Training the Female Athlete: Culture, Education, and Motivation

The girl steps into the gym for the first time and is met with the smell of sweat and the sound of metal clanging violently. Music is blaring, and the groups of people standing before her are yelling at each other. This first experience is daunting and uncomfortable. It fills her with the same trepidation that she thought she would feel coming in. Without any experience in strength training, this scene has furthered her desire to avoid training. The social difference is too great. Another female athlete is hindered in her performance. Can we change this?

Some may read that last paragraph and think I'm wrong or that this girl is weak-minded or whatever else you'd like to tell yourself. The reality is most girls I've encountered fear the gym not for the work but for the culture. Training with a trainer or in a group with boys/men is sometimes too different for them to accept. This loud, aggressive, testosterone-filled environment isn't for them. They think of themselves as outsiders and that deters them.

In thinking about athletes, we can assume that fifty percent are females. Is that portion of the training population supposed to be ignored simply because of a lack of effort in creating an environment that is conducive to their needs? I don’t think so. I'm writing this article to discuss the three areas in which coaches can focus their efforts to help female athletes. In doing so, we can increase not only their training but their consistency and results.


The scene that I laid out in the first paragraph isn’t uncommon. Heck, that was the environment  I grew up in at my high school weight room—loud music, cursing, yelling, heavy weights, and enough testosterone for all of the NFL. Not necessarily the place where all the 13- to 17-year-old female athletes want to spend their time.

With that idea in mind, I believe it's the coach's responsibility to create an environment that commits to hard work. Create a culture that holds everyone accountable and that is accepting of the differences of the athletes surrounding each other. It shouldn’t matter whether an athlete plays soccer, football, wrestling, or lacrosse, and it shouldn't matter if that athlete is a woman. Ignoring this facet limits not only your ability to do what you sought to do—help athletes get better—but it also limits your ability to see results.


Loud music and yelling have their place. Both can create energy and a unique atmosphere to train in. Without creating a culture of support for the athletes and educating them on why and what they're doing though, you may see results, but you won’t create a lasting connection with your clients and their families.

Here are a few ways in which I try to balance my own facility's culture in order to best serve my female athletes:

  • Don't play just the hard stuff: Walk into my gym at certain times and we absolutely have the same music many other training facilities have. It’s turned up enough to get the athletes going. The tempo is elevated, and people are working hard. Walk in at other times and you'll most definitely hear a more mellow music choice. For a large part of the day, we have a stock group of songs that we play on shuffle, but for times when we have one on ones with clients or are training a team of athletes, their iPod gets the nod. I think that giving athletes the chance to put on their own songs allows them to feel connected. Give it a try. I've seen even the most guarded female athlete open up with this method.
  • Show off your female clients: Social proof is a big thing in psychology regarding buying and acceptance. The reason we have testimonials and client referrals is because people are more apt to work with a trainer if someone they trust already does. This applies to your female clients. If someone is interested in training, have them come watch a session in which you'll be working with other female athletes. Demonstrate your ability to work with female athletes but also show how comfortable and easy it is for them. Seeing someone you can identify with goes a long way in creating the willingness to do something yourself.
  • Offer easy access: Sometimes it takes confidence before an athlete is ready to work with other people. It isn’t just about the work or the environment but rather about not looking out of place. A simple way to combat this is to offer an introduction to weightlifting session for female athletes. Simply teaching female athletes the movements and challenges they will face in a strength and conditioning program can improve confidence and increase the likelihood that they will continue training. Getting to this confidence level goes a long way in helping to shape the culture.


For every myth you hear about creatine damaging someone’s body beyond repair, you hear about eleven rumors regarding female athletes and strength training—they get muscle bound, they look “manly,” strength training stunts their growth, they lose speed. The list goes on. This “information” that people have is the function of long-term perceptions taking hold in a person’s actual beliefs. Again, it's the job of the coach to create avenues for which athletes and parents can learn the realities of training.

