Sex differences are often referred to interchangeably as gender differences, often to offset taboos associated with the word sex. Use of the word gender originated as a social construct to include biological sex, social roles, and gender identity and is conventionally used in biological delineations. The significance of physical differences between and within sexes lies in perceptions formed from social comparisons and stereotypes generated and perpetuated within the sociocultural environment by significant others, parents, coaches, peers (social agents), and the popular media. Differences in biological or in physical and physiological characteristics are referred to as sex differences in the literature. However, when perceptions of the self or those of social agents are involved, the term gender differences is more common. Because discussions of sport and exercise participation and performance inherently involve interactions among physical, psychological, task and environmental factors, the term gender differences is most appropriate unless the discussion focuses solely on biological characteristics. Regardless of semantics, an understanding of male and female differences in sport and exercise psychology (SEP) is necessary to inform research designs, talent development, and practical interventions.
Conceptual models from general psychology and motor behavior help categorize gender differences and promote the notion that athletic and exercise performance quality are functions of interacting individual and environmental variables. Motor behavior models, however, also account for task characteristics. More specifically, dynamical systems and biocultural perspectives applied to motor behavior postulate that athletic performance outcomes (positive or negative) are functions of interacting individual, environmental, and task characteristics. Individual characteristics can be structural (i.e., physical) or functional (i.e., psychological) and these, too, interact affecting outcomes positively or negatively. For example, if an athlete’s structural (e.g., leanness and linearity) and functional (e.g., mental toughness, fearlessness) characteristics match the demands of the task (e.g., motor performance skills involving aerial rotation) and the athlete has access to a comprehensive coaching team (e.g., elite level, certified coaches, mental training advocates), the likelihood of success is enhanced. Alternatively, an example illustrating a possible negative impact of interacting structural and functional characteristics would be a late maturing athlete who is not strong enough to enjoy the successful accomplishments of early-maturing, stronger, and seemingly more skilled peers within his or her same gender group. Consequently, low self-esteem during critical growth periods, which can span five years, may be evident among late maturers and impact behavioral choices. Unfortunately, interdisciplinary studies of development that measure biological and psychological variables concurrently are sparse. The following sections consider gender differences within individual, environmental, and task components to help elucidate other interactions informative to practitioners working in athletic and exercise contexts.
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Sex differences refer to the biological characteristics linked to chromosomes where females (x,x) and males (x,y) vary in reproductive characteristics and functions as well as other physical characteristics that underlie performance differences. Differences in physical size are minimal until about 9 years of age when females enter their preadolescent growth spurt (age at takeoff); males follow about 2 years later at 11. Peak height velocity (PHV, the largest amount of growth in height within a 1-year period) occurs about 18 to 24 months earlier in females (M = 10.7 years, early, to 13.5 years, late) than in males (M = 12.5 years, early to 15.7 years, late). Growth during the year of PHV varies from 5.4 cm to 11.2 cm for females and 5.8 cm to 13.1 cm for males. On average, females will grow 1 cm per year. less than males, averaging about 9 cm per year compared to males at 10.3 cm per year. Pubertal growth spurts last 24 to 36 months, and the growth during this time accounts for about 20% of final adult height where females grow between 23 and 28 cm and males 26 to 28 cm. Peak weight velocity (PWV) coincides with PHV in males but in females, PWV occurs 6 to 9 months after PHV. Males and females also differ in somatotype, a three component physique indicator characterizing the shape of the body as relatively pear-shaped (endomorphy), muscular and V-shaped (mesomorphy), or lean and linear (ectomorphic). Boys are more ectomorphic than girls early (<12 years) and late (17 years) in adolescence. Differences in mesomorphy are minimal in early adolescence but are marked, favoring boys in later adolescence, whereas girls have higher endomorphy scores than boys at both points in development.
While overall fatness differs between boys and girls, between and within-gender differences can vary significantly because of factors such as nutritional intake, which is further linked to socioeconomic status (SES). After puberty, the ratio of muscle to fat among boys doubles. Boys also have more lean body mass and greater arm and calf circumference than girls. Because of metabolic differences corresponding with tissue differences, the average daily energy requirements are higher for boys than girls, and this is consistent at each chronological age particularly postpuberty. The magnitude of difference is much greater at late adolescence (male = 2,870 kcal; female = 2,140 kcal) than in early childhood (ages 3 to 7; 1,440 vs. 1,560, respectively) with the gap widening between 14 and 16 years of age.
