Diving Into the Topic of Puberty: Encouraging Conversations between Swimmers, Parents, and Coaches


Diving Into the Topic of Puberty: Encouraging Conversations between Swimmers, Parents, and Coaches

By Rhiannon Myhre and Michael Kidd

Young women are leaving the sport of swimming at several times the rate of young men. They are also avoiding joining teams often due to a lack of support through the onset of puberty. Many coaches, particularly male coaches, are ill-prepared to focus on the challenges these athletes are facing, and even if they are aware, their entire knowledge may be from a middle school reading of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”

Olympic swimmers have discussed how hard puberty was during their swimming careers. Olympic gold medalist Amanda Beard wrote: “Before puberty, I would have described swimming as easy, comfortable, and natural. Then all of a sudden, I was a completely different person in the water and swimming a completely different sport. I had to relearn how to swim carrying twenty-five pounds of extra weight.”

Misty Hyman speaks openly about the eating disorder that resulted from trying to keep a “perfect” figure despite a massive training regime and a maturing body. While these women overcame the challenges of puberty and periods to succeed at the highest level, we know that many will exit the sport rather than suffer through the challenges.

Perhaps it is the physical or emotional changes they face pushing them away, or their teams may not have a system to help them through. At more elite levels, with older girls, there are examples of coaches who merely ignore periods and push swimmers to train through the discomfort. At these levels, we suspect that coaches know their swimmers and know when to push them to help them succeed. This is a harder issue for those in the middle school age groups. The hyper-focus on athletic success has not fully developed in most of these girls. Additionally, young girls can pivot to other athletic and non-athletic activities, with time left for them to succeed in those new endeavors if their needs are not met in the pool.

From a young girl’s perspective, as their bodies undergo changes, they may experience a decrease in strength and endurance. Additionally, they may struggle with body image issues and self-confidence. One very confident swimmer told us that the hormonal shifts turn her into a different person, where she doubts herself and doesn’t want to practice – even though the water is her happy place. While the majority of women struggle with this age, doing so in a swimsuit increases the difficulty for swimmers. During the initial stages, girls who are not ready for tampons may think that periods will prevent them from practicing or competing. Some swimmers mention how struggling with their menstrual cycles hinders their training due to cramps and mood swings. It would be foolish to expect that an 11-year-old girl would be capable of coping in the same way a 19-year-old woman does. Not only is there substantial developmental and physiological growth during these years, but at the more basic level, there is a huge difference in life experience. The best swimmers have been able to develop coping strategies that allow them to succeed where their peers have struggled, but as a sport, we feel that access to these strategies should not be a determining factor in one’s success. Success should be the result of talent and work ethic.

How can we stop the needless attrition of girls from competitive swimming? Teams wishing to address this attrition and better support young swimmers have a number of best practices to follow. Every expert talks about having a system of open communications – which let’s face it, sounds easy but is fraught with apprehension. Girls are often reluctant to discuss periods and other puberty-related changes as even today, society stigmatizes them. Coaches, especially men, may be reluctant to broach topics with their young swimmers as the boundaries on what are proper conversations are complex and likely differ from region to region, and even team to team. Continuing education is a must to provide coaches with the tools they need.

Several approaches we have used or seen are:

• Bring in a healthcare provider to talk to the girls about the medical and developmental side of puberty. We find that bringing swimmers in as young as 9 or 10 is useful. Allow the girls to ask questions and hear questions from their peers. We found that swimmers bonded over realizing their friends were all going through the same things.
• During a discussion of puberty and periods, coaches can role-play what a discussion might look like between a swimmer and coach, so swimmers know how a conversation would go.
• Supply information to swimmers and parents about suits, nutrition strategies, and the most comfortable products, as well as ways to let coaches know if they are having concerns.
• Asking parents to let their daughters know that the coaches are understanding and can be approached.
• Create a support network of parents to talk to one another and share strategies.
• Provide an emergency kit with sanitary items in the team locker that swimmers can access if needed.
• Encourage parents to approach coaches with questions. Including coaches in these discussions signals that it is expected and desired for coaches to be able to address puberty-related concerns.
• Make sure multiple people can answer girls’ questions or concerns. Teams should not automatically relegate this role to a female coach. It is a team and developmental issue, and everyone must be able to support swimmers. If we intend on breaking this stigma, we should encourage male coaches to become comfortable with the idea that they are also responsible for the girls on the team. This would then hopefully allow the girls to feel more comfortable.

