Height is shooting up faster than you can say "growth spurt."
Hip structures are widening.
Thighs and legs are lengthening.
Coordination feels funky and not as smooth as it once was.
On top of all of this, emotions are boiling, and the mood is in constant oscillation.
Wait a minute. Fatigue is creeping in too.
The life of a pre-adolescent girl is a dynamic one. There are a plethora of changes occurring physiologically and emotionally, some empowering, some offsetting.
It is normal for a young female athlete to not feel like herself during this time. She is going from a young girl into a young woman, and it is the most monumental time of her life.
The critical piece to remember is that this is a time to be forgiving and accepting of these changes. After all, human development is out of a girl's control, and it's the rapid bone growth, the structural changes, the onset of the menstrual cycle, the storm of hormones, the development of the nervous system, and the oscillation of body composition that we are better off accepting as natural and beautiful.
My hope for young female athletes facing this dynamic time is to take action on what they can control. There is a myriad of physical training pieces that can set up young female athletes for success during these awkward years, and ensure she steps onto the field with confidence.
Too, there are several ways to train effectively and safely so she can reduce the risk of injury and be her most resilient self.
1. Work on movement quality daily.
The first thing that will feel off during the pre-teenage years are balance, stability and coordination, especially during Peak Height Velocity (PHV) when the muscles, bones and tendons are growing at vastly different rates, as well as weight gain is a result of fat mass and muscle mass. Girls can expect to experience this around 11-14 years of age, although some can experience it as early as age 10. It is essential to keep in mind that girls might get discouraged during this time due to weight gain, structural changes, hips widening, and a temporary decline in performance.
Additionally, about half a year after the most rapid changes in height, girls will begin to notice weight gain due to more fat mass. Again, this can be a frustrating time as speed and agility could wane temporarily.
Since we cannot control height, weight, and structural changes, we can do our best to reinforce movement patterns critical for coordination, stability, and strength development.
During a time when ACL risk increases (12-13-year-old girls) as wider hips, lengthening of the tibia, and higher center of gravity place greater torque on the knee. This requires more muscular control, and the joint force at the knee becomes hard to control during high-velocity movements (Renstrom et al. 2008).
Here are several non-negotiable exercises all young girls must do daily to make the entirety of their bodies resilient.
Skip: This movement is a bare minimum to work on coordination of the opposite arm and leg, connect the two brain hemispheres, reinforce posture and knee drive for sprinting.
Hinge: The hip hinge is the foundation of every direction movement in team sports, and ensures young girls can recruit the muscles of the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals so they can lower their center of mass for a more rapid change of direction. Lowering the center of mass becomes paramount during the growth spurt as their height shoots up.
Crawl: This is another movement that reinforces coordination, but adds in a trunk stability component. The more stable young girls can keep their core and hips, the less torque placed on the knee. Female athletes reach maturity, decreased core stability, and insufficient core strength may cause increased dynamic lower extremity valgus load during sport-specific tasks, placing them at increased risk for injury
This movement also begins to build upper body strength in a simple, easy to do fashion.
Hang: With increased screen time, a slouched, forward head posture is imminent. This can cause several issues throughout the rest of the body, from weak glutes to shortened hip flexors and stride length during sprinting, to disrupted breathing (more chest and stressed sympathetic response). If a girl hangs daily, she will decompress the spine, improve shoulder mobility, and open up her posture. Posture is essential for becoming a better sprinter and a more agile player.
Squat: The squat is more than a quadriceps movement. It promotes better hip mobility, core stability, and ankle mobility - all things athletes must nail down to be more agile.
Lunge Iso: This a unilateral movement that is a good starting point for single leg strength and pelvic stability. Unilateral isometrics expose imbalances, and if a girl is favoring one side over the other.
Cross Crawl: This is another contralateral movement that focuses on the posterior side of the body. The opposite lat must fire as the opposite glute fires, a critical muscle action for sprinting.
As long as a young girl does these days, she will compound over time into a beast who is resilient. We want our girls to be over-prepared with physical training that enhances the entirety of her being, not over-trained with skill work with overuses the same muscle groups over and over again.
2. Progress with resistance training.
Once young girls master the above movements, it is time to load with weight to provide a new stimulus to their muscles. The muscles surrounding the knee joint are critically important. These include the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves for better deceleration, and ability to handle the load from pumping the brakes before they re-accelerate change direction.
Knowing the numbers we know for increased risk of ACL injury in 12-13-year-old girls, resistance training year-round is a requirement, so their muscles get stronger. Bodyweight movements will only do so much until we plateau and need to add a more challenging stimulus.
