Determine the goals for your athlete

Goals will differ depending on the sport and skill level of the athlete. As a general rule, you should concentrate first on developing functional versatility and increasing general motor abilities. Then you can move on 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 1 sport. As an athlete advances to more elite levels of skill and competition, the requirements for her particular sport should be emphasized.

Maturation rate

The conditioning program for a female athlete will depend greatly on her maturation rate (how quickly she matures). Maturation is not delayed or speeded up by training. Instead, maturation seems to be genetic (inherited) in nature.

Biological age

Athletes develop at different rates, so one should pay more attention to biological age than to chronological age. Biological age is marked by such factors as skeletal, dental, and sexual age. A medical professional should determine biological age through an exam. However, the development of secondary sex characteristics may be a good sign 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 for the relationship between maturation and chronological age, some generalizations can be made for females:

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

Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (formerly Female Athlete Triad)

This very serious syndrome was first recognized in young female athletes, and has been expanded to include both males and females. The overall concept of energy imbalances in athletes is relatively new and has evolved over the last several years.

An energy imbalance occurs in an athlete either because the activity demands too much energy, or because the athlete is not taking in enough energy. This weakens the body’s ability to work well. It can affect all body functions, including metabolic rate, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis, and cardiovascular health.

Female athletes may first notice dysmenorrhea (not having regular periods, or irregular cycles or missed cycles). In addition, many other changes inside the athlete’s body can go unrecognized.

Low bone mineral density occurs when a woman is not having regular menstruation cycles because she has low levels of estrogen. When the bone mineral density is low, bones cannot tolerate the impact of athletic endeavors and begin to break down, causing fractures.

When a very active person has a low body fat percentage, a drop in estrogen (similar to those of menopausal women) can occur. Bone mineral density then begins to decrease, placing the athlete at a higher risk for stress fractures in the short term and osteoporosis in the long term.

The bone mineral density that is lost while in the amenorrheic (no periods) state cannot be gained back. This means that the long-term changes that increase the risk of osteoporosis are irreversible. The treatment is to maintain what bone is left and supplement the diet with vitamins and minerals to preserve the bone density.

There are many other physical, mental, and performance-related impairments. Some athletes may have problems with disordered eating, ranging from an incomplete diet to severe eating disorders. Others signs and symptoms include injury, difficulty focusing on tasks, poor sleep, or mood changes.

Eating disorders and athletics

Athletes (male and female) appear to be more prone to eating disorders and unhealthy attitudes towards eating behavior, body shape and weight, and unhealthy weight control. Young women are most vulnerable to these conditions. Also, sports in which body size is related to performance cause an especially higher risk.

There are 3 main reasons why athletic involvement may cause eating disorders:

  • People who are at risk for eating disorders are drawn to athletics.
  • Participation in sports, especially those that 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 likelihood of disordered eating because exercise can cause the psychological suppression of hunger.

Research has shown that it’s possible to improve the eating habits of athletes by educating them on why proper nutrition is essential not only for sports performance, but also for overall health.

Coaches and parents who are aware of an athlete's eating habits, weight control methods, and training schedules can help prevent the start or the worsening of unhealthy habits for female athletes. If they notice symptoms of an unhealthy lifestyle, they should begin early intervention and positive reinforcement of good habits, such as proper diet, regular meals, and cutting back on exercise, 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

Changes in hormone levels can and will affect a female athlete’s performance. 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 change her performance. It is also important to understand that not all females are the same, and that 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 in the menstrual cycle may be helpful. It should, however, only be used as a guide to determine the best times during the cycle to improve performance. Talk with a doctor about the responses to exercise and hormones that are unique to a young female's body.