Training and Coaching of Female vs. Male Endurance Athletes on their Road to Gold. Perceptions among Successful Elite Athlete Coaches
Training und Coaching von weiblichen vs. männlichen Athleten auf ihrem Weg zu Gold? Einschätzungen erfolgreicher Trainer von Eliteathleten
This scientific short report investigated how successful male coaches perceive gender differences in training characteristics and coaching practice among medal-winning endurance athletes.
Ten male Norwegian coaches with a track record of coaching both female and male endurance world-class athletes (total of 269 Olympic, World and European Championship medals) participated in semi-structured interviews. Inductive thematic analysis revealed that all coaches mainly adjusted their key training and coaching principles to the individual athlete, rather than gender. A coach-driven and athlete-centered individualization process was essential to create trust, mutual understanding, and optimal training content. Potential gender/sex differences were perceived in four main themes: sport-specific competition demands, physiological, psychological and interpersonal factors (e.g., gender of the coach).
In this context, all coaches described how training and coaching of female athletes differs from that of men, thus considering male athletes as the reference group and male physiology and psychology as the norm. Furthermore, societal factors such as a male-dominant sports culture and underlying gender stereotypes were suggested as amplifiers of gender differences.
Accordingly, our report highlights the need for female perspectives in elite sports and invites further in-depth investigations of the identified gender/sex differences within the respective disciplines of training science, physiology, psychology and sociology.
Key Words: Coaching, Endurance Training, Gender Differences, Sex Difference, Training Science
Dieser Kurzreport analysiert die Erfahrungen von Trainern erfolgreicher Eliteausdauersportler bezüglich geschlechtlicher Unterschiede in Training und Coaching von männlichen und weiblichen Athleten.
Zehn männliche Trainer aus Norwegen, die bereits männliche und weibliche Weltklasseathleten in Ausdauersportarten (269 Olympische, Weltmeisterschafts- und Europameisterschaftsmedaillen) wurde im Rahmen semi-strukturierter Interviews befragt. Die induktive thematische Analyse erbrachte, dass alle Coaches die Trainingsprinzipien und –praktiken primär nach individuellen Gesichtspunkten und weniger auf Basis des Geschlechts angepasst haben. Dieser vom Trainer gesteuerte und auf den Athleten fokussierte Prozess war essentiell für Vertrauen, Zusammenarbeit und optimale Trainingsgestaltung. Potenzielle Geschlechterunterschiede wurden bei vier Hauptkategorien ersichtlich: wettkampfspezifische Erwartungen, physiologische, psychologische und interpersonelle Faktoren (z. B. Geschlecht des Trainers).
Alle Coaches beschrieben, wie sich Training von Frauen von dem von Männern unterscheidet, es deutete sich damit eine Wahrnehmung der männlichen Physiologie und Psychologie als «Norm» beziehungsweise «Referenz» an. Gesellschaftliche Faktoren wurden in diesem Kontext als Verstärker angesehen, beispielsweise eine männlich-dominierte Sportkultur und Geschlechterstereotype.
Daher dient diese Arbeit dazu, auf die Wahrnehmung der weiblichen Perspektive von Elitesport hinzuweisen und plädiert für weiterführende trainingswissenschaftliche, physiologische, psychologische und soziologische Studien zu den hier identifizierten geschlechtsbezogenen Differenzen.
Schlüsselwörter: Coaching, Ausdauertraining, Geschlechterunterschiede, Trainingswissenschaften
Introduction, Problems and Aim
Numerous scientific investigations have described basic training characteristics and physiological profiles of female and male world-class endurance athletes (5, 12, 18, 19). Still, our scientific understanding of the many factors included in the complex interaction regulating performance development is limited. To cope with this, successful coaches use their intuition, experience, and tradition when prescribing training to elite athletes (5). History has shown that the best coaches often are years ahead of sport science in employing the critical features of training and coaching, and a recent editorial by Haugen (4) highlighted that knowledge derived from successful coaches may be an untapped source of information in the sport-science literature.
