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The future of women’s sport

women playing basketball

As we celebrate women in sport throughout March we wanted to hear our women authors’ thoughts on what the future holds for women in sport. We spoke with some of our women authors to see what they felt had changed for women in sport over recent years and what the future might hold.

Our authors all hold many years working in and climbing the career ladders in their fields, from personal training to coaching and nutrition.

A summary of their thoughts are below:

Desi Bartlett

Author of Total Body Beautiful and Your Strong, Sexy Pregnancy.

The landscape for women working in fitness has evolved and it feels like we are stepping into a new era of celebrating health over a particular type of physical aesthetic. In society at large, there is usually one body part that is in fashion. Whether it was large glutes or “thigh dips”, we are finally moving past looking a particular way, and focusing more on FEELING. Feeling strong from the inside out, and celebrating strength over looking like a specific model or celebrity is becoming more of the norm. In the fitness industry, we know that thin does not equate to healthy and quite honestly being heavier does not always equate to being unhealthy. I am very pleased that the conversation has moved beyond “how to lose the last 5 lbs.”, to something more along the lines of “how to cultivate strength mentally and physically.” 

Looking ahead

Personally, I have rebranded my work to include the term “bodymind,” as a reminder that our bodies and minds are not separate. Now more than ever, we are realizing the importance of mental health and how mental and physical health are interdependent. I see this as the future of women’s fitness, the ability to work with women and recognize that we are whole beings and not just body parts. Ideally I would love to see a basic component of mental health built into future certifications for personal training, yoga, and all fitness modalities. Emotion is energy in motion and it is normal for people to process their feeling while moving. As fitness professionals we know that we already hold space for emotional processing. I was very pleased that Human Kinetics encouraged me and my co-authors Andrea Orbeck and Nicole Stuart to include mental and emotional health chapters in our book, Total Body Beautiful. Human Kinetics has been a leader in fitness publication for decades and to have a publisher recognize the shift in women’s health to be more inclusive of mental and emotional health, heralds the change for seeing women as whole beings. 

Nancy Clark

Author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook

I see a future where women are proud of their strong and powerful bodies, as opposed to embarrassed and ashamed of being “too big”  or having a “flawed” body with undesired bumps or bulges of body fat. Women have come to learn that athletes, like dogs, come in many different sizes and shapes, and that genetics, training, sleep, food, and muscle, more than body fat, are the bigger determinants for a successful sports career. Women have learned that “leaner at any cost” comes with a big cost: injuries and sitting on the sidelines. They now know that food is fuel, essential for top performance; food is no longer the “fattening enemy.”

Melody Schoenfeld

Author of Diet Lies and Weight Loss Truths, and Strength Training for All Body Types

I have noticed a shift over the years of women being more interested in building muscle and lifting heavy weights, entering more competitive strength sports such as Oly lifting, powerlifting, and strongman, and becoming strength coaches themselves. I am also seeing a much bigger percentage of coaches encouraging less dogmatic pictures of what “fit” means, and a far more balanced, individualized, and sustainable approach to nutrition and fitness rather than just “chasing leanness.”  These are all exciting progressions!  

There remain challenges for women in the industry, however. One of the most glaring examples of this is in sports coaching. According to the US Department of Education (, there are very few women in head coaching positions for men’s sports (11.7% for all track events, 3.5% for golf, 0.3% for lacrosse, and 7.5% for tennis, and 0 in American football, basketball, baseball, or soccer), while male head coaches in women’s sports are relatively common (43.1% in basketball, 66.2% in soccer, 33% in softball, 44.4% in volleyball, 82.5% in all track events, 69.6% in tennis, 61.3% in golf, and 15.6% in lacrosse).  Women’s presence as head coaches in women’s NCAA sports have remained less than 50% compared to men, and 5% or less in men’s sports, since 2003, and these numbers remain very similar in Division I, II, and III sports.  Even assistant coaching proportions have similar breakdowns—women account for 54% of assistant coaches in women’s sports in the NCAA, and 8% in men’s sports.     

Looking ahead

I definitely see women’s participation in sports previously seen as “masculine” increasing exponentially—strength sports, hockey, American football, and so forth.  I would love to see more women in head coaching positions; that seems to have traditionally been a tough glass ceiling to break, and in my conversations with women who work in college and professional coaching, it seems that women are often not treated with respect behind the scenes.  In a perfect world, that dynamic will change, with women seen as equally capable of coaching any team to victory. 

Neely Spence Gracey and Cindy Kuzma

Authors of Breakthrough Women’s Running

Many women and girls don’t participate in sports because until recently, there’s been a complete lack of research or discussion regarding their unique bodies and minds. Female athletes have specific physiological and psychological needs at every phase of life, from puberty through pregnancy and on into perimenopause and menopause. By ignoring this fact, coaches often either mistreat or unintentionally fail to serve their female athletes. 

Fortunately, change is already in progress. From the time I began competing in high school until now, there’s more of a recognition that women aren’t inferior, just different. Now, coaches are much more likely to use this information to improve athletes’ training, performance, and overall health. And between my first and second pregnancies, I noticed a huge increase in resources available to expecting and postpartum athletes—for instance, access to pelvic floor physical therapy, lactation support at races, and contracts that don’t penalize motherhood. I’m glad I could contribute to these shifts by coaching, writing a book for women runners, and speaking openly about my own experiences.

However, we still have a ways to go before women’s sports opportunities are truly equal to men’s. Getting there will require an ongoing commitment to fund and conduct research on female athletes. Then, we need to better educate coaches—for instance, requiring them to pursue continuing education and certifications incorporating that knowledge. And, we need to make room for more female coaches, whose experiences and voices work to banish stereotypes and break down remaining barriers. 

Cecile Reynaud

Author of Winning Ways of Women Coaches

The landscape for women’s sports has changed tremendously over the years.  Not too long ago women’s sports were struggling for media coverage and long term contracts in collegiate coaching.  We are seeing more events in a variety of sports with sold out crowds, more television coverage and more sponsorship involvement.  Women’s college softball outdraws men’s college baseball on ESPN.  Fans were lined up to get into an early tournament in Clearwater, FL in February.  Every game of the Women’s College World Series will be shown on ESPN and their various channels.  There are full arenas for college women’s basketball with sell outs around the country and a sold out Final Four.  Women’s college volleyball set attendance records around the country, have been selling out their NCAA National Championship semi-finals and finals and now there are professional volleyball leagues being developed in the United States for young women to stay at home at play in front of their family and friends instead of going overseas.  The Pro Volleyball Federation is beginning play in 2024 and Athletes Unlimited volleyball will play their 3rd season this fall. The WNBA is highly successful as are the professional soccer leagues for women in the U.S.  Times have certainly changed.

When given the right resources and support we have seen women coaches become highly successful and well respected such as Becky Hammons (WNBA Las Vegas Aces), Dawn Staley (U. of South Carolina Basketball), Tara VanDerveer (Stanford Basketball), Patty Gasso (U. of Oklahoma Softball), Kelly Inouye Perez (UCLA Softball), Lonni Alameda (FSU Softball) and Mary Wise (U. of Florida Volleyball).  These coaches are quite recognizable and earn much higher salaries than ever before.

As women’s sports gain more television coverage and more people are able to learn athletes’ and coaches’ stories as well as their struggles, they will witness very skilled athletes competing at the highest level in their sport.  That exposure will bring more fans, more sponsorships, better facilities and allow little girls to watch them and see what is possible for them in the future.

Header photo by Joel De Leon.

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