Human development is age related, not age specific; biological age represents changes in body structure, function, and tolerance to environmental stress and does not equal chronological (calendar) age. Thus, the timing of growth and maturation within the context of social norms may underlie many self-perception variations and behavioral choices within and between sexes. At adulthood, within-sex variability in physical characteristics (i.e., leg length, height, fat mass, physique) are markers of developmental timing pathways traveled by boys and girls because these characteristics vary systematically with the timing of PHV and sexual maturation. Early maturers tend to be shorter and stockier (mesomorphic in physique) than late maturers who are typically more linear (ectomorphic in physique) with longer legs. Longer relative leg length is attributed to the growth plates of the long bones (i.e., legs) remaining open for a longer period, resulting in taller stature. Accordingly, boys who mature later than girls are typically taller with longer legs than torso (i.e., sitting height–stature ratio) and this phenomenon is also true within each gender; later maturers are typically leaner with longer legs than early maturers.
Sexual development varies significantly between males and females and is hardly comparable with the exception of pubic hair transition, which is about 9 months later in boys than girls (male M =11.8 years old, female M = 10.2 years old). Genital development among boys begins around 9.5 years of age where as breast development in girls begins around 10 years. Additionally, girls experience menarche (initial menses) at about 11.8 + 1.0 years, approximately 1 year after age at PHV. The timing of menarche, typically assessed through retrospective interviews, can be an informative biological characteristic especially in reference to tracking development in areas such as psychological and behavioral characteristics, injuries, and motor performance. To date, accounting for physical or biological characteristics reflecting maturational timing is an exception rather than a norm in psychology research designs. Consequently, the complex mechanisms underlying gender differences in psychological phenomenon such as those comprising the functional domain are limited.
Functional, or psychological, gender differences span a variety of domains including cognitive abilities, personality, self-perceptions, social behavior, and memory. While not all are directly relevant to athletic and exercise contexts, some of these characteristics may be embedded within athletic domain specific-self perceptions. For the most part, studies show that sport participation has positive influences on psychological characteristics such as self-confidence, self-concept, and self-worth in both males and females but results of other studies suggest this finding is equivocal among females. Some studies show that women particularly with athletic bodies report conflict between their physique perceptions and cultural ideals of leanness and linearity. The female athlete triad, linking body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, and osteoporosis, is an example of how negative self-perceptions often stemming from sport-context pressures to lose weight can negatively influence behavior and deteriorate health.
Body image dissatisfaction is also evident among male athletes who in contrast ideally desire to be bigger, or more muscular.
In general psychology, studies show that gender differences in functional characteristics are often contingent on developmental stage. Among adolescents, there is evidence that males are better than females in the following cognitive variables: mechanical reasoning, spatial perception, and mental rotation. For communication variables of facial expression processing and emotional expression (smiling), females outperform males in both adolescent and adult samples. Males consistently outscore females in a variety of aggression, competitiveness, computer efficacy, sexual behavior, and confidence measures. Developmental trends based on chronological age stratification show males outperform females in complex problem solving but only after the age of 15, and this is often confounded by some of the aforementioned differences in aptitude. Additionally, boys report higher self-esteem than girls but only between 11 and 18 years of age, with small effect sizes (ES <.35).
Noting age periods where there are similarities between boys and girls are just as important for informing practice, particularly if scores are low or imply negative behaviors and perceptions. Interestingly, gender difference claims are exceedingly overinflated in this domain. Historically, highlighting male and female differences has dominated popular media, but meta-analytic reviews do not support many of the stereotypes (ES >.36). Examples include superior mathematical performance and self-esteem among men and superior nurturing by women.
