Why are women-only sports clinics on the rise? Scratch the surface of any sport and you will likely find a camp, clinic or class in which women are teaching women. Whether it's surfing, skiing, river rafting, rock climbing, boxing or golf, women-only groups contain a unique alchemy that tends to be absent in mixed company.
For one thing, women orient to creating a non-competitive atmosphere that focuses on showing up rather than showing off. And part of the showing up is admitting fear, something of a no-no in mixed company. In extreme sports especially, women have discovered they fare better when they can openly acknowledge their fears.
Women-taught sports are grounded on the principle that women have specific physiques as well as psychological and physiological needs—no mansplaining allowed. The concept has taken off: Women-only instruction has increased significantly in the last few years. Ski resorts, in particular, have taken the demand for women-specific programs seriously: Almost every resort now offers them.
Kim Reichhelm, an extreme skier and racer recently named "Top Most Influential Skiers of All-Time" by Skiing Magazine was one of the first to offer women’s-only ski clinics as early as 1983, when it was still fringe. “Many women were not getting skiing—mainly because they were not learning in the right environment,” she says.
Here are three of the main reasons why women-led instruction is so conducive to becoming one’s best athlete.
All too often, men will teach women as if they are more petite versions of themselves. But women’s center of gravity is different—approximately one inch lower than man’s, due to wider pelvis and narrower should girdle. Women are wider at the bottom than the top, while men are the opposite, says Susan Choi, a former LPGA golf touring professional who teaches at Five Iron Golf in New York City. This translates into more lower body stability but less arm strength, she says.
Women instructors “get” the female body with intuitive precision. “Being able to relate to your athlete is imperative and I feel like I have had an easier time doing that with women” says Cary Williams, a female boxing coach, former fighter and CEO of Santa Monica, California-based Boxing & Barbells. “I understand that the frame of their body is different, so we may do a standard exercise differently so that she gets the most out of it.”
The tend-and-befriend mindset
Creating a more welcoming vibe for women doesn’t boil down to instruction alone. It’s also about community: Sometimes just being around other women is all it takes for the tipping point of breakthrough. Tend-and-befriend is the more feminine alternative to fight or flight: It’s based on the theory that a viable response to stress involves going double down on nurture, support and bonding. “Women know that boding together is safer than roostering up and going to the top,” says Elisa Robyn, a psychologist who works as a mentor for helping people make life transitions. In other words, an atmosphere of camaraderie builds confidence more than an atmosphere of intense competition.
Part of the “tending” is tending to one’s inner landscape too: Paying attention to intrinsic cues of competency and mastery. Women often start a sport with a deprecating attitude of their own athletic ability. Women-led camps and clinics prioritize increasing a woman’s sense of confidence. Reichhelm observes that pressure creates undue anxiety. “I don’t pressure women to ski outside their comfort zone. Instead, I create an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie. I encourage women to ask themselves if they are ready and develop an inner inkling of their own competency. This builds confidence from the inside—and makes breakthroughs that much more rewarding.”
Less technical, more embodied
Women often due best with an irreverent approach to fundamental skills. Instead of relying on the usual drill terminology, women tend to use metaphors to convey certain movements, such as the pole plant in skiing. If the metaphors are sometimes a titch risqué—that makes them all the more memorable. “If you are too technical, you intimidate your audience,” says Choi. “Keep it fun and funny and relatable.” For example, “I tell women to feel a slight pressure in your armpits as if you’re making a cleavage during their golf swing, a cue that’s vivid and accessible.”