- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

Take a look at the all-muscles female athletes — from local swimmer Katie Hoff to tennis star Serena Williams — who competed at the Beijing Olympics.

Clearly, as a society, we’ve come a long way since the damsel-in-distress female image of centuries past. But have we gone too far?

Yes and no, says Michael Sokolove, author of “Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports.”

The bulging muscles are fine, says Mr. Sokolove — who interviewed dozens of orthopedic surgeons, feminist historians, female athletes, coaches and educators for the book — the way girls and women train to achieve them isn’t, however.

“People need to wake up. The way girls and women train today is damaging. Too many girls are being hurt,” Mr. Sokolove says. “No, I’m not saying women are too delicate. I’m just saying they’re different [from men].”

The way they’re different, he continues, is that during puberty girls lose muscle mass in relation to their overall weight; while boys gain muscle mass in relation to their overall weight just by virtue of increased testosterone production.

“This is as true as it is impolitic to say,” he says.

Many coaches, though, don’t take this difference between girl’s and boys’ bodies into consideration, he says.

“Coaches are mostly male and their style and attitude [reflects that],” he says.

Despite their physical differences, training regimens often are the same for boys and girls, which takes a heavy toll on girls’ bodies. The consequence of the unisex training regimen can be — and often is — catastrophic for girls.

“If you are a parent of a girl and she’s 14 years old and she plays sports and she plays them fiercely, she will probably suffer a major injury in the next few years,” he says.

Major injuries include ACL tears.

“They have reached almost epidemic proportions among young women,” he says.

The ACL — the anterior cruciate ligament — is a ligament in the knee. Researchers aren’t sure why women are more susceptible to this injury than men, but it probably has to do with estrogen production and anatomical differences. Women’s hips are wider, which changes the angle between knee and hip.

Yet, despite more frequent injuries, girls often are less likely to call it quits.

“Research has never shown that women have a higher pain threshold,” he says. “They have something to prove and they’re tougher. … They consider pain a normal part of the sports experience.”

But while non-gender-specific training can have dire consequences for women, it is still politically incorrect to talk about the differences in male and female bodies, Mr. Sokolove says.

“Women over time have been discriminated against with crank science. So now people don’t want to study sex differences,” he says.

The concern is that if differences are highlighted, it will be like saying women are weak and delicate, which is not the point. The point is, women are different and need to train differently — in a gender-specific way — to stay healthy, he says.

“We need a nuanced dialogue,” he says. “Political correctness gets in the way.”

Gender-specific training has several components, including shorter seasons, fewer games and varied training.

“Coaches assume that more is better. Experts know this isn’t true,” he says. “No one needs to play soccer 11 months of the year.”

Strength training is also part of the puzzle, as is playing more than one sport, not getting too specific, too early.

“Moderation is the hardest piece,” he says. “We need to recognize it and get stronger in the right way. All the preventative things that women can do will make them better athletes.”

But the sports world is not moving in the direction of gender-specific training, he says.

“No, I think we’ve gone backwards. We’re trying to copy male sports in every way.”

With increased injuries, though, there is a real risk that the advances made in women’s sports will be halted.

“I think people will change,” he says. “Because who wants to send their daughter out into a youth sport where major injuries are likely?”

In fact, he says, the best hope for real change lies with parents.

“Parents need to put demands on the coaches. Coaches are selfish and stupid and certainly no experts in childhood development,” he says.

He suggests parents need to ask for varied training programs that include injury prevention — which likely will meet with resistance from coaches.

“They don’t want to ‘waste’ time on injury prevention,” he says.

Parents also should reject early specialization and help their daughters embrace a holistic view of body awareness, fitness and exercise.

“We can learn something from Senda Berenson,” he says. Berenson was a physical education instructor at Smith College in the late 1800s.

“She was remarkable. She didn’t see sports for sports sake. She saw it as being complementary in life.”

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