Hello, Girl Fit Girls and Women! My name is Nicole, and I am a 3rd year DPT student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If you’ve been in clinic recently, you might’ve seen me around – I am here for my first (of four) 9-week internships! My time at Girl Fit has been a wonderful experience: I am learning more about dance and figure skating than I ever thought possible, I am learning awesome new examination and treatment techniques that I can incorporate into my future practice (thank you, Violet!), and I am getting the chance to interact with some amazing people along the way.
The mission of Girl Fit is one that hits close to home for me. I believe that young female athletes are a group that does not always receive all of the training and education they need to be healthy, successful, and to promote longevity in their respective sports. Thankfully, places like Girl Fit are beginning to surface and provide young female athletes with the tools they need to be at the top of their game.
I chose to come to Girl Fit because I have past experience as an elite athlete. I had the opportunity to play Division I softball at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, for 4 seasons. This meant that I had the opportunity to compete in the Big East conference and travel the country with my best friends! However, this also meant that I was challenged more physically, mentally, and emotionally than I ever had been in my life. When a typical day involved 3 hours of practice, 1.5 hours of weights and/or conditioning, and 3-5 hours of class, when did I have time to do homework? To do laundry? To shower? How do I find time to study for exams when I am gone 3-4 days out of the week for tournaments? Adjusting to this life was not easy for me, and that is why I’ve chosen to provide you all with some tips that I wish I would have known while I was training and competing at an elite level:
1.) Do as much as you can for as long as you can.
The demand for sport specialization at a young age is incredibly high. Young athletes often find themselves participating in and perfecting one sport to enhance their chances of competing at the highest level (in college, in the Olympics, professionally, etc.). However, research has shown that this is actually the opposite of what we want for our young athletes. Early sport specialization may lead to an increase in overtraining, overuse injuries (which are especially problematic in growing athletes), and eventual burnout1. Those who participate in multiple sports that incorporate different movement patterns (playing soccer and softball, for example) promote a healthy relationship with physical activity and decrease the likelihood of overuse injuries1. I was able to play travel softball, school softball, and school volleyball until college. I feel that volleyball gave me a much-needed reprieve from softball at times, encouraged different training patterns, and provided me with another social network outside of softball.
2.) Stay on top of your game physically.
This point goes hand-in-hand with point 1. If you are getting to the point in your life where you need to only play one sport to get recruited or if you are and have always been a single-sport athlete, this one is for you. To stay healthy and prevent injury, you must train your entire body, not just the muscles you work in your sport. If you only train for your sport, you may develop muscle imbalances. These imbalances may lead to funky movement patterns and, as a result, injury. Finding a good coach who encourages you to use good technique and get strong is critical. Getting strong and looking strong isn’t something to be afraid of – being strong will help you become an even better athlete, will help you gain confidence in your skills, and will help you stay healthy!
3.) Find what makes you happy outside of your sport, and always make time for it.
This is something that I struggled with during my first year of college. I was consumed by school and softball; I felt that I needed to perfect all of my softball skills all while getting straight A’s so that I could get into graduate school. This mindset made me miserable! This was the first time in my life that I was only playing softball, and I was starting to experience the effects of burnout. However, during my second year at DePaul, I started to find things that provided balance in my life: I would try new restaurants with friends, I would make time for that show I was binge-watching on Netflix, and I began to arrange my class schedule so that I was always taking a class that I enjoyed. It was then that I started enjoying softball again. Your mental and emotional health are so important, and maintaining this “work-life balance” is critical for keeping you happy in your sport.
4.) Make sure you’re fueling your body well.
This point is especially important for young female athletes. In order to have energy to perform well in your sport, you need to be eating enough. If you aren’t eating enough, you may end up with poor bone health and dysmenorrhea (weird, irregular periods) in the short- and long-term2. At times, it can be hard to find enough time to eat enough and to eat quality food, but it is so important for your overall health! While at DePaul, we had access to a nutritionist; I never used this resource, and it is one of my biggest regrets about my time there. If you are struggling with what you should be eating and/or how much you should be eating, a nutritionist is a wonderful resource!
5.) Listen to your body.
In my experience, this point is especially hard for young athletes. You’re often told “no pain no gain” or to push through fatigue, but this has the potential to be harmful. Recently, studies have shown that you are more likely to get injured if you are upping your training load or if you train hard for a long period of time3. Did you know that you are more likely to get sick, too, if you rapidly increase how hard you’re training3? So, moral of this story is: if you need a break, take it. If something doesn’t feel quite right physically, let a coach or a trainer know. If you need a 20-minute power nap between class and practice, take it. Your physical and mental health critical to your well-being, and your coaches and trainers should understand that you are trying to do what is best for you.
6.) Have fun doing what you love.
As amazing as our bodies are, they aren’t built to compete at a high level forever. There comes a time in every athlete’s career in which they have to “hang up their cleats.” While you are still competing, enjoy every second of it. Enjoy the time with friends. Enjoy the feeling you get when you nail a jump, or make a game-winning free throw, or hit a walk-off home run. Enjoy the highs. Learn from the lows. Most importantly, do what you love and love what you do.
Softball brought me more friendships, life lessons, and overall happiness than I ever thought possible. That is the beauty of sports! I hope at least one of these tips speaks to you and helps you enjoy your experience in sport that much more.
“Here’s to strong women
May we know them
May we be them
May we raise them”
Nicole Pihl, SPT