The menstrual cycle still isn’t locker room talk, where even there it’s a taboo subject, but the United States women’s national team is taking initial steps to change that.
The USWNT became the first women’s team to win a consecutive World Cup trophy this month and an innovation focused on the adverse impacts of periods might have helped them do it, as reported by the Telegraph.
Menstruation studies in sport
There is limited research on menstruation and its impact on female athletes, but any female could explain how cramps, bloating and fatigue from periods take their toll on day-to-day life — let alone playing at the highest level in the world.
Some experience the Female Athlete Triad, a combination of energy availability, menstrual function and bone health that can be serious. Mostly athletes experience hormonal shifts that affect the muscle, bone, endurance, energy level, attention and pain perception, according to the Penn Center for the Female Athlete. Research shows pre-menstrual and menstruation phases are the worst for performance.
Women have increasingly been speaking about it in recent years, from two-time Olympian Aly Raisman destigmatizing free-bleeding in Cosmopolitan to a Chinese swimmer talking about her period pain immediately after a race.
What’s that have to do with the U.S. women’s team? Everything.
USWNT developed strategies for periods
USWNT fitness coach Dawn Scott recognized the “emerging issue” when she started with U.S. Soccer in 2010. She told Good Morning America this week:
"For a few players, I always noticed that just before they started their cycle, their recovery fatigue was increased and their sleep was less. I was noticing it for three or four players and thought, 'We're six months out from the World Cup, how we can help that?'"
She brought in Dr. Georgia Bruinvels, a leading mind on female athletes, iron deficiency and the menstrual cycle, who launched a new initiative for optimizing performance with Orreco.
They tracked each player’s cycle and indicators and built a comprehensive understanding of it. They knew which players were impacted most by what symptoms and reminded them how to deal with it, she told GMA, as well as put up signs at the hotel. Those individual-specific instructions covered adjusting sleeping habits, lifestyle factors, training loads and diets, such as increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake or decreasing caffeine.
The program was the first of its kind.
“It empowered them to be proactive,” Bruinvels told The Telegraph. “There’s no evidence that someone can’t perform to their best at any time in their cycle – if they are proactive about taking steps.”
The example the coach and the Telegraph used was Rose Lavelle, who broke through for a killer shot to make it 2-0 against the Netherlands in the final and had the start of her period the next day. Scott said the focus on menstruation and limiting negative effects was one of “a hundred helpful things” the USWNT did to win.
Why the U.S. is sharing secrets
The United States continues to lead the way in women’s soccer around the world, even as other nations invest in their programs and raise their level of play. As the best team in the world, one would think they’d keep their tactics and knowledge secret.
But the sport is still growing and other countries look to the U.S. for not only soccer-specific learning but also leadership on more all-encompassing issues such as equal treatment by its federation. Per the Telegraph, the U.S. team decided to share the information so that more teams around the world take the issue seriously and it has a larger impact on the game as a whole.
“We want to end the taboo,” says Scott. “At the elite level, but also for teenage girls. They should feel comfortable talking about this with their coaches.”
Bruinvels admits that awareness and improved education are key motivations for her work. “Often we are afraid of discussing this because we don’t really understand it,” she says. “I feel particularly for male coaches, who wonder how they would start this discussion.”
From youth clubs and teams to the national team, menstruation is common. Yet it’s still seen as inappropriate or awkward to talk about, especially with, for example, a male coach in middle or high school.
Scott and Bruinvels have shared the information with the NWSL teams as well as clients in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the U.S., per the Telegraph.
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