In the Absence of Sports, Developing the Female Student-Athlete Remains a Constant

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Does the indefinite suspension of sports also mean the loss of an opportunity for female athletes to increase their confidence? As sports are sidelined due to COVID-19, student-athletes and coaches are left searching for meaning and an equal source of self-esteem.

Throughout May we recognize National Teen Self Esteem Month, a time to emphasize helping teens “build a healthy outlook of themselves.” Despite the suspension of games and in-person practices, the development of the female student-athlete and her self-esteem are a much-needed constant during a time of uncertainty.

Girls’ school environments are natural places of growth and confidence, “where a girl and her unique capabilities are embraced for what they are and not limited to what society expects them to be.Coaches at girls’ schools understand perhaps better than anyone the art and science of coaching through the gender lens to meet the unique needs and abilities of female athletes. While the global pandemic has changed the coaching platform, remote coaching and training from a distance does not necessarily mean delayed development. It is critical that coaches continue to provide support for their female athletes, as research shows girls who participate in sport have higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of depression.

Perseverance—or grit—is also an essential skill gained by student-athletes and girls’ school students alike. We constantly encourage our athletes to try and try again as they learn there will always be setbacks not just in sports, but in life. There is perhaps no better time to be coaching and empowering girls to persevere than during this challenging time.

While coaching methods and delivery currently require adjustment, the philosophical approach to developing female athletes remains constant. We can continue coaching through the gender lens and providing a source for self-esteem by following these five strategies:

1. Shift The Motivational Climate Through Goal Setting. Research shows the motivational climate created by coaches can positively influence girls’ experiences. Mastery motivation climates emphasize learning and improvement when performing tasks. This type of motivational climate influences student-athletes’ ability to shift their focus towards skill development, redefine success as it relates to performance, and identify intrinsic motivators. Goal setting can help coaches guide female athletes towards a growth mindset while building confidence through the improvement of skills. Three types of goals are outcome, performance, and process:

  • Outcome Goals: Start with the athlete’s “why.” Why does she play sports and why should she continue to train right now? The answer will provide purposeful long-term goals.
  • Performance Goals: Identify the performance goals by asking, “What will it take to achieve your outcome goals?” Challenge athletes to identify key performance indicators that will show progress towards their outcome goals.
  • Process Goals: Guide athletes in creating their process goals by asking, “How will you achieve your desired outcome?” Female athletes thrive on skill development. S.M.A.R.T. process goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely and allow athletes to pursue growth while increasing self-esteem through achievement. Remind student-athletes, “gaining confidence means getting outside your comfort zone, experiencing setbacks, and, with determination, picking yourself up again.”

2. Maintain Supportive Relationships. Staying connected remains vital for student-athletes. A recent report from the Women’s Sports Foundation identified nine significant findings that influence coaching female athletes, including building supportive relationships. Organizing virtual team huddles promotes a team culture that emphasizes support and unity. Coaches can lead discussions that revolve around building a culture for current teams and the future success of the athletic program. Team-building exercises can be facilitated virtually.

3. Focus on Holistic Development. Student-athletes become the best versions of themselves through holistic development. The Office on Women’s Health emphasizes the significance of women maintaining overall well-being in order to cope with daily stresses and achieve personal goals. This includes understanding the gender specific nutritional needs for women as well as focusing on mental health. Coaches can facilitate virtual workshops that discuss factors like nutrition, mental health, and wellness.

4. Create Leadership Opportunities. “Girls report increased leadership skills as one of the top benefits of staying in sports.” Now is the time for coaches to provide opportunities for female athletes to demonstrate the leadership skills they have acquired through playing sports and attending girls’ schools. Let them lead.

5. Find Meaning for Student-Athletes. Many student-athletes are grieving the loss of their season, time with teammates, and structured competition. Meaning is a significant part of the grieving process. One exercise to provide meaning exploration for student-athletes is writing a letter to their respective sport. Doing so provides an opportunity to reflect with a sense of gratitude. The following is an excerpt from a senior’s “Dear Sports” letter:

Thank you for finding me. Thank you for being my escape when I needed it most in life. Thank you for latching on to me and never letting go. Even when I just wanted to give up, you didn’t let me. Most importantly, thank you for becoming a part of who I am, and who I will become in the future. —Ryen ’20, Trinity Hall, Track and Field

In my role as Director of Athletics at Trinity Hall, I have observed a need for a sense of purpose and progress for both student-athletes and coaches. Coaches can trust the foundational skills already established through coaching in a girls’ school environment to provide a sense of control, comfort, and confidence as they continue to lead female athletes in their development.


Alison Le Vine Pugsley, Director of Athletics, Trinity Hall


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