Advancements in awareness and sports science mean that performance and welfare for female athletes could be on the rise, together. Current Affairs Staff Writer Conor Daly looks into the developments levelling the playing field.
The last couple of years have seen a real shift in the attitudes towards female athletes and, pre-COVID, attendance at sporting events were complementing this increase in interest. With this increase in awareness comes an effort by people to better understand the challenges that female athletes face. Particularly in the last year, there has been heightened public attention put on what many sports fans might deem to be a taboo issue: periods. With no knowledge or interest in female athletes, one might fail to recognise the influence this has on athletes at an elite level. For many, the problem is that there is no clear parallel with male athletes and therefore there is an unwillingness to care or understand. As elite sport has historically been an industry built around ideas of masculinity, the topic of menstrual cycles was not one that was widely associated with sportspeople. Thankfully, these archaic mindsets are beginning to change. Female athletes are getting more coverage than ever before, and paychecks are slowly but surely starting to match this. But while financial debates are a well-documented facet of the challenges facing sportswomen, athlete performance and welfare are not as widely spoken about. Periods have a far greater impact on performance and injury management than one would think.
The first real glimpse of this was an exclusive article from The Daily Telegraph last year in which there was an in-depth discussion on how Chelsea FC was taking into account the menstrual cycles of their players in relation to preparation and welfare. Incorporating this as an aspect of sports science is helping to maximise performance while also, more importantly, doing as much as possible to prevent injuries. At Chelsea, training staff were tailoring sessions based on the menstrual cycles of their players to take into account fatigue, weight fluctuations and susceptibility to injury.
This is not, however, a one size fits all solution. Some experts such as Dawn Scott, who is a sports scientist working with the English women’s football team, is reluctant to comment on a direct link between periods and injuries. In an interview with The Guardian last year, she stated that having an emphasis on player recovery is vital, but that, “There also isn’t enough evidence, or enough injuries, to fully relate and link injuries specifically to menstrual cycle”.
An article by RTE in February of last year detailed a survey of the experiences of female athletes concerning their menstrual cycles and the impact it has on them. There were a number of pretty startling statistics that jump off the page at you. They were as follows, “74% reported their menstrual cycle negatively affected their performance; 75% had never discussed their menstrual cycle with their coach (this rises to 82% in Ireland and the UK); 72% received no education regarding exercise and their menstrual cycle”. You don’t have to be an expert on gender studies to realise that something is not quite right here. At the very least, we should create a culture where female athletes feel like they can discuss their menstrual cycle with coaches if they so wish.
It would appear that there is no consensus in terms of building training plans around menstrual cycles but then again, uniformity is a rare thing when it comes to the preparation and training of elite athletes. One thing that is clear is that the attitudes of both those involved in sport and those watching on from the side-lines are vitally important in terms of the opportunities female athletes have to progress and giving them the recognition they deserve. Having a taboo around something so common seems extremely old-fashioned and yet here we are. But where we are does not and should not in any way reflect where we are going. One can hope that, in the not too distant future, female athletes receive the necessary support and resources to coalesce elite sporting achievement with athlete welfare.