Running Notes: 7 Key Points for Coaching Girls

Coaching girls is different than coaching boys.

I mentioned in my last post that this year I would be coaching the girls’ cross country team. In the past, with both Alan and me coaching, it was a combined effort, with him doing the most active coaching, while I did the planning, logistics, and overseeing the program design. It always worked very well.

This year though, Alan has decided to step back from coaching, so another coach was hired to take the boys’ team. That means the girls and I are on our own. It’s only been a week, but I think we all like it.


There are a few changes this year. In the past, on the days I had to work at 5:30 in the morning, Alan would take over the practice, so it was held in the relative cool of the morning, Remember, we’re in the California desert, where the lows are in the mid-80s, and the highs can be above 110.

Now, I tell the girls, we’re getting our heat training early. It is a necessity in the desert, where, when we have our first September league meet it may very well be 105 or more. If the team hasn’t done any kind of heat adaptation training it can be not only difficult, but dangerous.

My work schedule means that we have two afternoon practices a week, on Monday and Thursday. I say afternoon, but it is really 6:00 pm, when, if we’re lucky, the temperatures have cooled to 100-105. Yeah, that cool.

We’re in the first part of our pre-competition cycle, focusing on building endurance and strength. Our first week of training looked something like this:

Day 1: First practice. Spend a little time getting to know everyone. Take a couple warm up laps on the track. Drills: Teach proper mechanics for high knees, butt kicks, skips, and cariocas. I threw some walking lunges in for good measure too. A short run around the school. We call it the Tour, pointing out buildings and locations to the new freshman. It is only about a mile. Strides (shoeless on the grass). One final lap, still shoeless, on the grass. Core work. Stretching.

Day 2: Two laps to warm up. Drills. Easy 3 mile run. Strides (this time on the track, in shoes). Cool Down. Stretching

Day 3: Our first afternoon workout, we were lucky that there was a little breeze and a bit of cloud cover. Still, it was around 102. The football players were on the field practicing in the sun. The girls took one lap to warm up.  Drills in a partially shaded area of the track.  Circuit strength workout: Push ups, squats, mountain climbers, walking lunges, plank, dips, bicycles, run one lap. Repeat for three sets. Stretch.

Day 4: Rest. After next week it will be an optional, varsity girls (or those who want to make varsity) get together and run on their own.

Day 5: Long run. Since this is our first week of practice and many of the girls are not in shape (despite dire warnings to show up ready to run), our long run was four miles on the trails. Strides. Stretch.

Day 6: Rest.

Day 7: Afternoon workout. Temperature at practice time was 102. The high humidity of earlier in the day had receded a bit and there was a little cloud cover. One lap to warm up. Drills in the semi-shade. Run a little over two miles, on the road. Circuit workout: Burpees, walking lunges, hop up the stairs, triceps dips, plank, crunches. Three sets. Stretch.

While it sound like a lot, it really was a pretty low level week, taking into consideration that most of the girls hadn’t been doing much running. Over the next five weeks, we will gradually increase the mileage and add in some hill repeats. Then it will be time to work on getting faster!

We also, especially this first week, do a lot of talking. From expectations and rules, rest and recovery, to nutrition and hydration, we discuss the factors that will help them stay healthy and become better runners.

Over the years, I have learned that coaching girls is a lot different than coaching boys. Girls approach teamwork, training, and the coach/athlete relationship from a different perspective than boys do. These are some of the things that I have learned about coaching girls. (note: this is not a scientific study, just my subjective thoughts and opinions after 12 years of coaching boys and girls cross country.)

7 Key Points for Coaching Girls

1. Communication and trust: With boys, you can lay out the workout and they will do it. Girls need to know a little more about why they are doing the workout. Simply, if they have to work hard, they want to know why. Once they know that, then they will give it their best. For girls, respect is built on like and trust, which means they need clear and consistent instruction and coaching. Yelling at them (which seems to be a default mode for some coaches) may backfire and result in key point #6.

2. Relationships, friendships and team building:  For girls, teamwork evolves from friendships. They need to bond with the other girls on the team, then they become much more cohesive. Team building activities are vital. You also need to watch out for cliques that might form among the girls. The social aspect of practice and meets is more important to girls. The boys tend to show up for practice, do the workout, go home. The girls catch up on everything that happened since the last practice, who’s going to what event, and who’s dating whom. This is normal, but a coach does need to be able to keep the girls focused and on point.

