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The Female Athlete Brain | "The Hamster Wheel"

February 8 2023 by Kassie Gray | Courtesy of

The Hamster gets on her wheel in her cage and she begins to run. She goes around and around. She does this for the purpose of exercise. She does this maybe because she finds it amusing. But it is also done because she is stuck in a cage and can’t walk freely. Day after day, she runs around and around in a circle. Over and over and over again. She isn’t actually getting anywhere. She isn’t progressing. The Hamster on the Wheel is often our youth female athletes. 

Teenage girls are impressionable. Often they believe what they hear and internalize what they see. How do we know? Well for starters, we’ve been teenage girls. All of us. And more, we do our research. As a coach or parent, we often say things without thinking or react to a situation on the field. Every one of our actions or words will affect our children whether we think it does or not. And when your feedback is negative, critical or borderline unkind due to your own frustrations, she takes whatever she hears and puts it on her hamster wheel. It sits there going around and around and she begins to believe it. 

Most parents think because she’s quiet that it didn’t affect her very much. “They are just words,” we tell ourselves. Many coaches and parents say kind things too. Encouraging statements, uplifting speeches even.  But often she can’t hear your positive comments because her hamster wheel is spinning already with something you said at yesterday's game or practice.  Those moments where you aren’t sure what she’s thinking and if she is affected by it, begin to define her teenage years. There is a term for those thoughts going round and round in her head. It's called RUMINATION. Rumination or ruminating is the repetition of thoughts that are often problematic or negative. However, rumination can also be a helpful tool for positive self affirmations, we’ll get to that in a bit. 

Girls ruminate more than boys. It’s true.  According to the National Institute of Health, “A prominent psychological theory, the response styles theory (RST; Nolen-Hoeksema, 1987, 1991), purports that women have a greater tendency to ruminate on their depressive symptoms and distress than do men, and this contributes to greater rates of depression in women.” And there are even studies that show that female rumination is linked to sex hormones post puberty. 

In our work, we find that female athletes under the age of 13 tend to ruminate less than those 13-18 years of age. This has a lot to do with each female's individual development and hormones. Most parents and coaches don’t think this type of negative self-talk is hurting their daughters' self-worth and sports performance because she is so quiet. Mental skills work doesn’t get the attention it needs due to the system not valuing it enough and a lack of education around the mental side,  so parents and coaches continue to ignore it all. And then we find that as our female athletes go into more high pressure situations such as college recruiting or ID camps, as parents and coaches we begin to see the cracks. We start to notice the bad habits she’s created of only putting the automatic negative thoughts on the hamster wheel and never putting the positive on it. And by then she is about 18 years old. 5 or more years of negative rumination. We then try to slap the “bandaid” on her negative self-talk habits by giving her the one and done mental skills session but it never truly gets fixed. 

Negative Rumination is common. And it can be reframed. I don’t like the word fixed. Fixed makes her feel like something is wrong with her. It's very common. But she can train her brain to use physical resets and cue words to stop her hamster wheel and even take off the negative statement and replace it with a positive one. It's possible. 

We know it's possible because it's what we do at Female Footballers. Imagine if we started younger and helped her be self aware of rumination. Imagine if she learned about this before it truly set in and practiced how to speak to herself as kind as she speaks to those around her that she values. Imagine if she put positive empowering thoughts on her hamster wheel often. And imagine if you as her parents or coach saw past how her confidence would grow on the field and you could see more long term,  how it can impact her entire life as a human being. Imagine that.

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