Here are a few ways to educate athletes and parents to the realities of training:

  • Relevant information: The easiest way to have information available for parents is to have 'frequently asked question' fliers and facts readily available. While you should memorize these for conversation, having the information on hand to read will help people recognize the value in what you do.
  • Every time an athlete runs, twice her body weight or more in force is applied to her joints. For a 110-lb athlete, this can be 220 lbs or more of force. Information like this applies to how strength training can help athletes accept and reduce the effects these forces have on the body and on performance.
  • Female athletes are more prone to ACL injuries in comparison to male athletes due to structural and hormonal differences and greater strength deficits. As coaches, our jobs are to do no harm, reduce the risk of injury, and increase performance. Showing how training can decrease the likelihood of injury is a great way to show the efficacy of training for a female athlete.
  • Proper coaching of technique: Sometimes it's important to connect the "why" with the "how." Telling a girl to keep her knees and feet in alignment when she lands during a jump is fine, but explaining to her that a reduction in force on her ACL will reduce her risk of injury helps connect it to her purpose. With male athletes, more often they hear and they do. With female athletes, the "why" can sometimes affect the time it takes to acquire a new skill. This is a good tip regardless, but in my experience, it's imperative with girls.
  • Biology 101: I see many parents, especially moms, who don’t want their daughters to end up like those “bodybuilder women” they see in old magazines. The idea of little Stephanie looking cut and jacked is just too much to bear! This is where some simple bio-chemistry can help show your clients that their fears are unwarranted. We don’t need to get into the nitty gritty. A simple explanation about testosterone can do the trick (girls would need more of it to get that big). You can also use comparisons to educate. Consider the sport that the female athlete plays and think of the best athletes in that sport. For example, in tennis, there's Maria Sharipova. In basketball, there's Candice Parker. In soccer, there's Hope Solo. Are any of these women overly bulky or lacking in femininity? Nope. Are all of them used to strength training and working on their bodies? You bet. This is the easiest and most effective way to show what true training will do physically. They aren’t training to be big, just athletic. Show them you care and you will avoid this.



To me, motivation is more important intrinsically than it is extrinsically. While a great coach can motivate and improve the abilities of athletes on a day to day basis and can help guide and improve athletes over their careers, it is each athlete's own inner focus and passion that will determine the levels at which she succeeds.

In this same manner, it's important to look at what can truly help foster internal changes in a client’s motivation. It has a lot to do with the previous steps that we've established in earlier areas. When we're looking at it strictly through improving female athletes' motivation, it's important to look at these primary areas:

  • Family/friend support: It isn’t just about the individual athlete. Each athlete must also have the backing and support of her family and friends to achieve success. When a female client first begins working with a coach, it's important for the parents to be just as involved in the learning process as the athlete. If the parents are comfortable, the athlete is comfortable, and everyone is learning the benefits together, you create a culture that fosters growth. You've found a great way to insure your client's health, happiness, and success with training.
  • Care: It has become such a cliche to say that a coach should care that I almost feel like I shouldn’t include it here. The reality is many athletes grow their internal motivations when someone else cares about their performance. Look back at the successes in your life. Somewhere along the way someone helped you who didn't have any reason to. He or she did it because he or she cared. Having a person who cares about your success back you inspires you to do better. It motivates you to continue even when things are hard. It's easy to think of this as an external motivator, but it is one that grows inside. You don’t know that someone cares until you feel it. Give that care to your clients, especially the girls, and give them the support they need. It goes a long way.
  • Positive attitude: I believe I heard this in a Mike Boyle video about smiling. He talked about how just smiling makes it hard for other people not to smile. Having a good day inevitably rubs off on those around you. When you're excited, passionate, happy, and smiling, your athletes will feel the same. You don't know who's having a bad day or is feeling down, but you can change her day by being positive in every way. I know that I have bad days, and I have days when I don’t feel positive, but I am. It isn’t a lie. It isn’t faking it. It's knowing that things will be better. This last part is vital to creating this culture. It's vital for creating any culture that builds a great environment for your athletes.


Oftentimes the girls I train are the most committed and hardest working athletes I see on a daily basis. They make better progress and achieve greater relative success than many of my male athletes. I think this is because most of the girls that you see train have done so as a last resort. They didn’t want it initially. They needed it. Educating, motivating, and creating a culture that shows the needs and provides a plan and place to fill the need is simple. It just takes effort to execute it in these areas day in and day out. Eventually, I hope this leads to breaking down the barrier of entry and truly helping all athletes of every type achieve their greatest success.