The unspoken struggle of female athletes.

posted in: Performance | 0

Now seems like a great time to write about a topic I’ve been thinking about for the last few months. I want to champion women and girl athletes, especially those playing at a high or professional level. The regular difficulties they must manage far surpass that of male athletes.

This weekend England Lionesses Football Team released their new Summer 2023 World Cup kits – and they have openly changed the home kit from a traditional all white t-shirt and white shorts, to the iconic white shirt but paired with blue shorts. For the Euro’s last summer, which the Lionesses magnificently won (get in there!) the ladies publicly raised concerns about wearing white shorts while having their periods.

As many of you will know I have been a professional squash player and squash coach for many… many years, I run our regional league team, and for the last year I also coach a girls U14 football team. Several weeks ago we had a very important, title deciding match and 3 weeks before this match I received a phone call from one of my players. She’s without-a-doubt an integral part of our team success, someone who I have known for a long time, and a girl who I like and respect immensely. She very honestly told me that recently she has been feeling ill for a few days while having her period. So wiped out in-fact, that she sometimes needs to stay in bed for the whole day to recover. Her period was due on the day of our big match. She was not ringing to pull-out of the match, but instead to inform me of all the factors in play and for me make a decision as what to do in terms of team selection. I said, if she’s willing to, I’d still like her to play even if she couldn’t perform to 100% of her ability, and if she really wasn’t well enough on the day then she could pull-out without feeling any guilt and I’d be happy to rally around for a last-minute replacement, or if she turned up but was unable to perform well, that was also not a problem – no blame would come her way what-so-ever.

The England Football team in their new World Cup kit.

After our phone conversation I told my wife and she was immediately filled with massive love and respect for the honesty, openness and confidence of this girl to speak to me. This then led to a very open, and often funny conversation around our dinner table with me, my wife and two daughters.

Really it should not be a problem to discuss these matters with your coach, but realistically it is. Society has made these topics taboo for centuries, and even more so in sport for some reason. It has certainly been something a girl would not talk about to a man. This is a very real issue that until now has just not been talked about.

FYI. She turned up to our most important match of the season feeling fine, but as soon as the match begun, she started to feel queasy, but she dug deep and still put in a heroic display to help our team to victory. As I said, immense respect. 

I have two daughters, one nearly 12 and one who is 14. They both play football, and are both achieving great success in the sport, my eldest in particular is playing at an academy level. She trains hard every day whether on the pitch or working-out in her purpose built gym (her bedroom!). She has serious aspirations of herself one day being an England Lioness winning the Euro’s. Obviously both my daughters are of an age where periods and ‘period talk’ is very real. They are both so ‘flippin’ cool’ about it all! They’re such amazing girls – they’re ‘super cool’ about everything in life. I absolutely adore them.

My wife and I have always made ourselves open and approachable about all topics, especially periods, and our girls have the same relaxed attitude toward it – because essentially, it is a very normal thing and shouldn’t be something that girls and women feel embarrassed about, or embarrassed to talk about. If they are, this is our fault as society and probably, mostly men are to blame. It is an important topic to feel we are allowed to mention. Every girl and woman is affected differently, and it can change as they age, some finding it easier and less impactful as they get older, and some the complete opposite. As predictable as the monthly cycle is, it can be completely unpredictable through the course of the teenage years and adulthood. There is no reason that they should ‘suffer in silence’, especially when it comes to sport.

I do not want to suggest sportswomen are more important to acknowledge on this subject, as all women can feel the effects on their mood and performance, and whatever their job in life, they will be required and self-driven to perform well. Whether they are a teacher, solicitor, IT specialist, doctor, stay at home mum, or some will consider themselves many of the above, they will all be effected in some way or another when they have their period, and all will have to quietly get through their days giving the best they can give. But, I do want to focus on sportswomen because their performances are often so public and open to harsh criticism.

Take the 2022 Euro winning Lionesses for example. Last summer they won the 4 week event, satisfyingly beating the German National side in the final. Manager Sarina Wiegman consistently named the same starting 11 players over the 6 matches. If we imagine 6 matches in 26 days, each one of Sarina’s players will have played a massively important match while on their period (it’s possible they could have skipped a period if they use the pill, but not many people are comfortable to do this – again adding to aspects of performance management which men simply do not have to consider). If any of these players put in a bad performance which could have contributed to the team losing, they would have been heavily criticised by the media and felt responsible for letting their teammates and their nation down. Then they would have had to do a post match interview apologising for playing badly, while never being allowed to say on TV “I felt like crap because I’m on my period, so leave me alone!”.

