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Coaching female athletes - What's really different?

It has been a momentous last few months in female sport, with a number of significant milestones achieved. The recent Rugby League World Cup hosted by Australia was the first to ensure equal provision for the male and female competitors regarding facilities, accommodation and medical support at an international tournament.

Coaching female athletes  Whats really different

Both the men’s and women’s finals were played on the same day, in the same stadium affording equal status and recognition to both teams1. Hot on the heels of this triumph, Australia announced that its Women’s Rugby Sevens team would be paid the same as the Men’s team2. Here in the UK, the RFL has recently rolled out the Women’s Super League, the first national women’s rugby league competition. It might take a while for the rest of the world to catch up with the forward-thinking Australians, but one thing is certain, women’s sport is experiencing a period of unprecedented growth.

Personally, I have recently taken on two different roles that require me to coach, and support the development of, female athletes. I’m a little embarrassed by the fact that I’m now in my 17th year as a coach, but in my first for any level of extended exposure to coaching females. Despite being relatively experienced, I’ve found myself questioning a number of my usual approaches. I constantly wonder whether or not I am doing the best I can for these athletes.

I’m pretty clear on one thing. The wrong approach is to treat the females like males. One of the key coaching tenets promoted by our own Carnegie Sports Coaching academic group is the what and the how, is fundamentally influenced by the who3,4. The challenge is that the differences between men and women are often subtle, and so the implications of these differences are not always obvious.

To reassure myself I wasn’t getting things horribly wrong, I started looking for resources that could guide coaches working with female athletes. It was a pretty short search; these are few and far between. Incidentally, there are remarkably few sources to support coaches working with male athletes. Clearly, more work needs to be done to understand what athletes of different genders need from their coaches. I think that a fundamental problem is that for too long coaches and researchers have simply ignored the differences between male and female sports people. Certainly this is the case in sport science, where female participants are under-represented5. I’ll summarize what I found here.

A useful tool to help understand the differences between male and female athletes is the bio-psycho-social model of human development6. From this perspective, it is clear that more is understood about the biological differences than the psychosocial differences between males and females.

Figure 1

Figure 1 – Bio-psycho-social development model (Engle, 1977)

Physiologically, adult males and females are not so different. After correcting for differences in relative size and muscle mass, men and women display similar strength and endurance capabilities7. Any remaining differences are largely mediated by the effects of the predominant sex hormones; testosterone and oestrogen. These hormones create a greater overall muscle mass in males, and a greater percentage of body fat in females. In addition, men tend to have longer bones; this creates a mechanical advantage in some sports. In absolute terms, these factors combine so female strength is ~66% of weight-matched males. In highly trained individuals, this difference reduces to ~10% in world record performances for males and females in running and swimming.

The risk of injury, particularly to the ACL, is higher for female athletes. This is a result of increased joint laxity, one of the effects of oestrogen, and the larger Q-angle (figure 2) that results from broader pelvic bones. This injury risk can be largely mitigated by using neuromuscular warm-up strategies before training8.

Figure 2

Figure 2 – Female and male Q-angles.

The least well-publicized difference between male and female athletes is that females are most resilient to fatigue. Females fatigue more slowly than males in both running9 and weight lifting10 tasks, and recover faster.

Surprisingly, because it would seem like an obvious place to start, there is little available on how the menstrual cycle effects female athlete performance11. Forty percent of exercising women believe that their menstrual cycle impacts their training and performance, but the underlying mechanisms for any such effects, and how to best mitigate them, have yet to be determined.

There are some established physiological differences between male and female brains11, although non-sporting evidence suggests these differences are overstated. Female brains are more densely packed with neurons, which allow for functions to occur in different brain areas to men, and for neural linkages in brain structure to occur which are not present in men. However, most of these studies reflect small sample sizes of highly selective individuals; the idea of the ‘representative brain’ remains a deep challenge for this area of research. In addition, and allowing for later research which questions the validity of some key terms like ‘hard wiring’ and doubts about what brain scans are showing, female brains are affected by the cyclical variation of hormones, creating variable neurocognitive reality. As a result of these differences, women tend to perceive and react to events in slightly different ways to men. These differences, reflective of evidence in 2006, are summarized in table 1.

Table 1

Table 1 – Areas of difference in male and female psychology (reproduced from Cunningham and Roberts, 2006)

The psychosocial difference between male and female athletes are less clear cut, than physiological differences. For a start, while its possible to make broad generalizations about how female athletes think and behave, every individual is different. While some rules-of-thumb for working with female athletes may be a helpful place to start, every athlete-coach relationship needs to be built on its own merits.

The differences between male and female athletes described here are a short summary of all the things I’m trying to consider for my coaching. In my following post, I’ll discuss how this information has affected my practice, and hopefully provide some reflection on how effective I’ve been. In the meantime, if anyone has any advice or coaching experience to share with me, I’d be grateful to hear it.

References

  1. O’Connor, L. (2017) How the Women's Rugby League World Cup final can inspire a generation and spur national game. The Guardian 29 November 2017 [Accessed online 31 Jan 2017]
  2. Rowan, K. (2018) Australia Women's 7s agree deal that ensures pay parity with male counterparts in historic first. The Telegraph 26 January 2018 [Accessed online 31 Jan 2017]
  3. Abraham, A., Saiz, S. L. J., Mckeown, S., Morgan, G., Muir, B., North, J., & Till, K. (2014). Planning your coaching: A focus on youth participant development. In C. Nash (Ed.), Practical Sport Coaching (pp. 16– 53). Abingdon: Routledge.
  4. Till, K., Muir, B., Abraham, A., Piggott, D. & Tee, J.C. (2018) A Framework for Decision-Making within Strength & Conditioning Coaching. Strength and Conditioning Journal (In press)
  5. Costello, J.T., Bieuzen, F. and Bleakley, C.M., 2014. Where are all the female participants in Sports and Exercise Medicine research?. European Journal of Sport Science, 14(8), pp.847-851.
  6. Engel GL (1977) The need for a new medical model: a challenge for biomedicine. Science196, pp.129-136.
  7. Lewis, D.A., Kamon, E. and Hodgson, J.L., 1986. Physiological differences between genders implications for sports conditioning. Sports medicine, 3(5), pp.357-369.
  8. Herman, K., Barton, C., Malliaras, P. and Morrissey, D., 2012. The effectiveness of neuromuscular warm-up strategies, that require no additional equipment, for preventing lower limb injuries during sports participation: a systematic review. BMC medicine, 10(1), p.75.
  9. Deaner, R.O., Carter, R.E., Joyner, M.J. and Hunter, S.K., 2015. Men are more likely than women to slow in the marathon. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 47(3), p.607.
  10. Häkkinen, K., 1993. Neuromuscular fatigue and recovery in male and female athletes during heavy resistance exercise. International journal of sports medicine, 14(02), pp.53-59.
  11. Bruinvels, G., Burden, R.J., McGregor, A.J., Ackerman, K.E., Dooley, M., Richards, T. and Pedlar, C., 2016. Sport, exercise and the menstrual cycle: where is the research?. British journal of sports medicine, 51(6), pp.487-488.
  12. Brizendine, L., 2006. The female brain. Broadway Books.
  13. Cunningham, J. and Roberts, P., 2012. Inside Her Pretty Little Head: A new theory of female motivation and what it means for marketing. Marshall Cavendish International Asia Pte Ltd.

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Dr Jason Tee

Jason Tee is a Coach, sport scientist and researcher specialising in rugby union and athlete development.

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