Coaching Girls: Part I (Understanding female athletes)

Watch this, then read:

Did you catch the "BS"?

The following is a write up of a presentation by a member of the Canadian Freestyle Ski group during a workshop on how to better coach girls. The presentation was March 6, 2014 and over 2 years later has REALLY stuck with me. I dragged it out of an "old" folder on my computer, "dusted" it off, and wanted to summarize it for the general public because a) the presentation ROCKED and b) because this stuff is IMPORTANT.

As a strength and conditioning coach for the Canadian Sport Institute (CSI), I had the pleasure (when I was working full time before my Masters), to work with an array of wonderful development (under 18) athletes. The sports were numerous and ranged from figure skating, to synchronized swimming, to rugby, ringette, hockey, basketball, softball, and ski jumping, to name a few. While working for CSI, I was invited to attend a workshop by one of the Freestyle Ski coaches (whom didn't leave her name on the Powerpoint she sent me and now I may never remember it!). She was full of passion, and the audience to her presentation left laughing, smiling, and deeply connected with the messages she was teaching.

The three themes she covered were: 1. Social connection - getting acceptance in your program

2. Role models, and

3. Skill acquisition.

These themes were the top reasons for both keeping females in sport, for life, and up to a high level, AND for females dropping out of sport. In Freestyle skiing in Canada, it is suggested that the TOP 5 reasons for girls dropping out of the sport were: 1) Lack of friends 2) Lack of role models 3) Lack of confidence in ability 4) Interest in other sports 5) Financial Limitations

“The atmosphere of Freestyle skiing tends to be very aggressive and risk-oriented. Athletes are encouraged to try things outside of their comfort zone. While the coach may be certain that a new skill will not be dangerous for the athlete, the athlete may not be convinced. It has been my experience that female athletes tend to be more conservative in the risks they are willing to take. For this reason, female athletes may feel pressured and uncomfortable in many coaching environments. I have personally seen female athletes shy away from freestyle skiing altogether because the atmosphere did not encourage them in a positive manner” The aggressive and risk-oriented atmosphere of Freestyle Ski can leave female athletes uncomfortable and pressured to step further out of their comfort zone than they are willing, and because it is male dominated and girls become more self conscious it is difficult to keep them for competing against the males. The sport is not marketed to females, because girls are less aggressive and more self conscious, so they don't push themselves as boys the same age would to progress and excel at their chosen sport; it doesn't matter what sport it is. Also, they tend to focus more on the social aspects (socializing) than physical activites of participating in the sport and can be pulled away by friends who want them in other activities or as they get older focus on the opposite sex can impact decisions.

There are also issues with a lack of female specific programs with female coaches. We know that girls tend to focus more on the social aspects than the physical activity itself, and at a certain age, tend to foccus on the opposite sex rather than the activity as well.

It is important to understand competitive behaviour in boys and girls. For girls the list, in order, of what is important for them in sport follows:

Acceptance --> Effort --> Performance.

For boys, the list of importance of the words shifts to:

Effort --> Performance --> Acceptance

Knowing this sequence (and difference from males) will help coaches understand what “makes the female athlete tick”. Female athletes need to know early on in their sport that their teammates and coaches are accepting of them. This, for girls, will build the foundation on which they can start to work and show effort in the sport and in training. Good performances matter the least to girls, so the emphasis should not be placed here.

So, Acceptance is the gateway drug to performance for girls! Send coaches this message.

We know from research that women tend to feel intimidated in traditional “male-dominated” environments. Good coaches for women must emphasize fun and positive reinforcement. We know also that motivating factors for males and females participation tend to be different, so take the time to understand a woman’s goals. Furthermore, a woman’s enjoyment of a sport is often enhanced through a personal, democratic relationship with her coach, and group lessons as the delivery format are the most populat among women (as opposed to 1 on 1).

Stay tuned for Part II and Part III in the coming weeks!

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