Long-Term Development in Women's Distance Running: Let's Problem-Solve

I ran in high school, I’m female, I went through natural developmental peaks and troughs, and it all worked out for me in the long run. I had great coaches, and I also had a diversity of interests as a young athlete. I had a harder year or two as I grew my ‘woman’ body (which term, by the way, I hate) but I didn’t think too much about it and I came out the other side. I wasn’t a high school star, so I wasn’t subjected to the lime light, which was helpful.

Now, as sport psychology consultant, I spend a lot of my time on the other side of the problem: helping these young ladies understand their development, and the process behind a longer-term career in sports.

In my opinion, there are missing parts in many of the articles about the development of young women in distance running (see three New York Times Articles: 1, 2, 3). First of all, I want to explicitly make it clear that it is never the fault of the young, aspiring athlete. Whoever she is, she wants to be great. She is coachable, and she is willing to put in the work that her coach mandates. If a workout is hard, she probably won’t speak up about it. She will continue to push because she is tough and has been praised for this mentality throughout her career. This young athlete will take an interest in her female sporting superstars, their physique, and the lifestyle of professional runners. Unfortunately, she will miss out on examining what they looked like in their developing years, the years when they had fuller faces and no six-pack. These pictures aren’t on the covers of magazines. She doesn’t know what lies ahead in her natural development, because that’s not what she’s thinking about. She just wants to win races and execute her training as precisely as she can.

There are thousands of high school coaches, both male and female, who do an amazing job of managing the talent of developing athletes. I've been lucky to encounter many of them in my career (#1 Jim Bevan, of course). In this paragraph, I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about the other type of coach. The coach that is often over eager to manage such an incredible talent that possesses both the physical and mental tools to become world-class. He (generally speaking, I looked through and it seems that the majority of amazing high school females were coached by men), thinks he can outsmart a women’s physiology. He thinks he is better than all of the other coaches that mismanaged young talent and he will be the difference maker. Unwilling to recognize that he has no control over the hormonal changes of a young woman, he will make mistakes. He’ll feel awkward having the conversation about menstrual cycles and weight gain. In some ways, that is not his fault. Was this part of his coaching education as a high school coach? Probably not. Should it be? Maybe. Perhaps this should be a more central focus. Articles in the New York Times have highlighted the downfall of young endurance athletes for decades, but why aren’t we talking about a way to change the script?

Another point that I can’t get over is the reference to so many Salazar coached athletes in the most recent Outside Magazine article. There is a third variable among these high school phenoms who turned pro later in life that is unrelated to the trajectory of their natural development. We have better examples of young ladies, like Alexa Efraimson or Christina Aragon, who have continued their success in the sport after standout high school careers without a coach who is wrapped up in a drug scandal.

Lastly, many people highlight how young men suffer the same issues. I have to disagree. Although they may still experience burnout, it is not the same—they may fizzle out because of overtraining, pressure, or illness, but rarely is it because of natural development. It’s a different set of problems. Equally important, but different. Which raises another issue: is it in the best interest of both genders to have the same coach when the trajectory of development and coaching skills involved are disparate? I don’t know of many high schools that have the same boys and girls basketball coach, but many of them have the same cross country and track coach. That coach has to wear multiple hats, which is no easy task (this problem is even more pronounced in the NCAA, but I’ll save that discussion for a later date).

What is the best way to coach these young, incredible talents? To help them have a successful high school career without damaging their future potential in college or as a pro? Let’s talk about that, and start problem solving.