One of the areas with limited knowledge is whether women and men should be trained and coached differently. Although the performance differences between women and men have stabilized in the last decades (13), there are sex-specific performance pathways (6, 17, 20) as well as different physiological and psychological profiles (1, 8, 9). However, the possible implications for training prescriptions and coaching practices are not well studied. The perceptions of coaches with success in coaching both genders would provide a valid starting point for thematic identification of main themes of gender differences and thereby generation of new hypotheses in this area.
By acknowledging the (unfortunate) fact that elite coaches are mainly men, the aim of this study was to investigate how successful Norwegian male coaches perceive gender differences in training characteristics and coaching practices among medal-winning endurance athletes.
Material and Methods
Study Design and Procedures
Ten male Norwegian coaches with a track record of coaching medal-winning female and male endurance athletes took part in this study (table 1).
Personal semi-structured interviews related to key topics within endurance training and coaching (planning, organization and periodization of the training year, competitive activity, amount of training, intensity, altitude training, tapering, testing and athlete follow-up), including questions focusing on gender differences, were performed. Approximately 180 min audio recording from each interview was transcribed and approved by the respective coach. Formal translation and back-translation from Norwegian to English was performed by the first and last author, respectively, and approved by all co-authors. The study followed the institutional requirements and was pre-approved by the Norwegian Centre for Research Data (reference #605672). Prior to the study, the coaches provided a written informed consent to participate.
Thematic analysis was performed following the six steps suggested by Brown & Clarke (2). Step one included familiarization with the data and initial discussion on findings among all authors. Following an inductive approach, a total of 105 raw themes on perceived gender differences in training content and coaching practice were identified (step 2) and systematized into preliminary themes (step 3) by the first author. Revisions of themes and validation against the interviews (step 4) were subject to discussion and negotiation among all authors. For a final definition of themes (step 5), theories on training science and the coach-athlete relationship (7), as well as practical relevance, were considered. Finally, all authors contributed to write the final manuscript (step 6).
Six higher-order themes emerged: 1) individual differences exceed gender/sex-differences, 2) societal and cultural factors, 3) different sport-specific competition demands, 4) physiological factors, 5) psychological factors and 6) interpersonal factors. Higher-order themes 1) and 2) served as a framework, whereas the themes 3)-6) were further divided into the following sub-themes: a) perceived sources of gender/sex differences and b) practical manifestations of gender/sex differences in training characteristics and coaching practice.
In line with guidelines for high-quality qualitative research advocated by Tracy (15), we ensured that the eight criteria of worthy topic, rich rigor, sincerity, credibility, resonance, significant contribution, ethics, and meaningful coherence were adhered to.
Results and Discussion
This study investigated how successful Norwegian male coaches perceive gender differences in training characteristics and coaching practice among medal-winning endurance athletes. Inductive thematic analysis revealed that all coaches mainly adjusted their key training and coaching principles to the individual athlete, rather than gender. A coach-driven and athlete-centered individualization process was essential to create trust, mutual understanding and optimal training content. Through this process, potential gender/sex differences were perceived within four main themes: a) sport-specific competition demands, as well as b) physiological, c) psychological and d) interpersonal factors. In this context, all coaches elaborated on how training and coaching of female athletes deviate from that of men, thereby considering male athletes as the reference group, and male physiology and psychology as the norm. Furthermore, societal factors such as a male-dominant sports culture and underlying gender stereotypes were suggested as amplifiers of gender differences.
All coaches communicated clear training philosophies where key training and coaching principles are mainly adjusted to the individual athlete, rather than gender. Creation of trust and mutual understanding was regarded as the foundation for this process, in which training content was optimized based on a detailed analysis of the athlete’s physiological and psychological profiles in relation to the sport-specific demands. Typical statements from the coaches include:
C2: «I have, however, reached the conclusion that differences between individuals are larger than the differences between genders. Therefore, I think that the most important thing we as coaches can do is to individualize the training based on the person we are supposed to support and develop.»
C9: «There are probably greater differences between individuals than there are between female and male athletes. For both sexes, it is important to have mutual respect in the collaboration between coach and athlete and requires time being spent on building the relationships between the athletes and between coach and athlete. Circumstances that help to create trust are that there is predictability and security with the athlete. If I should train athletes, we must have a chemistry and mutual respect.»
Through this process, the coaches perceived gender differences within four main themes as detailed in table 2. Notably, the observation of these differences was often based on the above-described individualized approach:
C5: «The individual process for doing the right priorities in the planning phase […] leads to the content of the training - so the outcome can of course differ among athletes, and should there be any gender differences, e.g., adjusting training to the menstrual cycle, this is picked up through a thorough analysis and planning process.»
Many of the investigated endurance sports include fewer and/or shorter competitions for women, which consequently influence how training sessions are designed to meet the competition-schedule and the sport-specific competition demands. For example, in cycling there are fewer and shorter races for women (14), while in biathlon and cross-country skiing competitions have so far been shorter for women (12). In addition, equipment can be relatively heavier for women such as the rifle in biathlon (16). On the contrary, endurance events in athletics have similar distances and thereby longer competition times in women (3). Obviously, these factors affect the planning and execution of training.
Lower tolerance for muscular loads due to physical and anatomical differences in women compared to men was suggested by some of the coaches. Consequently, earlier introduction to and more emphasis on strength training was suggested for female athletes. Another perception among the coaches was that hormone-driven and biological sex-differences typically lead to stagnation in performance development during middle-to-late adolescence in girls, but not in boys (17). In addition, the menstrual cycle may have an impact on training and performance in some women (18). Interestingly, none of the coaches had a clear strategy on how these factors should be handled which is in line with current literature, suggesting individual approaches to menstrual cycle adjustments (10). However, one of the coaches argued that performance-expectations in female athletes during puberty and late adolescence should be modified by coaches, stakeholders, and the athletes themselves:
C10: «This means that we must have considerably more patience with female athletes, and thus not rush the training progression. […] the lack of progress is probably because much of the specific effect (e.g., high anaerobic training load and artificially low body weight) was maximized too early in terms of age. […] Internationally, many medal winners are well beyond 30 y of age.»
From a psychological point of view, some of the coaches perceived female athletes to follow training plans more thoroughly and to be less independent than men. Other coaches perceived female athletes as less resilient and in need of more support in the face of adversity, as well as more emotional, sensitive and insecure. Although studies of general populations indicate that women use different and a wider range of emotion regulation strategies compared to men (11), this aspect, as well as the possible implications for coaching, need to be studied more carefully in sport. One consequence, especially for male coaches, may be that more time is required to gain safety and trust in a good coach-athlete relationship with female athletes.
Influence of interpersonal factors such as the role of their gender on coaching-requirements were also perceived by some of the coaches. Most of the coaches found it easier to interact with men where they could communicate more directly. In this context, all coaches in our sample elaborated on how training and coaching of female athletes deviated from that of men, thereby considering male athletes as the reference group and male physiology and psychology as the norm. This highlights the need for female perspectives and coaches in elite sports. As illustrated by one of the coaches, societal factors such as a male-dominant sports culture and underlying gender stereotypes may even be amplifiers of gender differences:
C9: «The big challenge is that female athletes are often treated differently than male athletes. I have experienced this both among coaches and other staff. My experience is that there is greater acceptance for boys to be heard when they propose that training should be individualized, even when this individualization leads to deviation from the team’s plan. If the boys propose such changes, they are perceived as smart and innovative. If the girls propose the same type of changes, they are perceived as “difficult”. This is challenging, and I am extremely motivated to erase this discrimination. I therefore encourage female athletes to suggest how we can best individualize the training and competition plan. In addition, I work actively with coaches and other staff in the national team system, making them aware of the discrimination that often occurs and more open-minded regarding inputs from female athletes. […] We have a long way to go in the way we treat women.»
