Decades after the door-opening Title IX legislation got more girls in the game, society is getting up to speed with the detrimental effects of the sports system on females.
It’s an issue Bendite Lauren Fleshman discusses in her new book, “Good for a Girl, a Woman Running in a Man’s World.”
Fleshman, one of the world’s most decorated distance runners, says that when it comes to weight shaming, disordered eating and puberty, “It’s just like the wild west out there still.”
In the part-memoir, part-manifesto, she writes about the dangers female athletes face in the current sports system.
“The sports environments we fought so hard to have equal access to were built by men, for men and boys,” she writes. “We fold and smash women and girls into male-based infrastructure and then scratch our heads when the same friction points show up again and again.”
As a coach for the past five decades, Charlotte Lettis Richardson has seen the landscape both open up for young women and change to suit them better.
“When Title IX happened, they just kind of put that male sports culture on top of girls sports,” Lettis Richardson said. “I think there was never a thought of, ‘Oh, this is going to be, this is different.’ It doesn’t mean that, you know, girls and women aren’t as competitive or can’t be as great of athletes, but it means that they have to be coached differently.”
Lettis Richardson is currently the head track and field and cross-county coach at Caldera High School.
Her own coaching has changed to better adapt to the female athlete, taking a more holistic approach.
“When I first started coaching, it was ‘How many 400s are we going to run?'” Lettis Richardson explained. “Now it’s more about how are we gonna keep this whole person healthy?”
It’s that changing viewpoint too many coaches have failed to take on over the past 50 years.
That mentality runs far too many young women out of the athletic world due to injury.
“When I think about my kids being good at a sport or putting themselves into a sport that has an emphasis on leanness, I’m scared,” Fleshman said at a book reading in Bend.
The sport she loves, which brought her joy, prestige, fame and family — she also fears.
“It gave me so much but it also created a lot of harm,” Fleshman added.
She wants the sports world to change for future generations. So does Lettis Richardson.
“We’ve come so far in terms of girls and women in sports. Now we need to maybe rethink a little bit about the model that we have and how to best serve those girls and women,” Lettis Richardson said.
One of the most significant shortfalls comes with the general lack of understanding of female puberty, especially in running where most head coaches are males.
Around high school age, boys will get bigger, faster, stronger. As Fleshman put it in her book, in “training, males get more juice out of every squeeze.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics backs this up, noting, “Girls do not get this same rapid growth in muscle power.”
The changing female body often catches girls off guard. When they hit an athletic plateau, it’s frustrating.
“A lot of young girls, they’re successful early on and then, all of a sudden, they’re not,” Lettis Richardson said.
During puberty, girls grow hips and breasts. They gain weight and start their periods. This is all crucial development not only for life-long health but also for long-term success in sports. It’s the latter that too many young athletes don’t fully understand.
“With female puberty framed as a threat to performance, many take measures to prevent or reverse it, often losing their periods and disrupting the hormonal function essential to building healthy bones and a healthy body,” Fleshman writes.
Ask nearly any runner about this. They’ll have a story of a teammate or of themselves. Fleshman has both.
Lauren recalls a dinner before a national cross-country competition in high school: “The girl across me was using the other tongs to fill her entire plate with only lettuce. She drizzled a thin zigzag of fat-free Italian dressing … another girl waiting for her had only lettuce and a chicken breast, no dressing at all.”
The challenge is, and why so many girls take drastic measures to slim down, the weight loss can have short-term benefits, making athletes temporarily faster.
Those extreme methods have repercussions, often period loss of amenorrhea.
The weight loss should alarm coaches. The period loss should concern young girls. But as Fleshman writes, coaches and competitors are, “incentivized to ignore it because the greatest rewards go to those who are at their best in their junior or senior years.”
When girls lose their periods, their bone health falters.
“When you lose your period, young people are like, ‘Oh great. That inconvenience is gone, I don’t need babies anyway. Whatever. I’ll deal with that later,'” Fleshman said at the book reading, underscoring female athletes’ inadequate education about their bodies’ necessary functions.
The teen years are crucial for bone building. Young women build their bone banks during high school and college. By the time women reach 20 years old, they’ll have acquired about 90% of their total bone mass. If they aren’t properly building up the bank during those years, they cheat themselves of a healthier adult life and athletic career.
Fleshman’s battle with disordered eating in her early 20s cost her a shot at the Olympics. She injured her foot before the trials, later realizing it was broken.
“I had blown it. I thought I needed to get light when I really needed to get strong,” Fleshman wrote about the incident.
Helene Hutchinson is a volunteer coach at Caldera High School, working alongside Lettis Richardson.
Hutchinson warns if coaches aren’t taking these dangers seriously, there are long-term impacts on athletes.
“It’s bone health, it’s the, it’s the physical, it’s the mental, it’s reproductive health,” Hutchinson said.
According to The Cleveland Clinic, amenorrhea puts girls at risk of irreversible bone damage and cardiovascular disease and can lead to challenges getting pregnant or infertility.
These threats are part of the reason Hutchinson and Lettis Richardson help found the Women’s Running Coaches Collective (WRCC).