RECAP: Coaching Girls in Youth & High School Sports: A Focus On Overall Health Webinar

PCA hosted a Webinar on June 7, 2023 on what to keep in mind while coaching girls in youth and high school sports, including puberty, periods, and RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport).

The panel included Dr. Bianca Edison, sports medicine attending physician at the Jackie and Gene Autry Orthopedic Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Dr. Emily Kraus, Clinical Assistant Professor, Stanford University, Director of Female Athlete Science and Translational Research (FASTR) Program and PCA National Leadership Council member, Dr. Julie McCleery, principal investigator at University of Washington Center for Leadership in Athletics, and Gavin Tucker, Track and Field and Cross Country at Seattle Academy.

The broad reaching conversation covered many topics including:

  • Puberty and the menstrual cycle
  • Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport – RED-S
  • Coaching topic: Cultivating a positive foundation for athletes

Dr. Kraus began the conversation with case presentations, which are scenarios clinicians may encounter with female youth athletes. The scenarios included injuries, loss of the menstrual cycle, nutrition, training schedules, and more. Based on the scenarios she then focused on questions athletes, clinicians, and coaches might have.

Dr. Kraus then talked about how we must be patient when female athletes are going through puberty as it is different for all girls and we need to embrace the differences including when breast growth begins, periods start, body composition changes, etc. 

Dr. Edison talked about how having conversations with female youth can feel a little uncomfortable and it’s mostly because conversations aren’t happening on a regular basis as girls’ bodies are changing and they are not realizing that there are a lot of other people going through the same thing. Dr. Kraus talked about the benefit of normalizing these conversations and that the menstrual cycle can be very complicated and we want athletes to feel comfortable and empowered by their menstrual cycle, as opposed to seeing it as something that is stigmatized or having a negative impact on their performance.

Dr. Kraus and Dr. Edison then discussed menstrual cycle irregularities, periods and sports, and why female athletes have irregular or absent periods including:

  • RED-S/Triad – Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport
    • Does NOT require low weight to be malnourished
  • Hormonal causes:  e.g. polycystic ovarian syndrome, hypothyroidism
  • Pregnancy
  • Structural abnormalities

Dr. Kraus discussed problematic low energy availability which occurs when athletes aren’t taking in enough energy to account for exercise as well as the body’s natural processes such as metabolism, growth, and development. She also talked about common misconceptions about periods including that it is normal for teammates to lose their periods, that girls should be put on birth control for a missed period due to low energy availability, and that hormonal contraceptives help improve bone health.

Dr. McCleery then shifted the conversation to discuss the relational aspects of coaching and how it supports the holistic well-being of all athletes. She talked about how important it is to have a strong team culture which includes observable and repeatable patterns of behavior, how one makes sense of a team and their role within it, behavioral reflection on underlying values, and “how we do things” on a team. She went onto discuss building a CARING culture which includes:

  • Communication – positively framed similar to the PCA Elmtree of mastery,
  • Autonomy support – athletes have a voice; shape/develop
  • Routines – make time & use language around what is most important
  • Intentional relationship building – with and between athletes
  • Norming – concern about holistic well being
  • Goals – know and name where you are headed, as a team

“Sports in general are a masculine space and only about 25% of a sport coaches are women and so there are a lot of spaces where girls and women are showing up and they don’t feel like it reflects them.”

Dr. Julie McCleery

Gavin talked about developing the right culture and when kids feel comfortable they are more willing to come to you as a coach and tell you when things may not be feeling right. He spoke about his attendance policy where he does not ask athletes why they will not be at practice and only that they let him know if they will not be there as he feels they should not need to justify why they need to miss a practice.

The group then took questions submitted during the webinar with the first one focused on how to talk about nutrition positively. Gavin talked about dispelling the myth that skinny equals fast and that in fact strong equals fast and that you have to fuel your body.  

The group discussed a question on the right age to talk about the menstrual cycle. Dr. Kraus talks to athletes around the age of 10, based on the sport and how competitive they are, but indicated at that age it may not be talk about periods, but about healthy bodies and healthy fueling habits.

Dr. Edison mentioned it is really important to normalize these conversations and that females can get their periods as early as 8 and if you are a coach it is important to make sure that athlete is not ostracized because they have their period. She talked about Lydia Ko, a high-level professional golfer, and how she had to stop playing and a reporter asked what was wrong and she simply stated that she was on her cycle – plain and simple. Dr. McCleery also mentioned that she encourages coaches to feel comfortable talking to parents about puberty and normalize the topic 

Dr. Kraus then moved on to discuss a question on supporting girls competing in sports that are male-dominated and the stigma around female specific performance needs. Dr. McCleery noted that sports in general are a masculine space and only about 25% of a sport coaches are women and so there are a lot of spaces where girls and women are showing up and they don’t feel like it reflects them. If a girl shows up and only boys are competing we should talk to them about it, acknowledge their feelings, and encourage them to process what it means for them to be in that more male dominated space.

Dr. Kraus asked a final question to the panel about what male coaches should know in order to coach female athletes. Dr Edison talked about how you do not have to share someone’s identity in order to support them, mentor them, or sponsor them. She also noted that given all the positive outcomes sports provides, when it comes to girls we need to focus on the equity of sports not equality because right now there is such disproportionate access and resources for female athletes that we need or really lean in and make sure they are not excluded. Dr. McCleery talked about how many times when we think about what we need to give girls, it is really what we need to give to all athletes – such as positive coaching strategies. Gavin talked about how he focuses on fostering open and honest communication on teams and that we should “ask and not assume”. Dr. Edison talked about how we all need to be aware of our biases and that it is okay to say “I don’t know” as a coach as long as you also do your best to find that information or resources to help.

See the entire webinar here.

Interested in attending our next webinar?

Recruiting and Retaining Girls to Your Sports Team or Program
Thurs., June 22, 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. PST

Register here!