Understanding gender differences, and lack thereof, is not only important for helping athletes and exercisers but also for understanding perceptions and influences of significant others such as coaches, parents, and athletic trainers in respective social networks. Stereotype threat studies show expectations of gender differences can influence performance; in conditions where females expected gender differences in performance, they underperformed men. Continued expectations for, and communications about, gender differences perpetuated in athletic and exercise environments can undermine confidence, motivation, and perhaps even healthy eating and exercise behaviors. Consider the early-maturing female who may engage in dietary restrictions and excessive exercise in efforts to control physique characteristics that are genetically linked and not malleable.
The overwhelming influence of social environment factors (practice frequency, instruction, and feedback quality) on performance is highlighted by data showing gender differences favoring boys in throwing velocity and distance prior to age at PHV takeoff where size and strength differences between sexes are minimal; throwing for distance ES are from 1.5 to 2.0 for children 3 to 8 years old, and not surprisingly, the difference is stable, increasing to > 3.5 after for adolescents 16 to 18 years old. However, for other variables, gender differences are generally not stable; there is no difference until after puberty for balance, pursuit rotor tracking, tapping and vertical jump. Gender differences favoring boys are evident prior to puberty for short distance running, sit-ups, long jump, grip strength, shuttle run, and catching. There are no age-related trends in gender difference that favor boys for agility, anticipation timing, arm hang, reaction time (RT) (low ES), throwing accuracy, and wall volley (high ES); a low difference favoring girls is evident for eye motor coordination and flexibility tasks. In childhood, studies have shown that girls also develop certain fundamental motor skills earlier than boys including skipping, hopping, and catching by 6 months to 1 year.
Influences from parents, teachers, and coaches among other in the form of gender role stereotypes and biologically based expectations shape self-perceptions and consequently performance capabilities. Perception and performance differences prior to elementary school are largely attributed to parents. Sons receive more sport opportunities and encouragement and engage in more gross motor behaviors and rough play than daughters. Teachers and coaches tend to treat differences as naturally evolving biological factors formulating expectations conforming to stereotypes. Consider gender specific norms in fitness testing which rightfully account for biological differences yet may permeate areas where differences do not exist and are irrelevant.
The magnitude and even direction of gender differences depend on the context and perhaps to a larger extent than is currently supported by data, the interactions among individual, structural, and functional characteristics. With the exception of physical characteristics, gender differences are few, small, and unstable. Although socialization toward specific activities and development of competitive orientations begin much earlier than the growth spurt, biologically there are minimal physical differences between boys and girls prior to the growth spurt.
Attending to gender similarities and within gender variability in maturational timing and its associated physical characteristics is particularly important to counteract gender stereotypes and make the most informed decisions. For example, the 2 to 3-year window when pubertal girls are generally taller and stronger than many boys can be a critical period for girls’ confidence development in athletic contexts. But this depends on how social agents shape sport experiences relative to cultural ideals that still favor the lean, linear feminine physique. In contrast, boys’ self-esteem is as equally problematic as it is for girls particularly for boys who mature late during early adolescence. Consequently, parents, teachers, and other professionals may overlook boys’ self-esteem problems, precluding interventions that they need. The costs of inflated claims of gender differences are also notable and may undermine many areas including parenting, relationships, and work, as well as opportunities in athletic and exercise settings. One historic example is the preclusion of women from marathon running until 1984.
While Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 helped improve participation opportunities for women in the United States, gender stereotypes still exist and undermine the importance of being informed about sex and gender differences. Decisions about athletic participation, specialization, training, and fostering positive sport and exercise experiences rely on attending to age-related differences within and between sexes. Equally important is sensitivity to the myriad of self-perceptions cultivated in athletic contexts. A broad sampling of sports throughout childhood and into adolescence is advocated for both genders as a mechanism for reducing overuse injuries and burnout and also maximizing skill development for physical activities that can be enjoyed later in life. It will always be important to attend to gender difference stereotypes perpetuated in the media because regardless of data supported differences, or lack thereof, stereotypes will permeate individual perceptions, constraining athletic and exercise potential. Practitioners are encouraged to help athletes focus on their personal potential rather than on social comparisons between or within genders.
- Dorn, L. D., Dahl, R. E., Woodward, H. R., & Brio, F. (2006). Defining the boundaries of early adolescence: A users guide to assessing pubertal status and pubertal timing in research with adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 10, 30–56.
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