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Women in strength and conditioning

Posted by Lynne O'Malley on 31 Mar 2016

Female lifting weights

Definitions:  Strength and Conditioning Coach
An individual who works directly with athletes to develop all physical qualities such as speed, strength, power, agility, cardiovascular/muscular endurance and flexibility, including nutritional and drug-free restorative considerations which improve athletic performance and prevent injuries specific to the performance of a given sport. This responsibility is performed under the direction of the head coach of a specific sport.

What a fantastic time to embark on a career in strength and conditioning. Women are attaining more and more success in Olympic sports with Sarah Ulmer, Val Adams and Lisa Carrington leading from the front. Did you know 50% of both New Zealand and Australia’s 2012 Olympic Golds were won by women? In addition, four of the nine rowing crews heading to Rio are female – all are touted as medal prospects.

Currently within High Performance Sport NZ, 44% of sports science staff are female, however, only 13.5% of those within the strength and conditioning discipline are female. Similar trends can be observed in Australian High Performance Sport, The British Strength and Conditioning Association (U.K.S.C.A) currently have 700 members of which a small percentage are female.

With strength training now being considered indispensable in the pursuit of optimal performance, it is hard to believe that during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, strength training was actually viewed as harmful to both men and women and of no benefit to sport. A significant paradigm shift has occurred as evidenced by the growth in membership of the North American, National Strength and Conditioning Association (N.S.C.A.) from an original membership of 75 to over 30,0000 members worldwide. Since 2009, the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association (A.S.C.A.) membership has increased from 1300 to 3500. Athletes, coaches and trainers in New Zealand have embraced weight training as a means to both improve performance and prevent injuries.

Since the 1950s, women have made significant inroads into the attainment of acceptance, support and respect within the sporting arena. Integral to these gains has been performance improvements, of which resistance training has been a key component. Even so, studies indicate the strength and conditioning profession is saturated with men. Even with an increasingly important presence in the weight room, within elite female sport, there appears to be resistance to the employment of female strength and conditioners to oversee programmes. Some of the old fashioned attitudes still exist, but with the way women are now embracing strength and conditioning – this is rapidly changing.

A.S.C.A is aiming for a 50% representation of female strength and conditioning coaches across sports and has been proactive in this as evidenced by the establishment of a Women’s S.I.G. (Special Interest Group), funding of study tours and the provision of general support and infrastructure.

The N.S.C.A. website showcases profiles of women in strength and conditioning, featuring notable women who have made great strides within and left an indelible mark on the discipline.
Women are now `cracking the gigs’ for example, Dr. Donna O’Connor was in charge of strength and conditioning at Nth QLD Cowboys, Suki Hobson worked with Essendon AFL and is now working in the US NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks and our own Debbie Strange does all the strength and conditioning for her elite throwers.

Numerous studies have been completed on male strength coaches, however, none have been specifically focused on the work environment of female coaches – possibly because of the low or non-existent numbers within the target groups studied. Way back in 1990 the N.S.C.A. conducted a membership survey of its members. Of the 10% who returned the forms, 196 were women and 817 were men. Only three of the 196 women had a job as a strength coordinator or strength coach. These numbers do not appear to have shifted radically some 25 years later
With these statistics, it seems obvious that there is a need for more women in strength and conditioning roles, and that it’s likely to be a growth area of employment in the future. Fortunately, informal research within Wintec’s Centre for Sports Science and Human Performance suggests women do have an interest and a passion for the strength and conditioning discipline. This is evidenced by the strong interest in the new Strength and Conditioning paper offered as part of the Post Graduate Diploma in Sport and Exercise Science.

Women have a big role to play in the future of strength and conditioning, and I’d love to see more women taking up the opportunity to study and work in this field. If it’s your passion in life, don’t let the old status quo stop you, come be a game changer – we’ll help you get started at Wintec.

About the Author

Lynne O'Malley

After an extensive career in strength and conditioning, training more than 50 international athletes, Lynne is now a full time staff member at the Centre for Sports Science and Human Performance. She is studying for her Masters in Sport and Exercise Science, her topic 'Women in strength and conditioning – where are they?'

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