This week’s guest on The Game Changers podcast is Emma Ross, the former Head of Physiology at the English Institute of Sport.
During her time at the EIS, Ross led the smartHER programme, which aimed to educate coaches and athletes about the female body in high performance sport.
Ross co-founded The Well HQ, an organisation that helps women to understand their bodies and use that knowledge to thrive in sport, health and life, in 2020. In recognition of her work, she received the Sunday Times Sports Women of the Year Changemaker Award last year.
She began her interview by explaining how she developed a passion for sports science following an active childhood.
“I actually had an ambition to be a PE teacher when I was going into university, but then sports science just grabbed me and I was like, ‘wow, this is fascinating’,” Ross said. “I just kept wanting to study it, and started my PhD. And then I sort of fulfilled that teaching ambition by becoming a lecturer.
“So it was really a love of sport that got me to study sports science, and then this whole new world of science and physiology and psychology that I just thought was fascinating.”
Ross described how she took part in a number of “really amazing research projects” as a lecturer, before moving into the vacant Head of Physiology role at the EIS in 2013.
“I always felt really lucky to arrive in 2013 because I was riding a bit of a wave because we’d just come out of London [2012 Olympic Games],” she explained. “First of all, everyone was still talking about it six months later when I arrived, as just the most memorable and brilliant Games.
“It was a very vibrant time for the UK high performance system, and I came into the targets that had been set for Rio, which were, we’re gonna do better. So again, it was a very challenging time cause you think, ‘oh gosh, no one’s ever done that before’. No one’s ever won more medals at the Games after their home Games.
“How are we gonna do that? Because it’s our responsibility as people who are supporting these athletes and coaches to say, you know, shall we try this? Shall we do this? Shall we approach it like this?
“So we were really integral in trying to help achieve that new kind of challenge and goal, but it really was a brilliant time to be in sport.”
Ross was the only female head of department when she moved across to the EIS. She revealed how working in a male-dominated industry gave her a new perspective on sport.
“I suddenly was like, ‘oh, that feels different.’ And it did feel really different. Almost from that moment on, I was really interested in women in sport, you know, how it feels to be a woman, how it feels for the athletes, how it feels for the people working around.
“I obviously looked around and went, actually, you know what, not only is this sports science space filled with quite a lot of males, the coaching space is almost entirely males. Everyone I was working with, from performance directors through to heads of performance science, they were all men.
“It was the first time I’d really sensed that, and I became really interested in why that was, and how we could change it.
This revelation led to the creation of the smartHER programme, which optimised the EIS’s support of female athletes within the Olympic and Paralympic system.
Ross had been tasked with finding out why Britain’s female athletes brought in less medals than their counterparts in other countries, and her discoveries were enlightening.
“I went back to my roots as a physiologist and said, okay, the physiology of a female body is different from that of a male body.
“We have a menstrual cycle, for example, those hormones change our physiology massively. We have periods that we need to manage. We have breast tissue that we need to support in some way.
“I started to gather this list of things that either happen exclusively in a female body, or that happen differently in a female body who’s being trained and prepared for high performance.
“That was a compelling case to say, ‘if you can tell me we are considering all of these things, and we’ve created an environment where women can show up and talk about all of these things, then I will leave you be and say, it’s not our problem.’
“Actually, no one was doing a fraction of the things on that list. No one was even acknowledging that they existed.
“We’d done a pretty good job of pretending that girls don’t have periods. We don’t talk about their breasts and their pelvic floors.
“We just kind of silence or ignore that so that we can concentrate on these women being powerful and strong and sporty, which we need to, but how much opportunity were we missing by ignoring the bits of our female body that we weren’t talking about?”
Ross also realised conversations around the menstrual cycle, menopause and pelvic health issues needed to increase, but not by just telling people to talk about it.
“I think one of the things I’ve realised the longer I’ve done this is that we can’t just say, we need to talk more about it or come on, everyone, get comfortable talking about it.
“It’s still mortifying because historically, as a society, we have silenced these things.
“We have to remember most people are not willing to talk about this. I was working at a school last week and one of the little questions on a slip was, how do I talk to my mum about starting my periods?
“So we’ve got girls who don’t want to talk to their moms. How do we say to a 17 year old female athlete to go and talk to their 60 year old coach who they’re not even related to.?
“It’s quite scary, you know? So, that’s the biggest shift I think that needs to happen.”
There have been some improvement made, particularly with conversations around the menstrual cycle. A number of football clubs now track the cycles of their female players, for example, but Ross disagreed that this was sufficient.
“Let’s be under no illusion that one club and one headline represents the whole of the sport, like football,” she said.
“Yes, when you have resources and when you have lots of support staff, you can do lovely, brilliant things.
“But when you don’t have quite so much of that, those things aren’t getting done. Coaches aren’t being educated, practitioners aren’t being educated, even sport doctors aren’t being educated.
“GPs aren’t well educated enough around things that are related to female health in sport, like energy deficiency and under-fuelling, which can then affect your menstrual health, which can then affect your bone health and can then affect your long term health.
“So we can’t be under any illusion that everyone’s walking around really well equipped to do this better. We are not where we need to be.”