“She is growing like a weed!” exclaims the excited parent about the early maturing female athlete.
“She is the shortest on her team!” says the frustrated parent about the late-maturing female athlete.
These scenarios display the beautiful process of the female athlete growth spurt- some girls are getting tall, while others remain small. The juxtaposition of these two extremes demonstrates how wild the female athlete growth spurt can be, and how it differs across athletes. The average growth spurt of the female athlete begins, on average, ages 9-13, with Peak Height Velocity (PHV) beginning around 11.5 years of age. PHV is when parents exclaim, “she shot up!” and when girls see their most rapid height increase. Some girls do not begin this period until 12-13 years of age. Therefore, leave the parent feeling frustrated that she is not running as fast as her taller teammates.
Though this can be an offsetting time for young girls, there are several things to keep in mind so a female athlete can perform at her best, physically and mentally. After all, the growth spurt is not just physiological. It is emotional and mental.
Three Notable Things That Happen During Growth
Parents and coaches need to be aware of.
1. Structural Changes
The most interesting part about growth in female youth athletes is that the most perplexed people are the parents, not the girls. It bothers me when parents are frustrated at their daughter’s lack of growth, which is incredibly uncontrollable.
The structural changes during growth are natural occurrences that cannot be altered. Instead, everyone needs to focus on empowering the female athlete with what is controllable. During the growth spurt, the length of the bones grows rapidly, with bone mineral density filling in after PHV. The tendons and ligaments tend to be stronger than the epiphyseal growth plate, leading to fractures if load is not managed properly, or the female athlete is doing too much repetition of the same training.
Due to increases in height and bone length, taller female athletes ages 11-13 may experience coordination and balance disturbances in their performance. In contrast, the shorter girls may be more adept at skill-specific work, and slower in max velocity sprints due to shorter stride lengths and lesser muscle.
Resistance training, for both short and tall female athletes, helps them optimize their agility, speed, and endurance and make their bones and joints safeguarded from overuse injuries. In order for bones to become strong, they need to be loaded with dumbbells and other tools to allow for a progressive overload of the body. Female athletes need to be strength training during their growth spurt. Otherwise coaches are being incredibly negligent.
2. Weight Changes
Initially, the growth spurt increases the fat-free mass of the female athlete – bones, joints, and muscles, but then changes in weight can become disorienting young girls. Several months after PHV, they begin to gain weight in the fat mass distributed in the hips and legs. This is a natural and normal part of growth and maturation as the girl blossoms into a woman and prepares for birth. Breast development (fat mass gain in chest) during adolescence also adds to the weight increase, so if a female athlete has gained weight on the scale, keep this in mind and understand it is normal.
Focusing resistance training helps with body composition and improved performance, especially in lower extremity muscle groups – the hips, hamstrings, and quadriceps – that protect the knee. In females, peak weight velocity comes after peak height velocity (about 6 months later) and can add to the messy movement patterns, so doing consistent resistance training will help them navigate this time better. Neural factors dominate a girl’s growth spurt, and adaptive neuromuscular responses are improved by year-round strength training, working on Squats, Lunge variations, and RDL variations. It bodes well to also build her upper body strength and core stability, so posture is improved, muscular imbalances are addressed, and lower body mechanics are stable and controlled.
3. Hormonal Changes
On top of all the funky bodily changes occurring, the youth female athlete experiences “menarche,” the onset of her menstrual cycle. This begins around 12.5 years of age, although some girls may come earlier or later. The young female experiences about a 28 day hormonal cycle, with hormones estrogen, luteinizing hormone, progesterone, and follicle-stimulating hormone oscillating during this time. The negative symptoms from this hormonal storm can include:
- Mood Changes
- Disrupted Sleep
- Digestive Issues
Generally speaking, these tend to occur during the Luteal Phase and into the Bleed Phase. It is paramount we are aware of these symptoms so female athletes can be pointed in the direction to help alleviate them. This does not mean coaches have to address the Menstrual Cycle. Still, they have to be educated on how a female athlete’s performance can be impacted. The best thing coaches can do is provide recovery solutions that help her to feel energized, motivated, and focused:
- Quality Sleep (muscle healer)
- Daily Meditation (nervous system relaxer)
- Magnesium Rich Foods – dark chocolate, tree nuts (nervous system relaxer)
- High-Quality Protein – salmon, chicken, steak, eggs (muscle repair)
- Serotonin Rich Foods – bananas (mood enhancer)
- Social Media Fasting (nervous system relaxer)
While the female athlete’s growth spurt has several dynamic changes both in body and mind, this does not have to be a time to be upset. Rather, it can be an empowering time for her to focus on improving her performance and dialing in on her recovery practices even more. Most importantly, it is a time to lean into the beauty of nature and child development and give her the tools to control the controllable.