Women's Sports: Why are we not protecting our sportswomen and their health?

More sportswomen than ever before are talking out about the risks to their health. From missing periods to constant injuries to a lack of energy, female athletes are struggling and there’s an extreme shortage of support.

Earlier this month, Give Me Sport Women reported on the risk of amenorrhea in female athletes and the link to the Female Athlete Triad. Shortly after, Professors from the University of Waikato concluded that the toxic sport cultures surrounding female athletes are damaging their long-term health. 

We no longer need to question whether sportswomen are suffering from health issues because years of research has proved exactly that. What we do need to question is why we’re not doing enough to help, protect and support those from suffering. Dr Kathleen Pantano found that out of all trainers and coaches trialled, over half demonstrated low levels of general knowledge towards the triad and other health issues, reiterating that certain coaches could be pushing toxic cultures onto their athletes without understanding the effects.

As well as coaches exerting a lack of understanding and therefore compassion, sportswomen are constantly competing with societal pressures. The media landscape has shifted for the better, creating more opportunities, greater sponsorship and increased coverage for female sport. Although sportswomen needed this to evolve, the normalisation of coverage has led to body-image critiques as well as the comparison of performances between men and women.

Female athletes are swamped with the idea that a lean physique is synonymous with greater sporting performance, and what’s worse is that athletes such as Mary Cain have revealed that coaches themselves adopt this view of thinking, subsequently pushing the theory onto their athletes. When you begin to strive for a lean physique by modifying your diet rather than focusing on training towards a strong performance, you become susceptible to a range of health issues from the triad to eating disorders.

With audience and media comparing female athletes to male, comes the constant pressure to perform on-par with the male counterpart which is unrealistic in itself. The want for equal performances between men and women is nonsensical as female athletes are competing in a sports system that, as former-runner Lauren Fleshman put it, is built for men, by men. Writing in The New York Times, Fleshman noted that ‘we do not currently have a sports system built for girls. If we did, it would look very different — and it would benefit everyone.’ 

Women are more susceptible to shoulder injuries, ankle sprains, knee injuries and stress injuries, and yet some sport systems are unwilling to review and adapt their training practices. The susceptibility comes down to a difference in female and male anatomy. Women have a wider pelvis, flatter feet, narrower space in the knee, less muscle mass and more body fat. If female athletes are made to follow a training plan designed with the male body in mind, they with struggle to excel and they will suffer.

Female athletes have constantly been caught in the conflicting cycle of performance and body image. Any particular sport will demand unique training which could inevitably develop a body shape that doesn’t fit the stereotypical female aesthetic, leading wider society to critique the athlete’s image despite their sporting success. Following negative coverage, that athlete could then train to change their physique and please the media but could sacrifice their performance quality in doing so. Sportswomen have struggled to please for many years despite gruelling training and constant success, which suggests the judgment of female athletes simply stems from the overall societal view of women. 

The evidence of suffering is apparent and education is the only way sportswomen can hope for full support. Education will allow female athletes prioritisation in the sports system and help shift the ‘one-size-fits-all’ sporting culture. Many coaches have developed their insight to benefit their athletes, but most are simply turning a blind eye to research.

It’s taken the harrowing story of Cain for others to find their voice, but we won’t see any change unless we educate the misunderstood. It is not good enough to dismiss amenorrhea and the triad as normality for female athletes. It is not good enough to allow trainers with little understanding of the female anatomy to coach women. It is not good enough, nor possible to demand a female athlete achieve her highest potential, with her health intact, whilst training in a system that wasn’t built for her.

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