Women's Sports: New Zealand leading the way in supporting female athletes

New Zealand is leading the way in diminishing toxic sport cultures and supporting female athletes who could be at risk of related energy deficiency (RED-S) and the female athlete triad.

Last week, Give Me Sport Women gathered evidence that suggests sportswomen are at risk of dangerous health issues due to the unsupportive culture that they’re expected to perform and excel in. Holly Thorpe, a professor in sociology of sport and physical culture at the University of Waikato, agrees. 

In 2012, Thorpe acknowledged that athletes needed more access to information and research, rather than it being ‘tucked away in medical journals’ and began open research alongside Dr. Stacey Sims, an environmental exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist.

Previously, GMSW concluded that “female athletes are swamped with the idea that a lean physique is synonymous with greater sporting performance,” and that has further been supported by Thorpe and Sims’ findings, with research showing that across sports that strive for a leaner physique, the risk of low energy availability (LEA – a symptom of the female health triad) ranges between 70 and 100%.

With these findings in mind, Thorpe and Sims have agreed that education and conversation are the key components needed to help improve the support of sportswomen. Athletes simply aren’t discussing their health with coaches out of a fear of feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed. The reluctance is amplified further when ‘when the majority of our coaches are male – and the conversation is about periods.’

Many female athletes suffer from amenorrhea as a result of RED-S. Alarmingly, the loss of one’s menstrual cycle has been normalised in the athletic world and has almost become synonymous with training hard and well. Dr Sims is working to smash that myth, especially in younger women.

“For the most part, women are hush-hush that they got their period today. But the new movement we’re instigating is ‘Yeah! I got my period! I can embrace it, hit it hard, go fast, be strong and powerful, and I know my body is healthy,” Sims tells McFadden of LockerRoom.

She goes on, and refers to the movement as “period power.”

Both Sims and Thorpe have backed FitrWoman to help overcome the awkwardness of period discussion between a coach and their athletes. The app, developed by exercise physiologist Georgie Brunivels, allows the female athlete to track her cycle whilst feeding back relevant information to their coach and is similar to that used by WSL’s Chelsea.

Alongside backing FitrWoman, Sims has been educating New Zealand’s top sports staff on the relationship between hormones and sports performance. Speaking to LockerRoom, she told of when she worked with the White Ferns coaching staff. The male staff were a “little stand-offish” to begin with but were “completely on board” when they learned that understanding hormones would lead to performance gains.

Two year’s ago, Sims described the attitude towards female athletes health as “hesitant” but through education, conversation, and “period power”, more and more people are getting on board with the concept. Back in 2015, Holly Thorpe held New Zealand’s first female athlete health conference and now it’s a regular, biennial event that combines education with research, experience and reflection. This year’s convention saw ‘coaches, fitness trainers, parents, teachers and athletes invited to tell health professionals what they needed to better understand conditions like RED-S.’  

Looking to the future of women’s health and athlete support, High Performance Sport NZ has prioritised women’s health in the lead up to Tokyo 2020 after their director of performance health, Bruce Hamilton, identified women’s well-being as an “obvious go-to.”

“It didn’t take much scratching of the surface to realise the understanding of female-related advantages is poor, and the knowledge and experience around women’s health in a high-performance environment is limited,” Hamilton explained.

New Zealand is leading the way through a unique, multi-disciplinary approach, unlike other countries who are only looking at one or two elements of female health. Their method has resulted in the creation of WHISPA; a group of experts including sports doctors, endocrinologists, physiologists, sociologists, nutritionists, and physiotherapists who have been working on a range of strategies that can help support future athletes.

As well as developing strategies, WHISPA has collected, researched and presented various data at New Zealand sports conventions and subsequently sparked interest from Olympic sports and coaches. The knock-on effect can only be a positive one and help shift the coaching approach to support sportswomen.

To ensure a safe future for female athletes worldwide, global governing sports bodies must start to follow New Zealand’s multi-disciplinary method and begin to combine research, knowledge and practice across disciplines. Working in harmony is the only way to fix what otherwise will remain a detrimentally toxic environment for sportswomen.

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