman says. “I asked her which of the topics aren’t relevant anymore for a girl in high school or college. There was none—not a single one. She’s 14 years younger than me.”
Julie Culley, 38, a 2012 Olympian in the 5,000 meters and director of cross-country and track and field at Georgetown University, is using her personal experiences to guide the careers of her young athletes now. When she competed at Rutgers University, she remembers a six-month period when injuries—caused by rapid growth—and personal issues caused her to start restricting her diet.
Hall and Fleshman, among other leaders, are now determined to create change. And you can, too. These are six essential ways that all coaches, parents, and supportive adults can help foster a healthier sense of self in young female athletes.
1. Create open dialogue and frame puberty in terms of health.
Nobody can predict how individuals will handle puberty or how it will impact athletic performance, but talking openly about what is happening to girls’ bodies and the potential temporary changes can help young runners better cope with the rollercoaster ride.
Talking with girls about how getting their periods is a sign of a strong, healthy body reframes the narrative. Melody Fairchild, 46, was one of the country’s most gifted teen runners in the 1990s and is now head coach of the Boulder Mountain Warriors kids running club. She tries to prepare her girls for what’s coming—and that they shouldn’t view menstruation as gross or embarrassing, but a point of pride.
“The best thing I can do is talk to them about seeing the big picture, stepping back from this moment where a girl is upset with herself because she got her period and her times have slowed,” says Fairchild, who is also coauthor of the forthcoming book, Girls Running, with Elizabeth Carey. “We need to let them know that running is a journey. It has twists and bends and ups and downs.”
2. Equip coaches with tools to talk.
Coaching has long been a male-dominated profession. And not many men are good at talking to female athletes about their periods or changing bodies. So instead of addressing the issues or adjusting training to accommodate girls’ unique needs, the topic is often just not addressed at all. That’s a huge disservice.
Julie Culley, 38, a 2012 Olympian in the 5,000 meters and director of cross-country and track and field at Georgetown University, remembers a six-month period in college when injuries—caused by rapid growth—and personal issues caused her to start restricting her diet.
“It was probably like my fifth injury in college and I was very conscious of every calorie that was going into my body. I got really, really lean,” she says. “I had a female coach who was very instrumental in walking me through that process, talking to me and being very open about it. And I came back to center. So I feel very responsible as a female coach now to help women navigate it.”
Part of the solution is bringing more women into coaching, but it’s also providing materials that teach male coaches how and why they should approach the topics.
“We need to be expecting and demanding and providing the tools for them to be educated on how to work with women and stop making the most important issues to their development taboo,” Fleshman says. “For so many male coaches, using words like ‘period’ or ‘breasts’ all gets mixed into the Me Too moment in a way that makes them even more scared to talk about the female body.”
3. Give girls a chance to hit pause or try other sports.
Culley and Hall were both avid soccer players before they specialized in running. Hall, now a mom of four daughters, two of whom are talented high school runners, has encouraged them to explore other activities.
“One of my daughters started running, had great success, but decided she wanted to try other sports for a while and we were really supportive of that,” Hall says. “Then she came back to running and actually now has a lot of fire for it, which is cool to see. Sometimes kids take their own time to find it, but I think it’s important that they make it their own.”
Fairchild took an entire year off from running after high school and before starting at the University of Oregon. She had struggled after her mom died of cancer, she hadn’t been properly fueling herself to keep up with the high mileage demands, and she needed to recover.
“When I went back to school, I started with a new perspective,” Fairchild says. “I started my period and I put on weight. I think girls, especially now as the sport gets more competitive, need time to take the foot off the gas pedal and let their body just be. If I could make it mandatory for all women to take a year between high school and college off, I would.”
4. Maintain a long-term view.
Fleshman considers herself fortunate that her high school coach was patient, knowing that female runners who remain healthy can reach a peak well into their 30s. But that kind of thinking is hard to come by when high school kids have increasing opportunities to compete at national championship meets—they train hard in the hopes that they’ll get scholarships to top NCAA programs.
“We have all this evidence now that your best years kind of begin in your late 20s and up to your late 30s,” Fleshman says. “That was what had always been impressed on me by my high school coach, taking the long view, always. He framed disordered eating and forcing you body to be thin as a shortcut—I learned that it was used as a way to get short-term results at the expense of long-term potential.”
Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, says the increasingly common win-at-all-costs mentality is easy for coaches to fall into in a sport like track and field, where results are clear-cut.
“We know from the data that when that mentality is first, there are a host of problems that will happen,” she says. “The health and well-being of the athlete is not the focus; it’s winning. Abuse happens to get results.”
5. Foster fun and teamwork.
Not every girl is after a college scholarship; some enjoy the sport for other reasons, and it is imperative that coaches find a balance between high performance and less competitive goals. When Culley is recruiting for Georgetown, she looks for other attributes aside from fast times. And they want athletes coming from programs where they’ve been taught to think for themselves and make healthy decisions on their own.
“Are they good teammates? Do they care about the success of the rest of their program? Are their coaches involved where they need to be involved and not where they don’t need to be involved?” Culley says. “When we see kids who love relays, we know they love showing up for their team.”
6. Read female-centric research and reform coaching principles.
Cases of emotional abuse have put a spotlight on the fact that, as Fleshman says, “we play in a sports system built for and by men.”
“We need more female-specific nutrition research, female-specific physiology research,” she says. “I mean, we’re just so behind on all of that stuff. That’s going to take a few years.”
LaVoi takes it a step further, though, saying a lot of research is already available, citing the studies like “Developing Physically Active Girls,” done at the Tucker Center, but it’s not adopted by the people in coaching positions who—to reiterate—are mostly men.
“Some keep up with the research, but a lot don’t,” LaVoi says. “You can get results, you can get development, and you can get athletes who think that running is fun and enjoyable. It’s a culture that sport scientists know is possible.”
And bringing more women into the coaching profession is only going to help, experts say. Hall’s oldest daughter, Hana, is off to compete in the NCAA in the fall. She chose a program led by a woman, Sara Slattery at Grand Canyon University—a move her mom fully endorsed. Hall was coached by Dena Evans at Stanford.
“I felt like [Dena] did a better job of meeting me where I’m at and figuring out how I tick—and how to support that in a healthy way versus just being a scary authority figure trying to make you perform,” Hall says. “It’s not to say that men can’t coach women, I think there’s plenty that are doing a really good job of that. But Hana will be in really good hands: Sara understands having been successful all the way since high school. She knows everything the girls are going through.”