Young female athletes: Balancing performance with healthy development

For girls and young women in sports, it's important to understand the benefits and risks of serious training.

It's game on for the girls. Millions of young women across the world are participating in sports, including soccer, track and field, lacrosse, basketball, hockey, volleyball, and tennis. At the highest levels of their sports, young female athletes are bringing home Olympic medals, setting world records, capturing championships and dominating the field.

In the United States, the number of girls who are playing high school sports has jumped more than tenfold since 1971, when fewer than 300,000 girls were involved in sports. The rise is due in part to the passage of Title IX, a 1972 federal law designed to protect women from discrimination within federally funded educational activities, including sports.

For young female athletes — and their parents, coaches and other mentors — it's important to understand both the benefits and risks of performance training. When girls challenge their bodies to the limits, this shouldn't come at the expense of healthy physical development, especially during the crucial adolescent years.

Benefits of sports

Sports and girls are a good match. Multiple studies have documented the health benefits of sports participation for girls and young women, including improved fitness, increased lean muscle mass and, often, better eating habits.

There are social and emotional benefits, too. Interacting with teammates and coaches can sharpen social skills. The discipline involved in mastering a sport can promote a sense of control, competence and self-esteem. Studies also show that young female athletes are more likely than nonathletes are to avoid risky behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and having early or frequent sexual intercourse. Female athletes are also less likely to say they're trying to lose weight and are less likely to be hit by a partner or contemplate suicide.

Sports participation can have a positive effect on academics as well. Athletes often achieve higher grades than nonathletes do and have a higher graduation rate.

Nov. 04, 2016