What Changes from a Girl to a Woman, and How it Changes the Sport?

Natalie Snyder PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS

Female Athlete Specialist

July 1, 2021

Dear girls,

If you have been told that you will be experiencing some changes with your body, both physically and emotionally.  It’s okay!  That’s life!  But if you’re feeling like you can’t do your sport well anymore because either you’re feeling embarrassed about the changes, growing tall faster, seeing the hips widening, feeling clumsy when you’re running, or feeling weaker – don’t give up your sport!  I’ll just tell you why.  I’ve been there. 

All women went through this before they became the top track athlete, swimmer, skier, diver, or even climber.  Look at all of these astonishing women who excelled in their sport.  See how they all look different, but fit for their sport?  Do you think they were like this since they were born?  Absolutely not.  They grew.  They matured.  Most importantly, they TRAINED RIGHT, specifically with their female physiology and for their sport!

When you have the first sign of normal female physiology changes, our hormones are just starting to take action, meaning it’s going to change everything.  Not for worse, but for better.  The female sex hormones are absolutely necessary for optimal bone health, strength, muscular growth, and performance excellence.  The changes can start as early as seven years old, before boys, then the girls have their period irregularly for the first couple years.  What else changes?

Mood.  Height.  Body movement and coordination.  Interestingly, the studies shows that in boys, with the rise of testosterone affecting their body and brain, they become bigger, stronger, and faster.  They also express more aggression, anger, and they typically exert this in their sports.  Girls are exposed to rising levels of estrogen and progesterone, affecting their body and brain to become more woman-like, anxiety, depression, sensitive, more self-awareness, empathy for others, and are worried about what others think about them.  News flash!  Other girls are not thinking anything about you, they’re worried about what you think of them.  Just stay true to yourself and be happy with who you are, what you’re accomplishing, and all the great potential you have as a person and athlete.

What are some of the heavy considerations in body changes for sports performance?

1. Growth Spurt – also known as “growing pains” because the bones are growing faster than the muscles and tendons, so it becomes painful, temporarily.  As the bones lengthen first, the bones fill with minerals first, then they become dense.  The fracture risk while the bones are growing is much higher in girls due to the hormonal changes.  Our bone density comes after the bone lengthens.  Density comes after it decides what height it wants to be – being short or tall.

2. Weight Change – little boys lean up, get stronger, bigger, fitter, and faster.  Girls tend to put on belly fat and the body composition changes specifically with wider hips affecting the increase in Q-angle (hip-to-knee angle) and the elbow angle increases too.  So, it feels awkward, ungainly, and weird as the body is now in a different shape than it was before.  Running may feel funny and different.  Jumping may feel unnatural.  Landing wrong and quick turns may be detrimental to knee ligaments. But don’t panic!  It’s only temporary because WE CAN train it. 

3.  Energy Levels – after the change onset, all teenagers need to eat MORE for increased calorie availability, to speed up the metabolism, to build muscle, strength, bone density, and mental concentration.  The biggest risk for girls is to fall into Low Energy Availability (LEA), where girls begin to need DIFFERENT nutritional balance and habits than boys for their own optimal performance.  If girls ate the same way as boys do or less than what their body actually need, either way, they may face LEA.  This will affect the overall downregulation of metabolism, muscle protein synthesis, and energy availability – therefore, their sport performance. 

What can we do for our BEST sport performance?

1. Go back to the basics, the fundamental building blocks of the sport with skill acquisition, techniques, gain functional movement, master agility, safe plyometrics, optimize joint mobility, train joint position awareness, and know HOW to move.  This can establish a new and a fit foundation for you and your body, through the changes until the temporary blip of ungainliness starts to stop, at around age 17.  The foundation will continue forward for mastering your sport and increasing your confidence. 

2. Begin to track your period cycles.  Expect that the week before your period, you may feel off, and that’s okay!  That’s the perfect time to master your techniques and sport-specific skills.  Then you’ll pick the powerful performance aspect back up. 

3. Talk to you parents, talk to your coaches, talk to your girl teammates.  Learn and educate others.  Do not give up your sport.  Just take a step back to build a STRONGER foundation with your skills, techniques, dedication, and you’ll spring back forward before you know it. 

Photographs answer: Seward’s swimmer Lydia Jacoby, making her way to the Olympics (2nd photo). Anchorage’s Sadie Bjornsen, 2x Olympics Cross Country Skiing (3rd photo).  Anchorage’s new PT Natalie Snyder, taking diving records at Rochester Institute of Technology (4th photo).


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