Governing bodies must step up to close gender gap in sport science

There is definitely more awareness around the gender gap in sport science now and there is a lot of catching up to do. It is a big gap but we cannot just look at it and say: “It is too big, let’s not bother.” There are so many amazing things that we can do and if we can talk about it more and get more funding and investment into this area, it will start to shrink that gap, which is so important.

When I was competing, I do not think anything was very specific to me as a female athlete. There was the odd time when we would touch on, “Are you on your period?”, but there was no individual approach to how I went through certain phases of training in relation to me as a female athlete and my physiology. It just seemed like it was very generic and, “This is the way we do things, and it applies to men and women”. 

It is only since I retired that I have actually stopped and questioned where all the research comes from, how up to date it is, how it is brought together. There was never really that understanding when I was a competing athlete.

As an athlete, you have to be ready for certain times. You cannot move the Olympics or change when the World Championships and tournaments are, so you work towards those – but it is the way you work towards those. Coaches have to make programmes specific to individuals, but I think they also have to take in that overriding hormonal fluctuation and changes that female athletes go through because that determines how hard you push and ease back at certain phases of your training, and that plays into injuries or recurrent injuries and the like. A lot of female athletes would probably say, ‘Perhaps I could have trained differently and more effectively around certain stages of my life and my menstrual cycle’.

There is a much bigger picture, which we do not often think about in enough detail. It is great that more female athletes feel they can vocalise how they feel. Beth Mead has talked about the need for more research into anterior-cruciate ligament injuries, Leah Williamson has spoken about dealing with endometriosis.

Conversations like that, and around periods and so on, definitely have to be normalised, so athletes feel comfortable talking about it. They also have to know there is a route they can go down to understand that side of things better and be supported.

That goes for pregnancy as well. Now there are more sportswomen starting families – I saw Naomi Osaka announced she was pregnant and wanted to come back to tennis, which is great – but athletes need a system in place and to know that they are supported in that transition.

Going through pregnancy and postnatally, I had to understand how my body and my physiology was so different. When I came back from having Reggie, I had to try to read as much as I could because I did not know what to expect, and my team, however amazing they were, had never had to bring their athlete back from pregnancy and go through that journey. There was no guidance, so they all had to further their knowledge. My physio had to go to do extra courses and learn all these different things that she had never thought about before.

It is understanding how your hormones going up and down can massively affect ligaments, speed, endurance levels and how you train. All of these different things are massively impacted by your hormones, so why do we not understand them more? Then we can hopefully address issues such as ACL injuries that might occur more frequently in women, or endometriosis and those things that a lot of women do face while quietly having to get on with the day-to-day in their sport.

When I started on the journey of my app, which helps women understand their hormones better, it massively surprised me that such little research is done on women specifically from a health perspective. When it comes to sport, there is that same inconsistency. There is just not enough research being carried out to understand the impact that certain things have on female athletes, such as their physiology and individual make-up. It is a no-brainer to put more funding and support into those areas.

One of the reasons there is such little research is because women are complex beings. We have all these changes and fluctuations that happen throughout our bodies at different stages – pregnancy, perimenopause, menopause. To carry out a certain level of research takes a lot of time and energy and a lot of money. These are pieces of research you cannot do overnight, it takes time to collate lots of data, to understand women and their health needs.

We need to look at how we can support women from a digital perspective to have a better understanding of their own health so we are all well informed and that all comes under the umbrella of femtech, giving women more sophisticated and specialised tools to understand their physiology in a more in-depth way. In the past, it has definitely been something that has been almost forgotten and it is accepted that we just follow a path that works for men.

It is great that academics are doing research on women in sport, but it should fall on the sports organisations and governing bodies as well. We look at levels of nutrition, psychology and whatever it may be, but can we honestly say we have got great support packages that are specialised to female athletes to help them be the best they can be? 

If we can collect information and data on athletes over a long period of time, that is a massive positive and we will have a better understanding for girls coming into different sports in the future.

To start closing this knowledge gap, there is the education piece of getting more athletes to understand their bodies. Then you need the support of sports federations and governing bodies, and those people who want to invest. It is not a simple process, but if we start chipping away and do it properly, it will translate massively and loop back round to young girls coming into sport. Then they are set up in a much better way to understand their physiology, and it will be the norm.

If both my children want to go into sport one day, I hope that they will feel they are catered for in an equal way, one being a boy and one a girl; that they know they are not left out of any research and know the way they are training is right for them because the research has been done properly and been understood properly from their perspective. Let us close this gap.