Navigating body image as girls go through puberty is challenging. Add in sports and there is an added level of complexity. On the one hand, sports teach girls that their bodies are to be celebrated for what it can do; being strong and capable. On the other hand, media informs girls that they are being evaluated solely on their appearance. As a parent, this drama plays out in small ways – is there an after-game team snack and does it have to be “healthy?” Are matchups with size differences – “that team is so huge” — seen as intimidating or “unfair?”
I was that mom. My middle daughter who played a lot of soccer was usually the smallest kid on the field. A matchup with a girl much taller seemed like a doomed proposition. Team snacks were also a minefield had to be carefully considered for parental approval, and I usually provided multiple options just to be safe. But this was the tip of the iceberg.
My oldest daughter played town soccer for a volunteer dad coach who also happened to teach at one of our local middle schools. My daughter was an awkward phase of puberty – she would gain weight first and stay the same height for a long time, before shooting up. She also had knee problems from tight hamstrings and puberty and often couldn’t participate from being in pain. Her coach was not sympathetic, and called her out in front of her teammates for being lazy and unfit. This ended up being the last year she played soccer.
Body Image, Puberty and Sports
Even a decade ago, I noticed that young girls in the age range of eleven and twelve, weren’t thinking about their bodies. But now puberty is happening at a younger age. There’s also a trend in more form fitting soccer uniforms. Even for youth players like U12 girls, the kits are more narrow and it makes girls more conscious of body image. One consequence of these trends is that some young girls will restrict their eating, and that’s where the coach can come in and be a positive influence.
We, as coaches, have to be careful how we describe girls’ bodies. “Girls in the back are HUGE.” Nobody wants to be that huge girl.
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