These approaches should help to normalize conversations between swimmers, coaches, and parents. However, creating cultural change in a team requires strong actions that build trust. Swimmers must trust that coaches hear them and will respond in a manner that supports them both as athletes and as individuals. Also, we need the coach to trust that when swimmers come to them it is with actual concerns, and not to avoid practice. We think a pre-established menu of options, available to coaches and swimmers, is a healthy approach. Every situation is different, recognizing that no one approach will be perfect for every swimmer, and may change from day to day, we need different approaches. Questions such as: how new is this for the swimmer, how do periods impact the swimmer physically and emotionally, what the athletic goals are, and what part of the season is it may all factor into the best response.

Options may include:

• Taking a day off from practice.
• Structured conversations about nutrition and mental health strategies
• Strength or dryland training
• Modified in-water practice

Remember, the conversation is only awkward at first. As we normalize talking about puberty, we will strengthen our teams, decrease attrition, better support our athletes, and perhaps keep the next Summer McIntosh or Katie Ledecky from choosing a different sport.

About the Authors: Rhiannon Myhre is a high school swimmer at the Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania & Michael Kidd coaches the Naples Tiger Sharks in Italy.

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3 months ago

Love it. Such a low key, underrated, but yet important topic for every swim club staff to be mindful of. Clubs are saving their money on awareness trainings like this, or simply consider this as a personal matter each female swimmer should deal with on their own.

Jen Kay
3 months ago

A great article! While my 16yo handled puberty as well as I am aware of, it was “mean girl” bullying outside of swim practices (aka seemingly not Safe Sport jurisdiction) and an under-experienced coach that led to her leaving. I am still hoping that it is only for the summer, but an “all practices” swimmer and “as many races in a meet as she is allowed to do” to a “no swim” attitude is so sad. She had a find things outside of swim to help her heal from hurt IN swim.

Captain Question
3 months ago

The statement that “Young women are leaving the sport of swimming at several times the rate of young men” makes no sense and needs some citation. Given that the percentage of female swimmers is greater than male swimmers in USA Swimming, I am not sure how you support this statement. It could be true in an odd way, but seems unlikely. So, citation requested.

Michael Kidd
3 months ago

Captain Question, thank you so much for your question. While this was not designed as an academic article, there are a number of academic sources that look at gender as it impacts both general attritions from sports during adolescence years, but also many that look at the same from swimming. In addition to a survey of these, I have also observed this firsthand as I have seen more girls leave the sport than men in the early teen years (although this second part is a non-scientific observation). If you are interested in reading some of the academic sources, a few to start with would be:

Gould, Daniel, et al. “Reasons for attrition in competitive youth swimming.” Journal of Sport Behavior 5.3 (1982): 155.

Monteiro, Diogo, et al. “Determinants and reasons for dropout in swimming—systematic review.” Sports 5.3 (2017): 50.

Salguero, Alfonso, et al. “Identification of dropout reasons in young competitive swimmers.” Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness 43.4 (2003): 530.

Brown, Barbara A. “Factors influencing the process of withdrawal by female adolescents from the role of competitive age group swimmer.” Sociology of Sport Journal 2.2 (1985): 111-129.

Monteiro, Diogo, et al. “Reasons for dropout in swimmers, differences between gender and age and intentions to return to competition.” The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness 58 (2018): 180-192.

Black, S. Jill, and Maureen R. Weiss. “The relationship among perceived coaching behaviors, perceptions of ability, and motivation in competitive age-group swimmers.” Journal of sport and exercise psychology 14.3 (1992): 309-325.

Interestingly enough, during the writing process, we also found research showing that the gender gap is narrowing and that overall participation is becoming more equal, although, from a total percentage, women are still a larger percent of the swim population.

3 months ago

What a wonderful article Rhiannon and Michael. So awesome that you both worked on this together and what a great and sometimes difficult topic to discuss. So important though and although I have a male swimmer in our family, I will definitely share this with his coaches and the female swimmer parents.
So honored to have worked with you Michael and had my son swim for you and with you Rhiannon.