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Supporting women and girls in sport

Monday, May 20, 2019

It’s time to talk about how we support women and girls in sport, says high performance sports physiotherapist Jacinta Horan.

As a high performance sports physiotherapist, I work with female athletes ranging from teenagers to elite adults. In my day-to-day physio practice there is a growing number of adolescent females involved in all levels of sport with injuries that could have been avoided with balanced training programmes.

We need to provide the right support so women and girls in sport can flourish

From an injury perspective, girls and boys are similar up until puberty, yet post-puberty our physiological differences come into play. Most of what we understand about sport training, injury prevention and the overall health and wellbeing of sportspeople has historically been modelled around ‘general physiology’ – ie. male physiology, because historically there have been more opportunities to study males in sport.

Now imagine for a moment the flow on effect that has across the sport sector. Coaches, athletes, team managers and even parents are likely to end up basing decisions such as how and when to train around what’s commonly known, and what’s commonly known is derived from information drawn from decades of studying sports played by males.

As a result, in our adolescent population we’re seeing growing issues around load and subsequent effects on injuries and health. Take a look, for instance, at school sport programmes across the country. In some cases boys competing in school sport have had pretty significant strength and conditioning training programmes in place for quite a number of years, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case for girls. That has an impact on injury risks for adolescent females if training loads are increased too rapidly or by too much without the appropriate level of strength behind it. Although we’re starting to see the development of more training programmes for girls, there remains a big difference in quality.

Understanding female physiology is important for injury prevention

For a period of time athletes can get away with too much training, but eventually it will catch up with them and there will be negative impacts on performance and overall wellbeing. If we’re waiting until that point before we intervene then it’s often too late – the physical and psychological damage is done and it becomes a really hard climb back. This is particularly problematic with adolescents because injury plays a significant role in young people dropping out of sport entirely.

We need to get past the taboo. Period.

Discussing female athlete physiology is so rare that it’s almost become taboo. But there’s a growing amount of research out there, particularly about the menstrual cycle and how it affects female athletes.

For instance if an athlete doesn’t have a healthy menstrual cycle – which can be the result of low energy intake (think overtraining) – then there can be impacts on her bone health (1).

But how many of us working with female athletes discuss this topic, or event know or feel comfortable enough to have the conversation? I’d hazard to say very few of us. It’s really important we start to educate ourselves and embrace the information available about female athlete physiology as it points to ways we can support female athlete performance and wellbeing.

For everyday people involved in sport – athletes, parents, managers and coaches – we have to overcome the stigma of these topics. That’s not only important for females involved in sport, it’s also very important for males involved in female sport because the performance and wellbeing of an athlete you work with can be heavily influenced by your decisions and practice.

Let’s talk

The great news is that we’re seeing more pathways emerge for females interested in playing and competing in sport. That increase, coupled with a greater focus on female sport at the community and national government level, means there’s new and better opportunities to develop knowledge and a deeper understanding about what supports the success of sportswomen.

If you’re a coach, athlete, manager or parent involved in any level of sport, then the upcoming Sport Forum in the Bay of Plenty is a great place to start having the conversations that will improve opportunities, experiences and outcomes for women and girls in sport.

The topic of the forum is “Effective approaches to working with women and girls in sport”, and it’s a unique chance to hear from leading industry professionals on everything from understanding different responses to stress and anxiety in a sporting context, to how we can all build a positive sporting environment that attracts and retains females.

Sport Forum: Sunday 23 June, 2019

I’ll be there, along with the Black Ferns Sevens assistant coach Cory Sweeney, psychologist Mariane Wray and Black Ferns Sevens development manager Belinda Muller. Why? Because it’s time we had a conversation about how to best support women and girls in sport.

1. The Conversation. Author: Kirsty Elliot-Sale, April 12, 2018.

Sport Forum: Get tickets

About the author

Jacinta Horan_web snippet

Jacinta Horan

High Performance Sports Physiotherapist

(speaker)

After working as a sports physiotherapist overseas with Irish Athletics and the Portuguese Men's Sevens, Jacinta Horan settled in Tauranga with her family where she is now the Director and Lead Sports Physiotherapist at Bureta Physiotherapy, Otumoetai.

Jacinta has spent the last 11 years in high performance sport in New Zealand, primarily with the Women’s Sevens and 15s as well as NZ Junior Athletics, surf lifesaving and waterpolo. She is enjoying her time working with the Bay of Plenty sporting community as well as her upcoming high performance sport roles at the World University Games and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

She is also excited about her role with WHISPA (Womens' Health in Sport - a Performance Advantage). This is a high performance multidisciplinary working group under High Performance Sport New Zealand that is focused on how to maximise performance in the development of elite female athletes.

Healthy Women in Sport - a Performance Advantage
Bureta Physio

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