20 Oct The Dangers of Female Athlete Triad on Performance and Injury
Growing up as a young female athlete can be a remarkable and exciting experience.
Nothing is more empowering than competing, overcoming challenge, being a part of a team, training toward a goal, working toward a greater purpose, and experiencing the lasting memories of sport. From team dinners and bonding, to coming back after being down several goals, to singing songs on the team bus, to pump up locker room talks, and senior nights, there’s so much joy to experience through adolescence.
However, behind the exuberance, can lurk a darkness that can cripple young girls, and though everything looks sparkly on the outside, they’re dying on the inside. Though everything was high energy and amazing for a while, the burden and awkwardness of adolescence can creep in.
Adding onto the hectic time that is female puberty, the pressures to perform, the unacceptable comments from adults to drop weight, the social media accounts that encourage diet culture, models on TikTok skipping meals and boasting about it, or comparison to their peers in school, girls are susceptible to one of the most common and severe conditions impacting youth female athletes today: The Female Athlete Triad.
Any female athlete is at risk, and studies have shown that 15 to 62% of college female athletes have disordered eating behavior. Typically, this behavior starts during the precarious teenage years, and without proper support and professional help, it can become catastrophic.
The Female Athlete Triad consists of three criteria, but many girls experience at least one of these. Whether a female athlete meets all three or one of these criteria, it is all to be taken seriously and action needs to be taken.
1. Low Energy Availability – calorie restriction and disordered eating
2. Menstrual Dysfunction – missed periods
3. Low Bone Mineral Density – weak bones, stress fractures, osteoporosis
Here are some other early signs of The Female Athlete Triad to be aware of and take action on early:
- Decrease in performance
- Increase in injuries
- Decreased focus and motivation
- Obsessing over food and body image
- Wanting to be skinnier
- Restricting food intake
- Over exercising
- Weight and muscle loss
Seek Professional Help
Parents can feel helpless, frustrated, and devastated when they see their girl experiencing something as severe as The Female Athlete Triad.
Even parents who have done everything to model proper nutrition and well-being in the household, they shouldn’t feel like a failure.
There are so many factors involved that can cause a girl to be led astray and into destruction with eating habits. Social media, comparison, pressure, and obsessive behavior can all play a part. It is imperative to get her help immediately with a positive community and professional care.
Surrounding a girl with empowering coaches and role models is a great start, and their energy and behavior can leave an incredible impact on her.
It is great to have her be around leaders who educate her on the importance of fueling properly, getting enough macro and micro nutrients, strength training to become strong, and becoming a vibrant, healthy young woman.
However, these cases can be so severe that adult education, healthy behavior modeling, as well as words of encouragement, can go in one ear and out the other.
This is why medical intervention and more stringent measures need to be taken. A doctor who specializes in eating disorders in youth is a start, and one who takes action. There are a lot of doctors who won’t clear an athlete to play until all three criteria for the Female Athlete Triad are totally gone (and rightly so). These are the doctors that parents need to go seek out because it is unacceptable for a girl to plow through during this time. With such a high risk of injury and bone breaks, it’s not worth allowing her to still play. More serious injuries can arise as well, due to the low energy availability for the muscles and brain to function properly from fatigue.
Too, telling her she can still play her sport while she is this frail tells her there are no consequences for her actions, and this further enables her dangerous behavior to spiral even further out of control.
Body Image and Social Media
Social media isn’t helping our girls. If it were up to me, I’d snag it out of the hands of any adolescent, and have strict limits on what apps can be accessed. I know what females are exposed to, in fact, blasted with at all hours of the day. It would be tough to me to repeat on some of the things I’ve seen and heard about on TikTok. Thankfully, I’m an adult with a brain that is mature, and I can discern what is right and what is downright wrong.
The sad reality is, parents don’t have as much control as they once did, and it’s the TikToks, the Instagrams, the Pintrests that are parenting their girls now.
Their frontal lobe, which is used for making judgement, isn’t fully developed yet, so they’re unable to think critically about the content they consume.
The sad reality is, parents don't have as much control as they once did, and it's the TikToks, the Instagrams, the Pintrests that are parenting their girls now. Click To Tweet
Beware: diet culture is coming back again. Skinny is being encouraged on these platforms. A few examples include the trends of “What I Eat In A Day” where influencers brag about there less than 1,000 calorie day menus, and another trend “The Body Checking Trend” where influencers disclose their weight and show themselves checking their bodies in the mirror obsessively.
As inspirational as parents and coaches are to a girl, it’s tough to go up against this nonsense because it is what young girls are being exposed to daily, and oftentimes, more hours than they see the rest of us.
Of course, we can try to shake girls, and exclaim how fake social media is, and how it’s not a realistic representation of life, but it’s hard for them to use that type of discernment against repetitive, dangerous messaging.
At an age when they’re trying to find their place in the world and get approval from everyone to fit in, influencers and charlatans on social media can have more influence than parents and coaches.At an age when they're trying to find their place in the world and get approval from everyone to fit in, influencers and charlatans on social media can have more influence than parents and coaches. Click To Tweet
Body Composition, Training, and Nutrition
With that said, as a coach to young girls, I know what I’m up against, and it’s the disaster that is toxic social media body image and weight loss trends.
This is why I tweet daily, blog, podcast, and post reels on high performance and a healthy life.
I want to show there is a better, healthier and more fulfilling way.
A female athlete can be vibrant, energized and empowered in her sport and life, without restriction, injury, agony, and fatigue.A female athlete can be vibrant, energized and empowered in her sport and life, without restriction, injury, agony, and fatigue. Click To Tweet
As repetitive as horrific TikTok messages are, I am aiming to be just as repetitive.
And we need to keep the army growing. Keep sharing. Keep educating.
Here are some of my favorite accounts to follow on proper nutrition and training for female athletes:
Female Athlete Nutrition – specializes in female athlete nutrition and recovery from eating disorders
Fueling Young Athletes – specializes in youth female athlete nutrition
Relentless Athletics – specializes in female athlete strength and speed training
Alpha Girl Confidence – specializes in female athlete confidence and mindset
Sohee Fit – specializes in fitness for females that bolsters energy and daily living
Breanne Smedley – specializes in female athlete confidence and helping moms with mental skills for their daughters
Kick The Scale – a website dedicated to athlete eating disorder recovery
Healthy Exercise and Nutrition Habits
Training and nutrition need to match. The pendulum cannot swing so far to the training side, that a girl forgets to eat enough. If female athletes aren’t getting enough vitamin D and calcium, for example, it’s hard to get the most out of resistance training. Improper nutrition will end up negating the benefits of strength training for the bones.Improper nutrition will end up negating the benefits of strength training for the bones. Click To Tweet
If they’re not getting enough calories, extra conditioning training won’t suffice either because they won’t have the energy from food to sustain the demands of the game.
Young girls need to be guided in an empowered direction. Coaches and parents both need to continue to be repetitive with healthy messaging about training and nutrition for sport performance. Coaches and parents also need to be equipped with a network of professionals in case a girl needs more medical care.
For more on training the youth female athlete, check out my guide book THE STRONG FEMALE ATHLETE HERE: