The Perception and Progression of the Female Athlete

by Natajah Garcia and Alice Garza, Andres Garza, and Alyssa Gonzalez
NSCA Coach June 2017
Vol 4, Issue 4


Female athletes in the United States have made great progress in sports since Title IX was enacted in 1972. Despite the progress they have made, female athletes have yet to gain full recognition for their athleticism and their achievements. The purpose of this article is to break down the stigma female athletes have received over the years and shine light on the differences that make female athletes a reward to train.


Female athletes in the United States have made great progress in sport since Title IX was enacted in 1972 (3,4,7,8,9,10,11,12,16). Many female athletes went from appearing in “gender appropriate” sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, and ballet to competing in contact sports, including but not limited to: wrestling, basketball, hockey, and soccer (3,4,10,11,12). Did female athletes revolutionize themselves throughout the last 45 years or have they always had it within themselves to compete in sports that have been dominated by their male counterparts? It should be recognized that female athletes have broken out of the box they had been placed in by their peers. However, despite the progress they have made, female athletes have yet to gain full recognition for their athleticism and their achievements. The purpose of this article is to break down the stigma female athletes have received over the years and shine light on the differences that make female athletes a reward to train.

The Perception of the Female Athlete

Women’s sports have largely been overlooked and undervalued post Title IX in 1972. The disparity in media coverage and focus on male sports compared to female sports is highly evident (2,6,7,13,15). Male sports largely dominate the sports media coverage, not only in individual sports but also in team sports (7,9,11,12,13,15). The perception of female sports is often looked at as novelty and “cute,” but the amount of work and the level of success that women have obtained in sports can often be

greater than those accomplishments made by male athletes (1,2,5,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,15). For instance, in the 2012 London Olympics, 63% of the Gold medals and 56% of the overall team medals taken home by Team USA were won by females.

We can compare a few of the more popular sports in terms of male success versus female success. Every year, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I basketball hosts a tournament that crowns a National Champion for both female and male teams. While the female tournament is often broadcasted solely on paid cable television, the men’s games can be viewed on large networks. One team has dominated the NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament over the past 10 – 15 years. The University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team has won 11 national championships, including consecutive titles from 2013 – 2016. The University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team holds the two longest regular season winning streaks. The first, a 90-game winning streak lasting from 2008 – 2010, and the most recent was a record setting winning streak of 111 games, which ended March 31, 2017 (1). These achievements have been largely overshadowed because the media pushes March Madness with a focus on men’s basketball and brings attention to the “create your own bracket and win a prize” contest.

Another example is the global sport of soccer. The United States men’s soccer team is not known as a contender year in and year out, but they seem to dominate the headlines when they achieve relatively minimal success. On the other hand, the women’s soccer team has won the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup three times (1991, 1999, and 2015) and has been Olympic champions four times (1996, 2004, 2008, and 2012). The women’s national soccer team is known and recognized as a powerhouse in the women’s soccer world, but they are often overlooked and underappreciated on the home front. When female athletes do receive media coverage, they are often described in terms of their physical desirability to men or in their domestic roles as wives and mothers (2,6,7,10,11,13,15). Sports commentators are more likely to speak of a female athlete’s male coach and his accomplishments or the athlete’s famous husband while she is onscreen instead of praising or simply recognizing her athleticism. Even elite-level female athletes who have competed for years will be described with phrases such as “she plays like a man” suggesting that she may not be a woman at all because of how powerful or precise her skills are. It is as if female athletes have the privilege of competing in sports but will continue to only be labeled by their gender because females will never be as athletic as their male counterparts. As a result, one overlooked topic is understanding and highlighting what makes female athletes look within to find the motivation to participate in sport.

Training Female Athletes

What motivates an individual to participate in competitive sports has been researched and analyzed with regard to gender differences (3,5,8,9,11,14,16). Motivation for all athletes can be described as “the foundation of all athletic effort and accomplishment,” (9). Without motivation, it would be difficult for athletes to continue to develop their skills and achieve their goals. Over the years, research has identified how both female and male athletes differ in terms of their motivations for involvement in competitive sports (3,5,8,9,11,14,16). Researchers have provided evidence showing that female athletes are more intrinsically motivated than male athletes (3,8,9,14,16). Intrinsic motivation can be described as doing an activity out of pure interest and for pleasure or satisfaction that is derived from simply performing the activity. Therefore, coaches will often experience female athletes practicing for their sport for the pleasure of constantly surpassing themselves and their previous accomplishments. Researchers also found that female athletes exhibit more identified regulation than their counterparts; that is, they value and judge behavior as being important and therefore will perform it out of choice (3,8,9). For example, the female athlete may say that she has chosen to go to practice because it is something important to her, unlike the male athlete who may go to practice to show others how good he is or to gain praise from coaches and trainers. Understanding these overall differences can give trainers, coaches, and physical educators better insight into what drives female athletes. Due to these developmental differences and given what we know about motivation, a sensible question to consider is when female athletes exhibit these internal motivational qualities and how to leverage this phenomenon to enhance their athletic performance (3,4,9,14,15,16).

A study found that as early as middle school years, females and males differ in regards to their motivations for involvement in sports and physical activity (16). The findings of the study indicated that the girls cited social and skill benefits, competition, and fitness as high priority for involvement; however, the boys indicated a higher concern and attraction solely to competition. In short, the males were driven by competition while the females were more attracted to the social benefits associated with their sports (3,16). Body-related factors and social factors are stronger motives for women and competition motives are more valued by men in regards to participation in sports and physical activity; these differences are likely due to societal expectations of proper gender roles for men and women (2,3,7,9,10,11,12,16). If social benefits and enjoyment of sport and exercise rank high in the motivational factors for female participants, then the progression of female athletes while they are still developing may depend on how others approach guiding them to success. With regard to studying motivational factors of college women versus men in regards to sports participation and exercise, findings indicated that men were more concerned with ego-related factors of participation (3,8,9,14,16). This included factors such as strength, competition, and social recognition. The male athletes preferred to participate in sports and exercise for the prestige associated with being an athlete. As for the women, enjoyment was a high motivational factor for participation in sport and exercise.

Personal relationships seem to be a motivational factor for female athletes. Personal relationships include coaches and athletic teammates. Females tend to appreciate a nurturing family environment and camaraderie. Therefore, coaches and trainers must remember that each person is an individual and by focusing on providing positive feedback, good listening, and constructive criticism, the coach will continue to develop positive self-perception and confidence in the athlete. With the support of continuous team building activities, female athletes will be motivated by their personal relationships to contribute to their team more than they would if they were exposed to a negative environment and did not have an existing relationship with their coaches, trainers, or teammates.

The female athlete’s enjoyment of sport and exercise is another motivational factor. Female athletes tend to respond well to new methods of coaching and training techniques compared to male athletes (3,5,9,16). It may be thought that the best quality an athlete can have is the ability to be trained, and female athletes are open to trying new techniques if it will help them with their performance and give them the upper hand on their opponents. Consider this: two athletes are training for improvement, athlete A has a “been there, done that” attitude, claims to know the problem and its solution. Athlete B wants feedback: asks what is causing the problem, what can be done, and how to fix it; and takes an approach that analyzes all angles. Athlete B, who is willing to make the effort towards improvement and welcomes criticism seems more desirable than the “know-it-all” athlete A. Female athletes are more likely to be similar to athlete B (3,5).


As mentioned in this article, female athletes are intrinsically motivated for other reasons that are compelling to their success as athletes. If you want someone who will show up and not quit, someone who is trainable and motivated all on their own, invest your time in a female athlete.

This article originally appeared in NSCA Coach, a quarterly publication for NSCA Members that provides valuable takeaways for every level of strength and conditioning coach. You can find scientifically based articles specific to a wide variety of your athletes’ needs with Nutrition, Programming, and Youth columns. Read more articles from NSCA Coach »



1. Chiusano, A. UConn Women’s Basketball: The Huskies’ Record Winning Streak Ends at 111 Games. 2017. Retrieved April 2017 from article/2017-03-31/uconn-womens-basketball-huskies-recordwinning-streak-ends.

2. Daniels, EA, and Wartena, H. Athlete or sex symbol: What boys think of media representations of female athletes. Sex Roles A Journal of Research 65(7): 566-579, 2011.

3. Fortier, MS, Vallerand, RJ, Briere, NM, and Provencher, PJ. Competitive and recreational sport structures and gender: A test of their relationship with sport motivation. International Journal of Sport Psychology26: 24-35, 1995.

4. Huston, LJ, and Wojtys, EM. Neuromuscular performance characteristics in elite female athletes. The American Journal of Sports Medicine 24(4): 427-434, 1996.

5. Janssen, J. Special Report: Discover the 8 Differences Between Coaching Men and Women- Part 1 . Championship Coaches n.d. Retrieved March 31, 2017, from http://

6. Jones, MJ, and Schumann, DW. The strategic use of celebrity athlete endorsers in Sports Illustrated: A historic perspective. Sport Marketing Quarterly 9(2): 65-76, 2000.

7. Kane, MJ. Media coverage of the female athlete before, during, and after Title IX: Sports Illustrated revisited. Journal of Sport Management 2: 87-99, 1988.

8. Kilpatrick, MP, Herbert, EP, and Bartholomew, JP. College students’ motivation for physical activity: Differentiating men’s and women’s motives for sport participation and exercise. Journal of American College Health 54(2): 2005.

9. Koivula, N. Sport participation: Difference in motivation and actual participation due to gender typing. Journal of Sport Behavior 22(3): 360-375, 1999.

10. Mean, LJ, and Kassing, JW. “I would just like to be known as an athlete:” Managing hegemony, femininity, and heterosexuality in female sport. Western Journal of Communication 72(2): 126-144, 2008.

11. Messner, MA. Sports and male domination: The female athlete as contested ideological terrain. Sociology of Sport Journal 5: 197-211, 1988.

12. Royce, WS, Gebelt, JL, and Duff, RW. Female athletes: Being both athletic and feminine. Athletic Insight The Online Journal of Sport Psychology 5(1): 47-57, 2003.

13. Salwen, MB, and Wood, N. Depictions of female athletes on Sports Illustrated covers, 1957 – 1989. Journal of Sport Behavior 17(2): 98-107, 1994.

14. Taylor, J. Sports: What Motivates Athletes? 2009. Retrieved March 31, 2017 from prime/200910/sports-what-motivtes-athletes.

15. Weber, JD, and Carini, RM. Where are the female athletes in Sports Illustrated? A content analysis of covers (2000 – 2011). International Review for the Sociology of Sport 48(2): 196-203, 2012.

16. Weinberg, RS. Understand Motivation for Sport Participation. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Fifth Edition. Retrieved March 31, 2017 from exerpts/excerpts/understand-motivaton-for-sport-participation.

About the author

Natajah Garcia

Contact Natajah Garcia

Contact Natajah Garcia

Your first name is required.
Your last name is required.
Your email is required.
Your message is required.
Your reCaptcha is required.

Your email was successfully sent to Natajah Garcia

View full biography
#NSCAStrong #NSCAStrong

has been added to your shopping cart!

Continue Shopping Checkout Now