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Coaching the Whole Female Athlete

How to apply a wholistic approach to coaching and understand runners as human beings first and athletes second.

Running is More than Running

Running is not just about tempo runs, fartleks, recovery days and long runs. These components are important, but there is a vast amount of research to support that being a successful runner is more than just logging miles. Focusing on the whole self, on becoming strong in mind and body, will pay dividends for every runner, not only as an athlete but as a human.

Balance and Support

Girls hugging in a line on main street of Oregon town.
Photo: Wildwood

As high school runners try to balance school, running and all the pressure that accompanies a growing teenager, they can often lose sight of the big picture. Running can become all encompassing: With pressure to improve, PR, make the varsity team, hold up their part of the scoring, athletes can forget why they are there. As coaches, this is an opportunity to support them through this time. It’s important to coach the whole human because coaches owe it to the athlete to be an honorable steward of their development.

Loving the sport, challenging yourself, and learning to overcome obstacles are all reasons to come to practice daily. The implications of sport on athlete’s future life are substantial. Learning to ride the highs and navigate the lows give practice for future life obstacles. These coachable moments are where coaches should have a toolkit of strategies always available to provide athletes with lifelong skills that they can and will carry with them forever.

Complex Humans

Pile of girls taking a selfie after a track meet.
Photo: Wildwood

“Good coaches are also attuned to athlete development that goes beyond the sport specific training. Coaches can incorporate routines and practices in their annual rhythms (like Wildwood’s ‘Girls Talk’) that gives them the opportunity to bring ‘good conversations’ into the fold of their sport experience,” says Kara Bazzi, Co-Founder, Director of Exercise+Sport Program, and Clinical Director for Opal:Food+Body Wisdom. “Topics such as puberty, weight and performance, nutrition, emotional expression, perfectionism, identity, healthy relationships and communication are all relevant for the student athlete and can be powerful to have conversations [about] within the team culture if there is established trust and safety.” 

“We are complex human beings where each part of ourselves impacts the other parts,” Bazzi says. Working to help athletes navigate their mental health as well as their physical health will create happy and healthy athletes. Athletes who are ready to toe the line confidently and prepared.

As high school athletes navigate puberty their paths can differ. Boys enter puberty and are pumped full of testosterone which creates muscle-building mass, while girls now encounter estrogen, which produces fat-building mass. These transitions into adult-hood can and often differ performance-wise. The path for both boys and girls may not always be linear, but you will especially see a bumpier road for young female athletes. Weight gain, emotions, and changing body structure can lead to performance plateaus, regression, injuries, overtraining and under-eating.

Not only do female athletes have the challenges of becoming a better runner but the stigma of what a female “should” look like. “There is so much pressure on girls today about how to be the ‘idealized’ woman,” explains Bazzi. “And as more of us are waking up to, we are surrounded by a culture that gives constant messages about what makes you ‘better.’” 

“In particular, female athletes face tremendous sociocultural pressures. Especially during puberty and adolescence and especially in sports like running!” says Elizabeth Carey, writer, author and coach. The National Eating Disorders Association found among female high school athletes in aesthetic sports, 42% reported disordered eating. The pressures are real and prevalent.

How can we help girls become happy and healthy runners?

Girl track athletes hugging at a meet.
Photo: Wildwood

“Coaching the whole female, including her developing body and mind, develops resilient athlete-humans who’re equipped to reach their potential in and outside of sport,” says Carey, who has a book coming out with Melody Fairchild next month called “Girls Running” focused on helping girl runners navigate running while striving, thriving and creating a positive lifelong relationship with running.

Wildwood owners Robyn McGillis and Marie Markham offer these strategies for coaches seeking to coach the whole female athlete:

  • Hire and retain other coaches who believe in a balanced approach, understanding athletes as a human first and an athlete second. 
  • Give coaches information to understand what adolescent distance runners are going through, not just females but males as well.
  • Create a toolkit full of purposeful strategies that coaches can implement within their season as they would implement different phases of training. 
  • Show you care. “Asking questions, showing interest and being curious with your athlete is a good first step in showing that their mental health matters. Also, as a coach, it is important that you know resources regarding mental health so that you can support your athletes (and their families) in getting the help they need,” notes Bazzi.
  • Read books and articles specifically on this topic — as you would material on training and racing.
  • Talk with other coaches.  
  • Attend clinics like Wildwood Running’s August Zoom Webinar aimed to help provide coaches with new resources for reaching all your athletes. Growth happens in athletes when it also happens within coaches.

It’s important to realize that not all athletes are the same. Coaching stretches us to our limits because of the range of humans we are connecting to daily. “The reality is that we come in all shapes, sizes, colors, gender expressions, personalities and abilities, and we are going to do much better in the world if we can embrace radical love for ourselves (and thereby, others),” says Bazzi.

When athletes look back in 10-20 years their memories won’t only be about running, they will be about the connections they made while running. As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Robyn McGillis is the Head Girls Cross Country and Track and Field Coach at Central Catholic High School in Portland, Oregon. Marie Davis Markham is an assistant cross country and track and field coach at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon. They are co-founders of Wildwood Running, which hosts clinics for coaches on coaching the female distance runner.