Safely Training the Youth Female Athlete

By Warren J. Potash

Your daughter wants to play a sport. You want to support her but you’re not sure what to do next. It’s important to note that historically, girls have played sports and boys have trained to play sports. Read that again and you’ll understand the discrepancy in injury rates between the sexes.

Many people—experts, parents, coaches—incorrectly assume that children are automatically in good physical condition and can just pick up a sport the more they play it. But there is clear evidence this is not the case. Most experts today believe that children should train for a particular sport rather than expecting the sport to get them in shape.

To do that, you need a training plan. What does Vern Gambetta, a leading trainer with 50 years’ experience say about training?

“Adaptation to various training stimuli take time. You can’t force adaptation to happen faster than the athlete’s current level of trainability and physical capacity. You must be willing to go step by step. Sometimes, it is small baby steps forward, sometimes there are steps back, and sometimes there are giant leaps forward. Have a system that defines the process, then trust the process and take it step by step.”

What does this mean? Simply put, this means to play a sport, every athlete needs to get better over time, developing their body and mind as well as developing the skills required for each sport. In other words, athletes (with their coaches and parents) need to develop a plan to help them on their journey. The plan should be designed to minimize the athlete’s risk for injury while she is striving to be the best she can become on and off her field of play.

Female Athletes, Unique Challenges

Females are not males with less testosterone (a phrase I coined almost 30 years ago). Female bodies are different from males—in obvious and not so obvious ways. For example, females are 3 – 8 times more likely than males to damage their anterior cruciate (ACL) ligament in the knee. Due to basic biology, females have a wider hip-to-knee angle—the Q angle: average <22° for females with the knee extended compared to males at <18°. And then there’s the female athlete triad—a term developed by the American College of Sports Medicine to describe a condition in female athletes that consists of disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis—which can be life-threatening if not properly addressed. All of these basic biological traits unique to females place them at greater risk of injury, particularly during adolescence, when their bodies are growing on a daily basis.

The good news is that with a Spine-Safe and Age-Appropriate Training Program the risk of injury can be minimized. If injured, the trained athlete will return to play faster than an untrained athlete. There is no downside to this type of training, which some call neuromuscular training; an athlete becomes better able to perform her skills while minimizing her risk for injury.

Safe and age-appropriate weight training, proper biomechanics, nutrition, recovery, cross-training—all these (and more) need to be included in a sound training program. And for youth under 12, fun should be key. Did you know that European countries do not allow their top players to play to win until they are 15+ in soccer? They focus on skill development and training before winning at these early ages.

Youth Sports (12U) Should Be Fun

Children under age 12 need to have fun, that goes without saying. Good sports coaches and good training programs incorporate fun exercises as part of skill development. And they focus on proper biomechanics to help young bodies minimize their risk for injury. These might include learning to recruit hamstrings when running (females are quadriceps dominant); jumping with a soft landing and knee flexed; balancing on one leg with flexed knee; stretches for warming up and cooling down; exercises to strengthen the core, or cardio. These basic movements can be taught by a local trainer, certified athletic trainer (ATC), or physical therapist.

As athletes become more serious about their sport, visualization, mediation, and breathing exercises may be involved. A good training plan is the combination of what skills the sport requires and what your athlete needs to do to develop and ultimately master those skills.

Youth Sports Develop Adults

If children are having fun playing sports, they will develop habits to help them on their journey to becoming responsible adults. Team sports teach each athlete how to support their own hopes and dreams while caring about how their teammates are doing. Playing sports helps children learn how their bodies function in the world and how to give their bodies what they need when they need it—water, nutrition, rest and recovery.

For young female athletes, spine-safe and age-appropriate training can encourage a lifetime of active living and all the affiliated health benefits.

Warren J. Potash, Sports Performance Coach, Fitness Therapist for 30 years. He has successfully trained more than 600 teen female athletes since 1993 and specializes in lower body stabilization as an integral part of Spine-Safe and Age-Appropriate Training to play sports and live an active life. He is creator and co-author of Your Lower Back and author of Safely Training The Adolescent Female Athlete. His website, provides quality information to help everyone make informed decisions about training to play sports.

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