Nour El Sherbini after she had won her 5th World Championship Title.

For our squash playing women, imagine (for example) being Nour El Sherbini training all year with the main focus – to win the World Championship. Nour is currently 27 years old and a 6 time winner of the event. With each passing year she’s constantly chasing and creating history to officially become the greatest female squash player of all time … and what if the week-long tournament takes place when she is having her period. Squash tournaments are not a match every 4 or 5 days like in major football events, they are a match every day, with each match generally harder than the last – and with no teammates to cover for you if you make a mistake. Periods can often ‘wipe out’ girls for 2 or 3 days. Imagine that?! If she were to step on court feeling nauseous, tired, or concerned about wearing white shorts and then lose in the first or second round – we’d all think it was an ‘off day’ or that she ‘bottled it’ under the pressure. Then she has to sit back and watch her rivals battle it out for the title she so dearly wanted and had trained perfectly for – and she’d have to wait a full year to get another chance, where anything could happen in that year, injury, dramatic loss of form, a new kid on the block emerges … It’s just not something the men have to consider.

I used to coach World No.1 Laura Massaro, and every session she would turn up and give 100%. Her standards and her effort levels never fluctuated. It was never mentioned if she was having her period or not, she simply turned up and performed in the most professional manner possible – but there must have been sessions when she wasn’t feeling great, but she never showed it. In her recent book (All In) Laura talks about periods and how going on the pill helped her control them much better and reduced the ‘heaviness’ of the bleeding. It’s really good Laura talks about this because it is a big decision for a young athlete to make – and it should be open for discussion. People are always interested how top athletes train, and how they plan their training. Period planning is a massive part of a sportswoman’s training plans so it would be an injustice not to acknowledge this just because it makes people feel uncomfortable to read about it. However, being on the pill doesn’t make them go away, and it’s still possible to feel bloated, nauseous, ill-tempered and fatigued – all not great feelings to have when trying to perform in a brutal sport like squash.

Now I have to question myself as a coach. If I am coaching a woman should I start off by saying ‘Hi, I’m fine if you want to talk about periods by the way…’! Of course that would be ridiculous, and can probably only serve to make us both feel awkward, and the same when I’m coaching my U14 girls football team. But as a coach surely we have to show that we are approachable and we value forming a two-way relationship so that if they want to talk about it they feel like they can. This is a hard thing to specifically strive for, but we have a responsibility as a coach to make our trainees feel comfortable, and that we make efforts to learn their performance levels and read their mood – then we must be willing to adjust our sessions if we feel it is appropriate.

So, next time we are watching a female play sport, whether as a fan or a coach, we need to be accepting of the performance we’re witnessing however good or bad that may be. We need to understand the day to day training management that women put in and the possible factors playing on their body and their mind – and this is not even taking into account the fact that women athletes have often had to make the choice between achieving high standards in sport but at the expense of becoming a mother. ‘Career or family’ is a choice women have been making for centuries, because that is the ‘either / or’ decision that society has forced upon them. Nour El Tayeb is a wonderful pioneer in our sport who has had a child in her twenties and then returned to the World top 10 as a mother, which must have been a very difficult task – but what she has taught us is that it is not a taboo topic or a ridiculously radical idea to have – it is not frowned upon – it is possible. It will be tough and women who want to do this should have the support of their clubs, training teams, coaches, partners etc. If we don’t make these ‘women’s issues’ normal, we are still a neanderthal society.

It’s an exciting time for women’s sport. It’s rapidly moving forward in terms of participation, standard and media coverage. Girls football is the fastest growing sport in the UK, and has been for the last ten years, and even more so since our 2022 Euros triumph. I see every day how far the standard in football and squash has leaped forward in recent years. The standard of squash played on the women’s PSA World Tour has shot up massively in the last decade, and the level of the Lionesses football team and the WSL (Women’s Super League (football)) is very impressive. My daughter at 14 is way better at football than I was at 14, and I was a very good academy player at her age. The media coverage is more and more almost every week. On the BBC website we’re now seeing almost daily articles on women’s football, rugby, and cricket. Women’s sport is no longer being left in the ‘dark ages’ so neither should our attitudes toward these athletes. Women’s sport is normal. Periods are normal.