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Positive Body Image and the Female Athlete: Actionable Steps We Can Take

Positive Body Image and the Female Athlete: Actionable Steps We Can Take

As a coach, I’m put on the spot a lot and drilled with questions on soccer, training, and exercise science related topics.

Without hesitation, I have an answer 99.9% of the time. The other .1% of the time I either 1) am accepting I’m not a unicorn and don’t have all the answers or 2) I’m thinking about my scheme to take over the world. Or both.

In addition to soccer and training topics, there are others that I often get asked about:

1.) My opinion on CrossFit for youth.
2.) My opinion on pyramid schemes.
3.) My opinion on Harry Potter vs. Lord of the Rings.

Certainly, these are areas I’m more than happy to discuss and I feel adept enough in my ability to carry on an intelligent conversation without getting too belligerent in my prose.

But now I digress because I’m about to dive deep. And for good reason.

Today’s post is all about the female athlete and body image issues.

And I know it’s uncomfortable. It’s icky. It’s downright awkward to address. But we must do a better job as coaches, parents, and trainers to better educate our athletes on fostering a better sense of self worth.

This week, I attended the United Soccer Coaches Convention and sat in on a session called “Aiming for a Positive Body Image” presented by former D1 player, victim of anorexia, and now owner of Kick the Scale, Erin Mandras.

Erin is also a great friend of mine and we share similar viewpoints on female body image and how to approach it with elegance and class.

In the world of sport performance, females have high expectations, tremendous amounts of pressure, and are inundated with the wrong messages from coaches as well as parents.

So how do we educate and empower our female athletes to become the best versions of themselves? Let’s get right to it:

1.) Promote anti-perfectionism.

The root of negative body image amongst young female athletes is the expectation to be perfect and constantly show up to win, perform, and be the best.

While all these things make sports competitive, we have to approach this from a different angle, and that’s anti-perfectionism.

It’s totally okay for female athletes to take risks, reach high for their dreams, and work hard to be physically fit. And we must communicate to them that it’s okay to not be perfect because then we can be free and grow and evolve.

2.) Use empowering words.

Nothing makes me want to punch a wall more than a coach telling their female athletes to lose weight.

Oftentimes, they say this to help players improve their speed, or agility or power. While the intent may not be malicious, statements that involve “weight loss” or “dropping pounds” or “losing inches” can get to your female athletes and be downright insulting. Even parents have mentioned losing weight to their girls and it infuriates me.

To that end, we should shift the concept of “loss” to “gain.” Things like gaining strength, athleticism, muscle, power, endurance would be much more empowering for our female athletes.

3.) Lead by example.

Not too long ago, I said, “in order to inspire others, lead by example.”

Look.

I’m far, far from perfect. I’ve done my fair share of shenanigans on planet Earth (read an embarrassing story here).

I’ve failed people, I’ve fallen short, I’ve flaked. I haven’t watched all extended DVDs of the Lord of the Rings. I’ve written blogs with more profanity than a Jerry Springer episode. I’ve forgotten to pay taxes. And I’ve ordered steak at a vegan restaurant. Shit. Happens.

But hey, the more I can show my athletes I’m not perfect myself, the better. Why?

They find solace and relief in being imperfect just like me.

So lead by example. Lead so boldly with your flaws, mistakes, and quirks that it inspires others to set themselves free.

4.) Play to their genetic strengths.

Some girls are short. Some girls are tall. Some have wide hips. Some have long legs. And I’ve heard coaches make comments that hold these genetic factors AGAINST their players.

How about we play to the strengths of what girls are born with and focus on how these can help them during competition?


I’d argue for girls that are taller and have longer legs can win head balls, or run faster due to a longer stride length.

And an example Erin Mandras gave in her talk at the convention was when her coach built her up for her short height. He would say things like, “Erin, since you’re the shortest, you’re more agile, you can control your center of mass, you can dribble in tight spaces.” Talk about a major confidence boost.

So focus on the positives of your female athletes’ bodies and their capabilities. They’re endless.

I know this article glossed over the tip of the iceberg, and a greater discussion may need to be had. However…

By no means am I an eating disorder specialist, psychologist, or doctor.

So start with these simple methods first. Coaches have a lot of power with words and everything we say has an impact on our athletes. Choose wisely.

Truthfully, this article was hard to write as it’s a topic we tend to brush under the rug. But let’s start this conversation now so we can set our female athletes up for both physical and mental success.

For more amazing resources on body image to share with your athletes, or read on your own, check out these books:

Compared to Who?: A Proven Path to Improve Your Body Image


Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession With Weight and What We Can Do About It

2 Comments
  • Kate Fleming
    Posted at 20:56h, 22 January Reply

    I love all these points. I’m also sure there’s plenty more to cover on this topic, but these are wonderful
    – simple and tackle-able – areas to focus. It is worth taking note. As a mom of a 12 year old athlete, a girls’ lacrosse coach and a middle age (lol) still-athlete. Thank you!

    • erica
      Posted at 02:13h, 23 January Reply

      Thanks, Kate! Appreciate you reading and please keep spreading the word and empowering girls!

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