This short report showed that successful male coaches intend to tailor training content and coaching practice to the individual athlete, rather than gender. A coach-driven and athlete-centered individualization process appears essential to create trust, mutual understanding, and optimal training content for endurance athletes on their road to gold. In this process, potential gender/sex-specific differences in competition demands, physiology and psychology, as well as interpersonal factors such as the gender of the coach should be considered. Awareness of societal factors such as a male-dominant sports culture and underlying gender stereotypes as amplifiers of gender differences may additionally be important. In this context, all coaches described how training and coaching of female athletes differs from that of men, thus considering male athletes as the reference group and male physiology and psychology as the norm. Our report highlights the need for female perspectives in elite sports and invites further in-depth investigations of the identified gender/sex differences within the respective disciplines of training science, physiology, psychology and
We are grateful to all the coaches who have participated in this study and shared their extensive experience and knowledge.
Conflict of Interest
The authors have no conflict of interest.
- Physical activity and growth, maturationand performance: a longitudinal study. Med Sci SportsExerc. 1992; 24: 576-585.
- Thematic analisis.In (Ed): AmericanPsychological Association; 2012.
- Expanding the Gap: An UpdatedLook Into Sex Differences in Running Performance.Front Physiol. 2022; 12: 804149.
- Best-Practice Coaches: An UntappedResource in Sport-Science Research. Int J SportsPhysiol Perform. 2021; 16: 1215-1216.
- TheTraining Characteristics of World-Class DistanceRunners: An Integration of Scientific Literature andResults-Proven Practice. Sports Med Open. 2022; 8: 46.
- Peak Age andPerformance Progression in World-Class Track-and-Field Athletes. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2018; 13:1122-1129.
- The coach-athleterelationship: a motivational model. J Sports Sci. 2003;21: 883-904.
- Physical growth and biological maturationof young athletes. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 1994; 22: 280-284.
- Biological maturation of youth athletes:assessment and implications. Br J Sports Med. 2015; 49:852-859.
- The effectsof menstrual cycle phase on exercise performance ineumenorrheic women: a systematic review and metaanalysis.Sports Med. 2020; 50: 1813-1827.
- Emotion regulation andpsychopathology: the role of gender. Annu RevClin Psychol. 2012; 8: 161-187.
- Physiological Capacityand Training Routines of Elite Cross-Country Skiers:Approaching the Upper Limits of Human Endurance.Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2017; 12: 1003-1011.
- Sex Differencesin World-Record Performance: The Inf luence ofSport Discipline and Competition Duration. Int JSports Physiol Perform. 2018; 13: 2-8.
- Intensity andLoad Characteristics of Professional Road Cycling:Differences Between Men’s and Women’s Races. Int JSports Physiol Perform. 2019; 14: 296-302.
- Qualitative quality: Eight “big-tent” criteriafor excellent qualitative research. Qual Inq. 2010; 16:837-851.
- The Effect ofRif le Carriage on the Physiological and AccelerometerResponses During Biathlon Skiing. Front Sports ActLiving 2022; 4: 813784.
- Performance development in adolescenttrack and field athletes according to age, sex and sportdiscipline. PLoS One. 2015; 10: e0129014.
- The annual training periodizationof 8 world champions in orienteering. Int J SportsPhysiol Perform. 2015; 10: 29-38.
- The road to gold: training and peakingcharacteristics in the year prior to a gold medalendurance performance. PLoS One. 2014; 9: e101796.
- Peak Age and Relative PerformanceProgression in International Cross-Country Skiers. IntJ Sports Physiol Perform. 2022; 17: 31-36.
Norwegian University of
Science and Technology
Centre for Elite Sports Research
(Toppidrettssenteret i Granåsen)
Smistadvegen 11, 7026 Trondheim, Norway