Coaching adolescent girls: The developmental perspective
by William Hensel and Anne Duncan
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The spectacular success of the U.S. Olympic womens swimming team has focused attention on swimming and the role women play in sports. Undoubtedly, this attention will inspire a new generation of girls to become competitive swimmers. But while the warm afterglow of the Olympics may attract many girls to the sport, it will not prevent them from quitting once they reach adolescence. Fortunately, there are steps coaches can take to combat adolescent dropout. The first of these is to understand female socialization and development.
From birth, when girls are dressed in pink and boys in blue, children are encouraged to behave in gender-specific ways which reflect the deeply ingrained beliefs of those around them. The ranks of competitive swimming programs swell from societal notions about girls-swimming is perceived as a good, clean sport where girls can be active and not get hurt. In developmental terms, the time when girls participation in swimming is at its peak-the immediate pre-adolescent period-tends to be a golden time for girls when they are in touch with the strength of their minds and bodies. During this phase, the effects of societys negative messages about females are still submerged.
With adolescence come universal changes: physical, emotional and social. For girls, this transition represents a dive into the turbulent waters of change, when societys conflicting, often negative messages about females may wash over them like a tidal wave. Overwhelmed by these challenges, many girls quit competitive swimming.
Obviously, coaches cannot control what girls hear at school or see on TV, but coaches can be influential. Adolescent girls can benefit from caring, knowledgeable, adult role models and from swimming programs which are structured in a way that addresses their pressing developmental needs. Coaches may positively influence two major areas that are particularly troubling to adolescent females: 1) relationships with others vs. achievement and 2) body image.
RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHER VS. ACHIEVEMENT
Society encourages girls to be more concerned about their relationships with others than with achievement. The teenage girl who heeds this message may want to achieve, but she believes it is more important not to offend her peers. In the classroom, this girl may know the answers to questions but wont raise her hand for fear of appearing smarter than others, particularly the boys. She has learned to prioritize pleasing others over personal achievement. Such behavior may carry over to swimming. Practice and swim meets demand a large time commitment. Peers who do not appreciate the value of competitive swimming may complain that their friend is not available to go to the mall or talk on the phone. The swimmer then faces a choice between achieving at swimming or pleasing her friends.
Although coaches cannot eliminate such peer pressure, there are things that can do to combat this tendency and make participation in swimming a positive experience. First, create a team environment that rewards achievement without sacrificing relationships. For instance, never pit a girl against a teammate. Keep the focus on beating the clock and group achievement. Then there will be no conflict.
Second, because many girls are drawn to swimming for the opportunity it provides to be a part of a group, coaches can foster a sense of belonging. Encourage girls to support and bond with their teammates. If girls feel they are part of a fun swimming peer group, they will be less influenced by the negative comments of non-swimming peers. Never permit anyone in the swimming group to be negative to one of its own members. Actively discourage the formation of cliques and never let a girl be singled out or made the butt of jokes. Also, try to anticipate or help personal conflicts early so they dont snowball. Coaches seem to be exquisitely sensitive to issues that affect group dynamics, such as relay team selection.
Third, ease the transition from the junior to the senior teams. The combination of a new practice schedule, new coach and new swim meet sessions can all make this important transition too abrupt. A girl should not have to abandon all the relationships which make swimming fun in order to achieve. Try to have the juniors and seniors be part of one large group. Consider a big sister program which will give younger girls much needed friends and role models. Give juniors the opportunity to cheer for seniors and vice versa. In other words, make aging up something to look forward to rather than something to be feared.
The role of the head coach is critical for these recommendations to be put into practice. Head coaches set the mood and standard for the entire team. They are also responsible for evaluating and providing feedback to assistant coaches. Head coaches can make sure their assistants are evaluated on the social aspects of their assistants are evaluated on the social aspects of their practices and how well the emotional needs of their swimmers are being met.
Perhaps societys most detrimental message to females is that a womans self worth is determined by how attractive she is. With the culture awash with Barbie doll ideals of beauty, adolescent girls take a hypercritical look at their developing bodies and judge themselves to be too short, too tall, too fat, too busty, too plain, etc. Eating disorders are extreme manifestations of the body image problem. Societys bizarre definition of beauty as excessive thinness influences many teenage girls to develop anorexia and bulimia. These disorders are just the tip of the iceberg; poor nutritional practices are common as girls try to remain thin at all costs.
Coaches need to be aware of their potential role in triggering eating disorders. Unfortunately, girls suffering from these disorders often trace their onset back to a seemingly innocent comment by a coach, doctor, or parent. No one knows why a comment like, you need to take a few pounds off, can trigger an eating disorder in a predisposed adolescent; just be aware it can. In this light, team weigh-ins or setting goal weights for individual swimmers are dangerous practices. Encourage good nutrition, not dieting, and avoid commenting on weight loss altogether. If you suspect an eating disorder in an athlete, attempt to engage her in a conversation about it. Begin with a question like, Are you having a problem with eating? If her response indicates she is indeed having a problem, suggest a conference to discuss it with her and her parents. Eating disorders can be life-threatening and require professional help.
As societys females are objects message affects how girls view their developing bodies, it also affects how others, especially boys, relate to girls. Instead of comfortably talking with each other as they did in the preadolescent phase, girls find boys staring at their bodies or making unwanted sexual remarks. In the last few years, sexual harassment of girls has become more common in middle schools. Todays girl must often run a gauntlet of blatantly offensive remarks and unwanted grabbing of her body. Dating, rather than something to look forward to, can be a nightmare of perpetual self defense.
This problem with body image cannot be overemphasized. When a girl dislike her body, she dislike herself in a fundamental way. Participating in competitive swimming can give girls a great opportunity to learn to like their bodies and themselves. The very heart of swimming is moving gracefully, powerfully and swiftly through the water. When a swimmer commits to training, she commits to taking care of her body. As girls grow to appreciate their well conditioned bodies, they find they dont need to be embarrassed about who they are.
But girls will only grow comfortable with their bodies if their social surroundings foster an accepting, nonjudgmental attitude. Girls in lycra suits are exposed and vulnerable. Coaches should have zero tolerance for any belittling or degrading comments. Inappropriate sexual or gender offending jokes should not be allowed. Aim to make your team a safe havens for girls.
Swim coaches are given the fantastic opportunity to be influential adults in the lives of developing girls. Coaches cannot make every girl an Olympian; but they can give girls an even greater gift: the happiness that comes from the ability to love and accept themselves, the personal commitment to excellence, respect for their own bodies and the ability to balance personal achievement with teamwork. When you incorporate these goals into your program, you wont have to beg 12, 14, or 16-year-old girls to stay involved with the team. They will already know the personal rewards of swimming and will find that their team can be a place of quiet refuge during the storm of adolescence.