Team sports are full of high-velocity actions, such as decelerating and then rapidly re-accelerating. According to a study in Phys Sportsmed, an average of 70%–78% of ACL injuries occur via a noncontact mechanism (Boden et al. 2000). This is why we need to add a stimulus higher than the game, so girls adapt and become more resilient to explosive eccentric-concentric muscle actions like cutting, turning, and twisting.
Personally speaking, in 8.5 years in performance training for female athletes, not one of my players has suffered an ACL tear. The girls I have worked with over the years understand that year-round strength training is the standard and cannot be skipped.
Too, year-round strength training extends far beyond reducing the risk of ACL. It is paramount to build durable bones and optimize bone mineral density during this time, especially in a population that suffers from stress fractures.
One final thought is that the girls who have done strength training have developed more confidence and faith in themselves to overcome adversity. The weight room has its way of exposing girls to their weaknesses, yet showing them that it is possible to become strong with a lifetime commitment to working hard. The body's ability to adapt to challenge and then grow is genuinely incredible.
Here are loaded movements for young female athletes that are non-negotiable:
Front Loaded Squat
Core Anti-Rotation and Anti-Flexion
Deceleration (Eccentric Load)
These movements can be introduced after they master the bodyweight patterns, and have a half year to a year of sound training under their belt. As girls begin to enter adolescence (age 13 and up), it is time to start using dumbbells, bands, and barbells. However, I have seen early-maturing girls at age 12 master the movements and showcase quality coordination, and they have been able to use free weights.
3. Recover hard.
As much training volume as a growing girl is going through year-round, we have to ensure she is recovering hard, both physically and mentally.
The first concern is monitoring training load, and navigating the 2-4 practices a week schedule, with games on the weekend. The second concern is everything else outside of sports that is piled on top of the mess. From finishing schoolwork to making time for other hobbies and leisure, cultivating friendships, and getting distracted by social media, it can amount to an immense load of internal stress.
While we cannot change the endless amount of games each year, nor the other external stressors, we can do our best to help girls optimize their recovery, so they feel fresh and energized amidst the noise.
To that end, recovery comes down to three things: nutrition, sleep, and breathwork.
No amount of ice baths, expensive supplements, foam rollers, recovery gimmicks, and tools will save a young girl's nervous system from being overstimulated and wiped out.
No matter how strong a young female athlete is, if she is not getting quality sleep, her ability to produce growth hormone for muscle recovery will wane, as well as her capacity to focus and react. There are libraries of studies on sleep deprivation's effect on injury. Still, one study in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics concluded that athletes who slept on average <8 hours per night were 1.7 times (95% confidence interval, 1.0-3.0; P=0.04) more likely to have had an injury compared with athletes who slept for ≥8 hours (Milewski et al. 2014).
Taking the conversation back to other recovery methods, nutrition and breathwork are the icing on the cake. As long as a young girl is fueling and getting the calories she needs, she is much more likely to sustain her energy in the final moments of the game, without fatiguing and increasing her chance of taking a misstep. The nervous system's ability to recover and calm itself is more powerful than any resistance training program.
To that end, breathwork is important for calming the nervous system and regulating an athlete's internal state if the nervous system is constantly stimulated, the ability to think and be creative declines.
Here is a breathing exercise that helps with breathing through the nose, and deep into the diaphragm, entering girls into a parasympathetic state:
Being a coach and a parent to a young female athlete is challenging. We have to consider a multitude of pieces that impact performance, and then find the solutions to allow her to be at her best physically and mentally. If anything you get from this article, it's a tremendous amount of hope with the factors we can control - movement quality, strength training, and recovery.
A study in the American Journal of Sports Med suggests that if these injury reduction programs are initiated early enough in the maturational years, they are highly effective in reducing injury. We need to take action now and be relentless about mastering these pieces.
Optimizing motor skill learning and the ability to learn movement patterns by repetition is a priority during this time. Ideally, from ages 0-13, all kids need to be getting as much movement as possible and being exposed to a variety of basic motor skills.
Here is a summary to get you started with helping your young girls:
- Do the daily non-negotiable movements. They take less than 10 minutes a day. No excuses
- Resistance train year-round. Hire a strength and conditioning coach now for your female athletes, and do anything you can to make it a priority, especially if you value her having a long and empowering sports career. Make the time to go to the or look for a performance coach who writes remote programs for young girls to do at their convenience.
- Make time for recovery. Put food in front of young girls that are nourishing and energizing; otherwise, she is not a high-level athlete who is fueling. Make belly breathing a habit each day, even for 10 minutes, and unplug from phones and screens an hour before bed for quality sleep.
Suppose we genuinely want to develop the total female athlete. In that case, we will do everything to learn deeply about the dynamic changes going on during her growth years, get her rolling on a resistance training program consistently, and instill in her nutritional, sleep, and recovery habits that empower her for a lifetime.