One Message Female Athletes Need To Hear (That We’re Failing To Tell)

For nearly 13 years now—over a third of my life—I’ve been trading in my golf spikes for a pair of Speedo flip-flops come mid-August. The start of the high school girls’ swim season marks the end of my summer, and the beginning of an annual 13-week adventure.

I’ve been a part-time coach longer than I’ve been anything else. It continues to be the most challenging and rewarding “job” I’ve ever had (aside from the challenges of parenthood). Not only have I had the privilege of coaching some incredibly gifted student-athletes, I’ve also had the opportunity to work alongside some of the best coaches and teachers our community has to offer. Coaches who’ve been walking the pool deck longer than I’ve been… well, walking.

But despite all of that experience, there’s one lesson we’re failing to teach our female athletes.

You’re an Athlete, It’s OK to Look Like One

The start of the women's 50m freestyle heats at the Aquatics World Championships in Kazan, Russia, August 8, 2015.           REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
The start of the women’s 50m freestyle heats at the Aquatics World Championships in Kazan, Russia, August 8, 2015. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

It’s well understood that a 250-pound starting lineman on the football team needs to take in some serious calories, not just to maintain his physicality on the playing field, but to maintain his physical health and well-being. Football coaches may touch on nutrition at the beginning of the season, but I would guess their players don’t need to be told twice to take advantage of meal times. I would also guess most male athletes make their way through the school lunch line unburdened by any social pressures.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case for female athletes—not even for world-dominating female athletes. After Serena Williams won her sixth Wimbledon title, a lot of people were excited about the possibility of her completing the calendar Grand Slam. But others, folks I can only assume were homeschooled in the backwoods by Pat Robertson devotees, thought the real story was Williams’ appearance.  

Serena Williams serves at the U.S. Open. Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports  / Reuters
Serena Williams serves at the U.S. Open. Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports / Reuters

Writing for Sports Illustrated, Elizabeth Newman asked, “What does one get for winning a sixth Wimbledon title and 21st major, and for being one tournament from completing a calendar Grand Slam? You get accolades and $3 million in prize money and a haul of ranking points. But you also get a whole lot of criticism.”

Among the overtly misogynist internet babble came this gem from Twitter: “The main reason for her success is that she is built like a man.” That kind of thinking is not just dumb and insulting to women, it’s insulting to athletes of all shapes and sizes, both male and female. Worse yet, it reinforces the idea that female athletes must be feminine first and competitors second.

Dangers of Malnourished Athletes

I’ll admit, I have no idea if these controversial national stories actually make their way onto the newsfeeds of younger female athletes. I’ve never asked any of my swimmers if they feel pressured to look a certain way even though they’re in-season. But I do know how important picture day is, and I feel it’s a good indication that, at the very least, there’s an expectation for how a female athlete should look.

Yesterday was picture day for my girls team. It took over an hour, and to my untrained eye it looked like they all came in full makeup and done-up hair. I also coach boys in the winter, and for them there’s no discernable difference between picture day or any other day of the season. But the two teams don’t just look different, they pose different. While the guys alternate between poses that are either athletic or altogether indifferent, the girls take their time to help each other fix their hair and strike the most flattering pose possible.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with looking good, but we need to make sure our female athletes know it’s also OK to look athletic and be proud of the results of their hard work and training. It’s also important to educate them about the real health risks associated with trying to maintain a model’s body while putting in two hours a day in the gym, in the pool, or on the game field. It’s not safe, and the expectation is both wildly unrealistic and unhealthy.

According to a story from NPR, more high school girls are competing in athletics than ever before. Participation has grown by 560 percent since 1972. Girls’ high school sports are thriving, and the competition is getting faster and stronger by the day. “But many girls aren’t eating enough to satisfy the physical demands of those sports,” NPR reports, “and that’s putting them at risk for health problems that can last a lifetime. These athletes are essentially malnourished.”

The danger they face is real and can result in a condition called female athlete triad syndrome, which typically includes three symptoms: irregular menstrual cycles, low energy, and low bone density. While all serious, low bone density can be especially debilitating for an athlete and have lifelong consequences. The NPR article goes into greater detail and shares the story of Regan Detweiler, who was diagnosed with female athlete triad syndrome after suffering two stress fractures in her legs. It’s worth the read.

Step Up and Deliver the Message

Most coaches will tell you that our job is not just to train great athletes, but to train great people. We teach the fundamentals of the sport, sure, but we also try to do things like teach life lessons, instill confidence, and develop character. There’s plenty of room in the middle of all that to talk about nutrition. But we need to take that discussion a step further by delivering a clear, caring message about what a healthy, strong, fit female athlete can look like.

Katie Ledecky of the U.S. celebrates after setting a new world record and winning the women's 800m freestyle final at the Aquatics World Championships in Kazan, Russia, August 8, 2015. REUTERS/Michael Dalder
Katie Ledecky of the U.S. celebrates after setting a new world record and winning the women’s 800m freestyle final at the Aquatics World Championships in Kazan, Russia, August 8, 2015. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

5 Responses

  1. John Heinen

    Great article Ben! as a father of a female swimmer, I live this every day. We are constantly on her to eat, because of the number of calories swimming upwards of 12,000 yds a day requires. We have to stay on her and tell her it is ok to look strong and have muscles.

    1. Ben Hanson

      John, thanks for reading and thanks for the comment. Great job at home with your daughter… Keep it up, her coaches appreciate it!

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