For many female athletes, the story is all too familiar. Entering high school, an athlete often quickly gains skill, fueled by hormones and a steep increase in training difficulty. Some athletes continue this upward trajectory, whereas others, despite their best efforts, plateau or even decline in performance. Behind the scenes, a number of female athletes face an uphill battle against their bodies. Berkeley High School (BHS) athletics must create a program that addresses these issues — from injuries and plateauing to harmful body standards — and break down unrealistic expectations to help female athletes form a healthy relationship with sports.
While the implementation of the program may seem strategically difficult, the program could be modeled after the Coaching Boys Into Men curriculum that was recently introduced to BHS. A key aspect of the program is its focus on the positive influence of coaches on their male athletes, allowing them to effectively educate athletes on issues that will affect them far past high school. This same connection can be used for coaches to provide education and support for female athletes’ mental and physical health.
Annie Jay, a senior in Academic Choice (AC) and runner on the cross country team, has noticed her teammates struggling with plateaus and injuries each season. Female athletes in sports such as running and swimming often face a degenerative cycle during puberty in which little physical progress is made despite rigorous training. The simple truth is that cisgender females’ developing bodies do not work like cisgender males’ do, and attempting to train them the same way leads to harm. As girls go through puberty, their hips and breasts grow, causing an increase in fat mass, detrimentally affecting their performance. Meanwhile, their male teammates increase in muscle mass and often experience drastic improvements. When female athletes try to fight the physiological changes rather than riding them out, it inevitably causes injury.
“I could see people getting down on themselves because of how they were temporarily slowing down, and because they weren’t aware of the ‘why,’ ” said Jay. “They assumed it was because they weren’t working as hard.”
Jay persistently mentioned the issue to her coach, who led a series of educational conversations with the team surrounding nutrition and health. A few of the discussions specifically covered the struggles female athletes face, allowing space for dialogue and support amongst teammates. These types of conversations are invaluable in building a safe team environment, and should be recreated throughout all sports teams.
Compared to solo sports, injuries and plateaus can be even more damaging on a team — particularly to one’s self worth. According to Allison King, a junior in AC and a water polo player, when a girl underperforms, it can affect her connection with the team.
“Sometimes peer pressure is a subconscious thing,” she said. “As a member of a team you want to put in as much as you can, and a lot of girls think that if they’re not like everyone else they’re doing something wrong.”
AC sophomore June McNally, a varsity soccer player, also discussed the consequences of this pressure to perform even when dealing with injuries.
“In late July I hurt my ankle pretty badly, but I felt like I had an obligation to keep playing. I just kept overworking it even though I was supposed to rest for way longer,” she said.
This pressure to play is further exacerbated by the fear of falling behind on the team, potentially losing your seat on the starting lineup, or being replaced. Because of this element of rivalry even within the team, athletes often feel forced to overwork their bodies to the point of severe injury.
In addition to a number of training-related injuries, social media has exacerbated body image issues among athletes. In the sports world, success is too often equated with being impossibly thin. Girls already face intense pressure from social media and society to have a “perfect body,” and in sports, this idealistic image carries even more weight.
Particularly in an environment where overtraining and undereating are commonplace, Jay emphasized the allure of deleterious practices.
“It’s hard when you see some people getting faster because of unhealthy things they’re doing to their body,” she said. “There’s a little part in the back of your mind saying, ‘I could be faster if I didn’t eat that.’ ”
Proper education on injury prevention and competitive eating disorders — especially ones that take form in overexercising or undereating — is essential. Furthermore, it’s important to note that all athletes may struggle with body image, injury, or plateauing, regardless of gender or age. However, these issues are particularly significant for girls in high school, and informing athletes on female sports teams about these problems is an important first step for the school to take in order to properly reduce harm.
High school athletics may allow students to develop passion and skill for a certain sport, but they also serve to prepare teens for sports in college and beyond. However tempting it may be to reach for the low-hanging fruit and short-term gains, athletes must value their well-being above all else during this crucial developmental stage, and coaches need to help them understand this.
“Talking about healthy practices is just as important as the workouts themselves,” said Jay. “[You need] to know that you’re not alone during these changes — there’s always a light at the other side.”