Coaching the female athlete Part I

"You learn to coach the girls…. differently than you coach the boys." My college swim coach said to us as we sat in his office. He was the father of four girls and coach of the women's swim team. My teammate, Sunshine and I sat, as we often did before practice, and just talked to him. She was depressed, and I had an eating disorder. We were the top two distance swimmers on the team, a bit of a motley crew. Swimming was our therapy, and we were very different athletes. She swam with her head and I swam with my heart. While we swam the same events, the method in which he coached us was differently.

He gave her things she could wrap her head around. Math, paces, points. He gave me what I could wrap my heart around. Feeling, Emotion. The three of us made a terrific team. Now 15 years later we are both triathletes and mothers, healthy and healed. Coach…. he's still coaching. four heart attacks later.

Guess it was the women that got to him.

As I evolved through life and into an amateur triathlete and coaching career, I brought that advice with me. Recently I began to wonder if other coaches had the same experiences as I did. With the plethora of triathlon coaches and the boom of women in our sport, do coaches tailor training programs, race plans for women specifically?

With pressures of body image and body composition, how do we deal with eating disorders and disordered eating, and do men experience it as well?

As so many of the women in the sport are working mothers, does that have an impact? Are women and men truly generally the same, or different (understanding there are exceptions to every rule!)

So I looked around to some of the coaches that I know, and asked their opinion, their responses hit home for me, as they may for you.

Today we will answer two questions about women athletes in general and next time, we will talk about the differences as it relates to performance.

1. In your opinion and in your experience coaching, are there significant differences between coaching the female versus the male athlete? If so, what are they and how do you adjust your coaching style?

Jesse Kropelnicki of QT2 Systems: Definitely. Many women tend to just not believe in their abilities, despite the fact that they are talented athletes. So you have to be encouraging with them. On the other hand some of the guys are directly the opposite; they tend to believe that they belong in the front, when that isn't always the case. I really try to establish a friendship with my female athletes, so that I can be encouraging and really help them to believe in their training and abilities and what they are capable of.

Bob Mitera, of Kouka Multisport: I find that I speak more directly to the men (in general) and the women I work with want more personal communication to them. For example, a male will take a workout and (generally) execute it like putting together a household item like a table. They won't ask questions - even if they don't understand it. The women generally will ask how this session is supposed to affect them.

Jennifer Harrison of JHTriathlon: this is a generality...but more often my men are a little bit more technical than my women. I do not write workouts differently necessarily but men tend to not over-think the workouts - they read the workout - complete the workout and move on. Women, on the other hand, may tell you 500 ways they did the workout or didn't do the workout...or how they felt during the workout. And, honestly, that is ok!

Kristen Roe; Train-This Multisport Coaching: My style of coaching does not differ too much between the male/female athlete. I coach to the athlete's ability and the race they are training for vs. the gender of the athlete. From what I have seen there hasn't been a difference in the response from my athletes either. Some of the men I've coached in the past have had pacing issues or unrealistic ideas of what they can do in terms of pacing and time. Especially those that have done solely running races and think they can maintain the same pace for their given race. Most of the athletes I've worked w/ have been IM athletes. some of the women have needed a little hand holding, but I think that's just personality differences.

Angela Bancroft of Trimoxie Coaching: The most noticeable difference is that males tend to be more straightforward and require less interaction than females. Overall, they are less communicative. For example, it's harder to get them to write details about their workouts into their training logs. Especially the details.

2. Do you find that women are more focused on body composition than men are and do you find that many border or have even crossed the border into disordered eating or eating disorders? How do you handle that?

Jesse Kropelnicki: This is definitely an issue that we see on QT2, and one of the reasons I work to establish friendship with my athletes. I also like to look at weight differently; we talk in terms of body composition and use it as a tool, rather than making weight personal. For example I will never say to an athlete male or female, hey you are fat….. what I will do is a thorough evaluation of their body metrics and show them how I can use it as a tool. Instead of telling someone to lose weight, we use terms like tighten up the diet, we aim to improve body composition, and again we work to make it a tool for performance rather than something personal. Our athletes all work with one of our registered dieticians so that we not only identify problems if they exist but work to correct them as well. At the end of the day, we have healthy athletes, and that is the same for both men and women. Without health, we don't have performance.

Bob Mitera: More women are unrealistic in their eating. Generally, this means not eating enough food. By this I mean that if someone wants to "lean out" I've had female clients do epic training days (5000m of swimming, 80 miles of riding, an hour run) and then only eat a salad about the size of my fist. I put a stop to that ASAP.

I have my athletes do food logs from time to time (if they are not tracking their food every day). In order for them to see they are getting the proper vitamins and nutrients, my athletes and I all have free memberships. We enter our foods and track our eating. gives us "pretty graphs" and nutrient amounts per RDA recommendations in color - red if you are below requirement, green if you are OK. Knowing what you are eating is obviously critical to your success as an athlete. Most folks who are under eating or over eating see it right away. From here, we are having conversations about why they are eating that way and how to make healthier choices during the day - one meal at a time.

Just this winter I had a male state, "eating is cheating". This disturbed me so much that we had a "sit down" (read: intervention) and mapped out a better way to shed pounds in a healthy manner.

Jennifer Harrison: I do have a lot of women who are really overly focused on body composition...and if I sense there is an ed issue than I usually ask them about their eating - what they are eating before training/racing/during and after and talk to them about food for fuel, etc. IF it is more complicated than that, I refer them to one of the RDs I work with. I do find that some men have this compulsion to be too thin or not eat properly too - so it is not just the women; however, I think the women are more common.

Kristen Roe; Train-This Multisport Coaching: I've had a couple female athletes where body composition has been an issue and lack of proper daily nutrition and training/racing fueling had affected their performance. Their thought process was "well I'm trying to loose weight so I shouldn't eat". One particular woman would use caffeine on longer workouts rather than fuel to get through the workout, usually at a cost and poor performance. The men definitely are aware of body composition and in my opinion had more realistic and healthier ways of coping w/ it. A male friend of mine, whom I did not coach, would always talk about his body size/weight-need to loose lbs. when he was already pretty lean. This lead to injuries and poor performance. I find across the board/ male and female people have a misunderstanding of what proper daily nutrition and proper training/race fueling should be

Angela Bancroft: Women will confide in me more about their weight issues. Many women believe they are underweight when they are not, while many men believe they are find when they are in fact overweight. I have encountered one athlete with an eating disorder. It required great sensitivity when discussing what was necessary for her training and recovery. It was important for me to explain that she would not perform well without adequate nutrition.

Special thanks to our coaching panel for their time in answering all of my questions. Next week we will take a look at how coaches do or don't tailor training and racing plans to the female athlete!

Stay tuned!

Mary Eggers is a 37 year old age group triathlete, race announcer, writer, mother, wife, triathlon coach, yoga teacher, and nurse. As the race announcer for the Score This Multisport Series in Upstate New York, she's been in the sport for over 15 years. She's a 6 time Ironman finisher and Kona qualifier, and has raced everything from sprint upward. Mother to 10 year old Luc, wife to Curt, she calls Rochester NY home.

Photo by Jeff Kapic.


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