An athlete of mine (she is thirteen years old, trim, and athletic) gets finished crushing an incredibly difficult agility drill involving explosive lateral movement, change of direction, and a short sprint through hurdles. She walks back towards me for the next rep, hands on her hips and barely winded. Then she turns to me and says, “so and so said the other day that she thought I was getting too muscly and it doesn’t look good. What can I do to get a little less bulky?”
I can barely hold back the string of profanities that burst through my mind, but don’t worry, I manage to. I won’t tell you exactly how I answered her question other than to say I didn’t. To even pretend this question worth answering is far beneath my coaching philosophy and it should be beneath anyone’s. But even if it isn’t worth answering, it is most certainly worth addressing.
I wish I could say this was the first time I’ve heard something like this but it wasn’t. A beautiful, fit young woman who pushes herself harder than her peers to be something different than them will always be subject to contempt. And that’s just the way it is. Everywhere, particularly for young people, there is constant pressure to look a certain way, behave a certain way, think a certain way, dress a certain way, etc. And when we as coaches ask these young people to run faster, lift heavier and move more functionally, we ask them to ignore this societal pressure at a time in their life where it is most intense.
Or do we?
If you’re a coach or a parent or a teammate reading this, have you actually had a conversation about aesthetics with the young athlete in your life? Do you know how they view themselves? Do they think they’re ‘bulky’ or unattractive? Do they think they’re different from their peers? And do they think that’s weird?
This is a very fine line to walk with anyone, athlete or not. The human psyche is incredibly variable from person to person. But, it is a line that a coach MUST walk for if we don’t, we just intensify the pressure cooker our athletes operate in. Furthermore, we run the risk of decreasing their performance and buy-in to our programs!
The most notable example of how all these pressures can take their toll physically on an athlete is the well-documented female athlete triad. It consists of disordered eating, amenorrhea (irregular menstruation), and osteoporosis. More commonly it affects athletes involved in sports or activities that value a particular leanness such as gymnastics, swimming, or running. But in a world where every Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook post is judged by hundreds of other people I would suggest the risks of diminished health and performance at the hands of societal pressures are greater than they’ve ever been.
Enter: The Coach. And it doesn’t matter what kind of coach you are, you’re still a coach. And you’re in a unique position where people young and old listen to what you have to say. So instead of pretending like societal pressures don’t exist and have a huge influence on our athletes’ lives, let’s address them assuredly and help our athletes. Most notably, let’s help our young athletes figure out how to be different than their peers and let’s help them understand why it’s ok to be different.
Yes, this means having a heart to heart. This means confessing some of the mean shit that people have said to you over the years. And it means letting yourself be vulnerable for a moment to a person who probably thinks you’re an invincible hulk of emotionless iron. Don’t worry, they’ll go back to thinking that again the second you push them through a brutal metabolic conditioning session. The important thing is that you just have the conversation.
This approach is a far cry from the old school ‘tough guy’ mentality that has defined sport for so long, but it is an approach that needs to be adopted sooner rather than later especially within youth sports. Regardless of ability or skill level, doesn’t a humble confidence help increase performance? And wouldn’t any athlete (or person, for that matter) benefit from being more confident?
The answer is yes.
Empower your athletes. Raise them up. Make them feel beautiful.