As a former college lacrosse player, avid triathlete and team physician for U.S. Lacrosse and U.S. Ski and Snowboard, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy the energy and excitement of women’s sports at many different levels. Sports provide a unique opportunity for female athletes to build friendships, gain confidence, learn teamwork and instill qualities to help them succeed, on the field and throughout their careers.
The longer girls stay involved in sports, whatever their connections, the better off they are. Here are some recommendations to help keep female athletes in the game:
- Benefits accrue early: Being on a team helps girls build confidence in their abilities, meet challenges, overcome adversity and connect the dots between hard work and results. On-field experiences can carry over to the classroom, among friend groups and even into the workplace. A 2017 Ernst & Young survey of high-level female executives found that 90 percent played sports. Among women who held C-suite titles, the proportion was even higher, at 96 percent.
- Create nurturing environment: It’s important to remember that girls respond to their environment. They prefer a group setting with teams that offer camaraderie, support and friendships. They want to understand the whys behind certain plays or decisions. If a team has a bad practice and the players hang their heads after, having a coach criticize and curse out players will not be well received nor achieve a productive result.
- Monitor progress: I like Oprah Winfrey’s approach. Keep a journal of your progress against immediate, short- and long-term goals. This applies to sports, academics and your career. With respect to athletics, start by working with the team to come up with a saying that all can rally around. Determine your individual and team goals then chart how you’re doing, whether it’s more playing time, working hard in practice or enhancing skills. Bring your coach, trainer and teammates into the loop so all are vested in your goal setting.
- Optimize training: In my current role at HSS, I focus on sports with a lot of pivoting, cutting and twisting. It’s important for female athletes to build strength in their core, comprising the abdominal and gluteal muscles. I favor dynamic warm-ups, where you are stretching and moving at the same time. Examples are jumping back and forth over cones on a field, doing planks and using agility ladders to shuffle side to side.
- Safeguard against injuries: Experts estimate that nearly 9 million Americans aged six and older who participate in sports and fitness will suffer a sports-related injury each year. ACL injuries are one of the most common for female athletes. But many of these injuries are preventable by accessing the information, training and resources to keep young athletes safe and healthy. The HSS Sports Safety Program offers an educational series for athletes, coaches, teachers and parents that includes neurodynamic warm-ups, proven to reduce the risk of ACL injury for young athletes.
- Keep girls in the game: This is our ultimate goal, to keep girls active and playing sports as long as possible. HSS and espnW recently co-sponsored an all-day conference on this topic that featured pro athletes, motivational speakers, nutritionists and others. Strategies for reaching this goal start with keeping sports fun. We’re so focused on perfection and drills. Carve out practice time each week for a fun activity. Varsity and travel teams are not the right fit for everyone; consider joining house leagues and participating in intramural sports. And as you mature and your body changes, modify your training to grow as an athlete and enjoy sports.
Dr. Karen Sutton is a board certified sports medicine surgeon with surgical expertise in arthroscopy of the shoulder, knee and hip. She is an Associate Attending Orthopedic Surgeon at HSS and Head Team Physician for United States Women’s Lacrosse. She is also Chief Medical Officer for Federation of International Lacrosse and Team Physician for US Ski & Snowboard.