The difference between male and female athletes and in sport in general has been and continues to be a well discussed topic. In this blog, I will attempt to discuss some of the contemporary issues surrounding female athletes and how we as coaches can support them through these challenges.
Differences Between Male and Females in Performance Sport
There are obvious differences in male and female athletes, but why is this? It can be seen as a level playing field between male and females when considering factors such as technical ability, social capacity, psychological factors and tactical awareness. However, the main differentiator is the physical attributes between male and females. On average, men are physically stronger than women, with up to 66% more upper body mass and 50% more lower body muscle. Males also have bigger and stronger bones. The larger skeletal structure means a male’s body can hold more muscle, giving a physical advantage over females.
These physical differences in male and females make a significant difference in elite performance athletics and sports. These differences can be seen in the table developed by Skraba (2016) in which it identifies the world records set by men and women, in a range of athletic events. In each event, the women world record is inferior to the men’s and in some cases, by a large percentage.
The Female Athlete Triad
The female athlete triad is a combination of three health problems, that can often be found in teen girls and elite level athletes (Thein-Nissenbaum and Carr, 2011). The disorder affects three body functions that are all connected to each other. These functions are energy levels, menstrual cycle and bone density. The condition can occur when the female athlete has a strict diet and also participates in intense training or exercise (Female Athlete Triad, 2020). The long-term consequences of this can be severe and could lead to cardiovascular problems, higher risk of bone stress fractures, affect reproductive systems, menstrual cycle and the central nervous system.
Low energy availability is often linked with eating disorders or mental stress. Eating disorders are common with female athletes due to the pressures of having to be lean for certain sports such as gymnastics or track athletics (Matzkin, Curry and Whitlock, 2015). A study by Lynch and Hoch (2010) found that 31% of elite athletes had an eating disorder, comparing to only 5.5% of the general population.
Due to low energy availability, there is menstrual disturbance due to a change in the reproductive hormones. This leads to irregular periods or stopping completely, which is called an amenorrhea.
Amenorrhea and low energy cause a deficiency in estrogen, leading to a reduction in bone mineral density (BMD). This results in osteopenia or osteoporosis, with osteopenia being shown to be present in 50% of athletes and osteoporosis in 13% (Khaun, Liu-Ambrose and Sran, 2002). If an athlete has low BMD at a young age, they could suffer the effects of the triad long-term and potentially even for life.
What can we do as coaches to help?
As coaches, there are many things we can do to support female athletes if we feel concerned that they’re suffering the effects of the triad, here are some of those:
- Notice the signs – if female athlete seems tired, sudden mood change, visible weight loss or has frequent stress fractures. Speak to the athlete and/or parents and talk about your concerns and the potential of seeking help.
- Don’t encourage skipping meals or snacks. Ensure that the athletes are aware of what they should be eating and how to maintain a balanced diet to stay healthy. Consider working with or referring to a nutritionist if unsure yourself.
- Avoid over training your athletes and ensure there is adequate time to rest between sessions for suitable recovery.
- Be approachable and open to your athletes. If your athletes feel as though you care and listen, they will feel confident to approach you with an issue. Whether that be menstrual cycles, stress or diet problems.
Female Athlete Triad. Available at:<Female Athlete Triad – What You Need to Know (drugs.com)> (08/12/20)
Hoch, A.Z., Pajewski, N.M., Moraski, L., Carrera, G.F., Wilson, C.R., Hoffmann, R.G., Schimke, J.E. and Gutterman, D.D., 2009. Prevalence of the female athlete triad in high school athletes and sedentary students. Clinical journal of sport medicine: official journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine, 19(5), p.421.
Khaun, K.M., Lui-Ambrose, T. and Sran, M.M., 2002. New criteria for the female athlete triad. Br J Sports Med, 36, pp.10-13.
Matzkin, E., Curry, E.J. and Whitlock, K., 2015. Female athlete triad: past, present, and future. JAAOS-Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 23(7), pp.424-432.
Lynch, S.L. and Hoch, A.Z., 2010. The female runner: gender specifics. Clinics in sports medicine, 29(3), pp.477-498.
Thein-Nissenbaum, J.M. and Carr, K.E., 2011. Female athlete triad syndrome in the high school athlete. Physical therapy in sport, 12(3), pp.108-116. Women’s World Records Compared Against Men’s World Records in Track & Field. Available from:<Women’s World Records Compared Against Men’s World Records in Track & Field – Žiga P. Škraba (zigapskraba.com)> (08/12/20)