Kristin Bignell - PT, MScPT, BScES(hons), CMAG
Female Athlete Development
We often think of young athletes as being generally healthy, and barring the odd acute injury, they are pretty resilient. They don’t often have any major issues and if they do suffer an injury, they typically recover without noticeable consequence...
HOWEVER, when we look further down the line, the skills learned, the knowledge gained, and the injuries experienced during development are what set the stage for their time in sport, FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE.
Growing female athletes experience several changes in their bodies that boys do not. The involvement of a Physiotherapist can help to ensure they are recovering properly and progressing appropriately through the stages of athletic development in order to effectively set the stage for lifelong athleticism.
Before I lose you...if you aren't the reading type, check out this podcast from Firstar Therapy's Women In Sport Series where I participated in an expert panel and shared about Female Athlete Development.
Female Athlete Development
Beginning in puberty, female athletes experience several changes in their bodies that males do not. These changes can increase the challenges placed on the developing body. BUT, these changes also provide an amazing opportunity to help set female athletes up for long-term success in sport. With the right support, we can keep them feeling good while they play, and help them perform their best.
In female athletes, the best time to START supporting development, with respect to injury prevention and performance planning, is 9-13 years of age.
This window of opportunity is when young female athletes are the most vulnerable to injury, burnout and dropout. (Dr. Julie Granger).
This is also when girls start experiencing significant changes in their bodies. While 9-13 is the prime time to start, the body and brain continue to undergo significant changes well into young adulthood.
Changes in the developing female athlete
Puberty can be a challenging time for a young girl. Physiologically, hormones are changing. This can impact their mood, energy, growth and development.
Physically, they are growing. From the ages of 11-12, girls are growing at their fastest rate, which increases their risk for injury as their brain and neuromuscular system try to keep up to this rapid change. As a result of these changes, they may experience a change in coordination, speed, power and strength.
They also start to experience changes associated with the development of breast tissue, and changes in fat deposition. This can impact body image, centre of mass, postural alignment and the way they move.
From the onset of puberty, the female pelvis begins to widen and continues to do so until menopause. This changes the alignment of the pelvis and lower extremities and changes the demands placed on the muscles of the pelvic girdle. This can potentially set them up for pelvic floor dysfunction and increased injury risk.
All of these changes can be supported by teaching young female athletes effective strategies to adapt to these changes.
The Sweet Spot
Beginning at age 9, the female brain enters a phase rapid synaptic pruning. At this point, the brain has finished its physical growth and is in a process of refining its circuits. This serves to reinforce the firing patterns that will predominate in adulthood. During this process, they are losing less used connections, and strengthening the ones that are used.
Essentially, their brain is in a state of rewiring. This includes their thought patterns, behaviours and motor programs. This wiring is influenced by exposure and practice...which we can influence!
When we combine this neurological priming of the brain with the physical changes we see, we have a great opportunity for INJURY PREVENTION and PREHAB. This period of time also provides a crucial window for screening, allowing for early intervention in order to avoid wiring in dysfunctional strategies. This is also a key time to ensure that injuries are properly rehabbed.
How can we set the stage for lifelong athleticism in the developing female athlete?
Teaching young girls about their bodies and the changes that occur and teaching them strategies for movement that provide intrinsic feedback can be incredibly empowering and can help them wire in efficient neural patterns that will set them up for lifelong success in health and sport. The developmental period is the ultimate time to build solid movement strategies, and continuing to work on fine-tuning physical literacy.
Helping them understand the changes that occur in their body, teaching them movement strategies that will adapt with them as they develop, providing health and movement screening, educating them about their bodies, and providing them with individualized support that takes into account the changes that are occurring in their body, within the context of the sports they love IS KEY.
Why should we care?
I have seen this story played out time and time again in my teammates and clients: multiple seemingly insignificant injuries and health problems in youth culminating in a career-ending injury later on in life. When we look back, we can often see that the picture was painted long before a major injury set in.
I believe that the solution to this problem is physical support that considers the unique needs of the developing female athlete within the context of the sport/activity they enjoy and through education to empower them with information about their health and their movement so that they can learn how to make informed decisions.
Much of my experience in sport was great, but it was far from ideal. I want better for others and I know we can do better. We often don’t realize how much impact we can have on the path of women in sport by looking up the line and seeing opportunities to intervene early in life by supporting female athletes through their development. Youth presents an optimal window for intervention to develop the foundations necessary to set the stage for happy, healthy, lifelong participation in activity and sport.
I am currently working on some exciting projects to further help support this population. Stay tuned!
Dr. Julie Granger. The Young Female Athlete's Playbook: A holistic insider's guide to optimal health, performance, injury prevention, and success for girls in sports.
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About the author: Kristin is a Registered Physiotherapist and the Owner of East Mill Physio in Elora, ON. She has a special interest in Neurofunctional Acupuncture, Sports Performance and Female Athlete Development. She enjoys pushing the boundaries of what we traditionally believe to be possible with respect to injury rehabilitation and performance optimization by using a holistic treatment style.