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Precautions for the Young Female Athlete

Determine the goals for your athlete

Goals will differ depending on the sport and skill level of the athlete. As a general rule, first concentrate on developing functional versatility and increasing general motor abilities. Then you can progress to more sport-specific skills and work on increasing strength and endurance. For example, junior high and high school athletes should be encouraged to participate in more than one sport. As an athlete progresses to more elite levels of skill and competition, specifications for her particular sport should be emphasized.

Maturation rate

The conditioning program for a female athlete will depend greatly upon her maturation rate. Therefore, this is crucial to consider when planning training. Maturation is not delayed or speeded up by training. Instead, maturation seems to be genetic in nature.

Biological age

It is important to recognize that all athletes will develop at different rates. Therefore, be more aware of biological age rather than chronological age. Biological age is characterized by factors such as skeletal, dental, and sexual age. It is best to let a medical professional determine biological age through an exam. However, the development of secondary sex characteristics may be an adequate gauge of physical maturity. A less appropriate determination of maturation is chronological age (age in years/months); however, chronological age is more readily available and can be used as a generalization.

As maturation relates to chronological age, some generalizations can be made for females:

  • Balance development happens between 9 and 10 years
  • Coordinated movement choices improve between 8 to 13 years
  • Reaction time has the majority of improvement between 8-10 years
  • Spatial orientation improves between 12-14 years
  • Aerobic fitness increases between 11-13 years
  • Anaerobic (strength) increases beginning around 14-16 years (biological indicator for anaerobic training: maximum strength development usually occurs after peak velocity of growth in height)

Female athlete triad

This phrase refers a condition in which a female athlete is amenorrheic (does not have regular periods), has low bone mineral density (placing her at risk for osteoporosis), and shows evidence of disordered eating. The latter can range from an incomplete diet to severe eating disorders.

The female athlete triad is a relatively new health condition that has been labeled only since the early 1990s. It is a condition that is very serious and that can lead to complications of fertility later in life. It can also place an athlete at a greater risk for stress fractures during her competitive years and more debilitating fractures such as hip or rib fractures later in life.

Low bone mineral density occurs when the body is not undergoing regular menstruation cycles because of low estrogen levels. When the body has a low body fat percentage, and activity levels are high, estrogen decreases are seen similar to those seen in menopausal women. Bone mineral density then begins to decrease, placing the athlete at a higher risk for osteoporosis.

The bone mineral density that is lost while in the amenorrheic state cannot be gained again. The treatment for such circumstances is to maintain what bone is left and supplement the diet with vitamins and minerals to maintain the bone density.

Eating disorders and athletics

Male and female athletes alike appear to be more prone to eating disorders and unhealthy attitudes towards eating, body shape and weight, unhealthy weight control, and eating behavior. Young women are most susceptible to these conditions. Research has shown that increasing the education of why proper nutrition is essential not only for sports performance, but also for overall health, improves the eating habits of athletes.

There are three primary reasons why athletic involvement may affect eating disorders:

  • People who are at risk for eating disorders are drawn to athletics.
  • Participation in sports, particularly those who push unhealthy body images such as swimming, gymnastics, and running, may cause an unhealthy body image to develop, which may eventually result in an eating disorder.
  • Sports may increase the cases of disordered eating because of the psychological suppression of hunger through exercise.

Coaches and parents who are aware of an athlete’s eating habits, weight control methods, and training schedules help to prevent the onset or escalation of unhealthy habits for female athletes. If symptoms of an unhealthy lifestyle are noticed, early intervention and positive reinforcement of good habits, such as proper diet, regular meals, and decreases in exercise, should be started as soon as possible. Teammates should also be aware of any unusual behavior within the team environment and should report anything suspicious to a coach, parent, or school official. Early treatment of any unhealthy habits, eating disorders, excessive exercise, or improper dieting for an athlete is important to prevent serious negative health effects.

The role of hormones

Hormones and changes in hormone levels can and will affect performance of a female athlete. Hormones affect the types of fuels that can be used (fats and carbohydrates), and how they can be used in the body. It is important to make yourself and your athlete aware of these changes and how they may alter her performance. It is also important to understand that not all females are the same, and different hormones may react in a unique way for each individual.

More importantly, an athlete should be able to recognize her own responses to various stages of her menstrual cycle. Formulating a training schedule that works with and around some of the changes associated with the menstrual cycle may be helpful. It should, however, only be used as a guide to determine optimal times during the cycle to optimize performance. Talk with a physician regarding the responses to exercise and hormones unique to a young female’s body.

References

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 9/30/2011…#8865