3. Treat them as individuals: While you’re building a team, girls want to be treated as individuals. That means talking to each girl, figuring out what motivates her, and using that knowledge when you’re coaching.

4. Building self esteem: While athletics in general build an athlete’s confidence and self esteem, a coach needs to realize that a girl’s body image can be fragile, and that they need to focus on what a girl can do, not on looks, weight, or other negative body image points. You’d think this would be obvious, but tell that to girls and women who for many years have been told by their coaches that they are too fat. It is no wonder then, that so many female runners struggle with the next point on this list.

5. Eating/Exercise Disorders: Many runners, not just teenage cross country runners, are lured into excessive dieting and over-exercise by the myth that a lower body weight will make them faster. If not monitored, dieting to lose a few pounds can spiral out of control, with the misguided notion that more is better. Women and girls in particular are more prone to eating disorders, and it is important for a coach (and parents) to be alert to the signs and signals.

6. There’s no crying in cross country! Maybe not on the boys team, but if you’re coaching girls there will definitely be tears from time to time. Girls tend to be more emotional, and more likely to express many of those emotions, from anger, frustration, sadness, and even joy, with tears.

7. Menstrual Cycle: The hormonal shifts of the menstrual cycle can cause changes in mood and energy levels, while the pain of cramps can affect performance. The coach also needs to be aware that girls may use their period as an excuse (though you soon know the ones who do this). Women coaches have an advantage here, both of having real life experience, as well as the comfort level the girls feel in discussing these factors. Men who coach girls must make the effort to build the trust with their runners that will allow them to have these conversations.

While these are things that I have learned over the years coaching both boys and girls, it is still a generalization, and remember what Mark Twain said about generalizations. Everyone is different, no one is a stereotype, and boys need some level of most of the same things that girls need from their coaches.  Still, these points can be useful if you coach or if you’re the parent of a girl who is starting out in sports.

What are your thoughts on coaching girls differently than boys?

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  1. says

    Very well written!!
    And while not teenagers anymore (thank god!), I can see the difference in approach between my husband and I. He will do whatever is on a training plan. And I will question and analyze and then do it. Oh the tears too!
    Smitha @ FauxRunner recently posted…Racing a 5k: Mental ChatterMy Profile

  2. says

    IT IS SO CRAZY how DIFFERENT GIRLS ARE compared to boys!!! I AM DEALING WITH THIS HARD CORE RIGHT NOW (which is why I am YELLING – lol)… AND MAN IT IS NUTS! I even told a friend earlier today that I would be so curious to just be in the mind of a guy for one day, to see what it was like! LOL! My friend told me: I would probably never want to date another guy! LOL!
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    • says

      Sometimes coaches just don’t get it, and it’s sad. Teenage girls are very fragile in some ways, and when they get the wrong message from someone that they are supposed to respect and listen to, it can be very confusing and disheartening.
      Debbie Woodruff recently posted…Running Notes: 7 Key Points for Coaching GirlsMy Profile

  3. says

    I went to a conference recently that talked about a trend of fewer women coaches. They said a girl can go her entire school career without ever being coached by a female. Good for you for taking on this important task and topic!

    • says

      That’s a shame that as more girls do sports there are less female coaches. I can understand it at the high school level, where it is an additional job on top of regular teaching duties, not to mention probably family commitments. There are only so many things that women can fit on their plate. Still, sad. Though there are many great male coaches who know how to coach girls.
      Debbie Woodruff recently posted…Running Notes: 7 Key Points for Coaching GirlsMy Profile

  4. says

    I definitely cried in frustration a few times back in my high school years of track. I also struggled with self esteem issues because I wasn’t as fast as the other girls. That caused me to lose weight – too much weight, which was I believe a lot of muscle – which made the whole situation worse. All great tips to be aware of!
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    • says

      The idea that getting skinnier will help you run faster has been the cause of so many problems for girls. And many times the idea is reinforced by the coach. It makes me angry, especially when it happens at the high school level (or earlier).
      Debbie Woodruff recently posted…Running Notes: 7 Key Points for Coaching GirlsMy Profile

  5. says

    Love this! Brings back a lot of memories from my XC days. I wish my coaches understood how to coach girls. A comment when I was a senior about how myself and the other girl’s captain were faster our junior year because we were skinnier was definitely at a catalyst in her eventual eating disorder. Thank you so much for sharing!
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