There have been a lot of conversations around girls and women in ultimate this past year, which I’ve followed and participated in with interest. More and more girls are entering the sport, girls who have a wide variety of athletic and competitive backgrounds and are starting to play ultimate at a young age. I’m working with the GUM movement to help define clear goals and guidelines for coaches working with girls, and I’ve committed myself to providing even more resources and education to girls and women this coming year. But in order to provide the kind of education that “sticks to you, sticks to everyone,” we have to figure out what the problems are, and how we can fine-tune (and in some cases, completely change) what we’re doing to have the biggest impact.
From a FPT (functional performance training) standpoint, what are a couple issues we coaches run into when training girls, and how can we address them?
Many girls don’t do real strength training.
Heather Anne Brauer (HA) breaks it down, from her own experience: “Despite being an athlete and playing many sports as a high school girl, I didn’t know that the world of strength and conditioning existed. Weight rooms were intimidating and made me feel small. Even as a college athlete I felt that I lacked an understanding of how strength training could benefit me as a runner. If I had realized the impact that strength training could have had on my performance, I still would have lacked the knowledge of where to start.”
I’ve worked as a personal trainer for 15 years, and I’ve noticed some differences between how women and men tend to engage with strength training. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but in general women are less likely to lift heavy in a traditional gym environment. They feel uncomfortable with the male gaze and are more likely to lift lighter loads that make their movement seem effortless (ie: not sweaty and grunting). They take classes because they enjoy the motivation that comes from moving with a group, and those classes tend to be more cardio and endurance-based (and contain far more women than men). They tend to be far more concerned about injuring themselves while doing heavy strength and power movements incorrectly. And a disturbing number of women I’ve trained, including some of the up-and-coming young ultimate stars, have expressed concerns about “getting big” and were trying to balance maintaining a societally-reinforced ideal of attractiveness with being the serious athlete they want to be.
What can we do about it?
- Educate yourself about lifting for ultimate, and present that material in a way that addresses some of these concerns. Read all the great things coming out from Tim Morrill and Melissa Witmer and myself, and think critically about what you read. Emphasize the benefits of real strength training: less injury, better performance, more self-confidence. And engage with them about the things that might be keeping them out of the gym (or keeping them lifting 5-pound weights when they should be doing 125lb deadlifts). Teach girls, for instance, that strength training doesn’t make you bigger when done correctly, it just makes you stronger. And learn about growth-appropriate programming – younger athletes (boys and girls) should be doing more bodyweight exercises and focusing on good form instead of squatting heavy.
- Teach them the basics and beyond. If you’re not qualified to do it, find someone who is. A one-hour clinic on proper form for major exercises can be a game-changer, especially when done as a team. Get a strength and conditioning programming log started, and encourage girls to record their weights and reps (keeping the numbers private if they don’t feel comfortable sharing them). They need to know the big picture of how this strength work will make them better, so make sure they understand the arc of their season and what role strength training will play.
- Make it easier for them to strength train. Lift as a group or organize workout pods. Invest in strength equipment like dumbbells, kettlebells, med balls that you can use at practice. Help start a girl’s lifting night at a local gym. Create partnerships with trainers in the area that can support the girls when they have questions about training. I have a partnership like that with several girls’ teams in the Seattle area, and the girls and coaches have said they feel better knowing that they have someone to go to if they have questions about lifting during the season.
There’s often unequal allocation of resources.
This is a problem with sports across the board. Even with Title IX, girls’ sports are under-supported, and there’s some evidence that we’ve actually moved away from equality in the last ten years. We would like to think ultimate is different, and yet the research shows we’re still involving more boys than girls in programs, and that the support for girls’ ultimate programs falls short of the resources and attention given to boys’ efforts. Kyle Weisbrod says, “It wasn’t until I was coaching a women’s-only team that I really understood how much gender impacts an athlete’s sporting experience. I was surprised when I realized how much decisions for a program with teams from both genders were made to fit into what was best for the boys and also how little parental support girls received on average compared to boys.” Ultimate is a wonderful sport for girls, one that parents appreciate for Spirit of the Game and athleticism, but also one in which far fewer girls than boys now participate.
What can we do about it?
- Be a role model. As Heather Anne says, “This is where connecting the needed information with the intended recipients and emphasizing strong female role models could make a world of difference.” If you’re a female ultimate player and/or coach, talk about the role of good nutrition and good training with other women and girls. Let girls see you taking care of yourself and training smart, and share your struggles with them. Knowing that you deal with some of the same concerns they have can be a huge motivating factor for them. And if you’re not a coach or volunteer with a girls’ team, consider it: the more strong female leadership there is within the community, the more likely resources and coverage of women’s games will be better distributed.
- Be a parent that advocates for girls. If you have a daughter in ultimate, take a hard look at your support of her and your involvement. Are you sending the message that her athletic pursuits are as worthwhile as those of her brother or male friends? Go to her games, buy her a foam roller, get her a gym membership. Bring her attention to strong female athletes in the ultimate community and the world. Watch livestreamed women’s games on Ultiworld. Share bits on social media that you find about athletic women and leaders. And if you don’t have a daughter in ultimate, go to girls’ games and support girls’ programs anyway. They’re AWESOME.
- Advocate for change. It’s way easier to get girls to focus on performance and being stronger athletes if they have reason to believe the community at large will view and treat them as athletes. At the moment, we have pro leagues with no women. We have tons of negative comments about the women’s game being less “fun to watch.” And we have less coverage of women’s ultimate, in print and in video, than men’s, and almost no mention of mixed
- Contribute to discussions on social media, donate money to organizations like AGE UP, volunteer time/services, ask for more coverage of women’s and mixed ultimate. If you’re a male ultimate player, speak up for women and girls, and don’t let harassment or derogatory remarks slide.
Functional Performance Training (FPT) for boys and girls is not all that different. Ultimate is still a new sport, and we S&C coaches have only been focusing our efforts on it for a few years. As you’ll know if you’ve been reading the articles published on this site, FPT is much more than strength training, and all the aspects of FPT are important to a performance and injury-reduction program. The good news on that front is that the same information about conditioning, soft tissue work, power training, and everything else applies to both genders. Yes, women are statistically more likely to have ACL tears, and including good knee-stability training into programming for girls would surely help with that. But as research continues, more people are acknowledging that theories around the higher ACL incidence among women and girls are just that – theories. My guess is that in the future, the research will show that getting girls employing FPT in the correct way goes a long way towards reducing injury rates. The key might be just a better and more sympathetic application of the SAME training information we give boys.
Get girls stronger and they’ll be less prone to injury and be even greater athletes – treat girls more equally as a community and we’ll inspire more growth in girls’ ultimate. We’ve got all the tools and all the power in our hands to make a difference. #letsgo