With the science of sport heavily skewed toward male athletes, a significant gender data research gap exists, causing things like impact of the menstrual cycle on female athletes’ training and performance to not be well understood.
SHE Research, a group of scientists based at the Technological University of the Shannon, Athlone campus, are working to bridge the gender data gap by prioritising female-based research studies.
This International Women’s Day, they will launch one such study, in partnership with the Offaly Sports Partnership, investigating how coaches can provide better support to female athletes around the menstrual cycle.
“It is clear that females perceive the menstrual cycle to impact their ability to train and participate in sport and to perform and compete to their highest potential,” explained Dr Niamh Ní Chéilleachair, an expert in performance physiology within SHE Research.
“Coaches are really central to the female athlete,” she continued, “so the idea is, that if we can help them, by providing additional resources and educational material, they will have the tools to better support our female athletes.”
To achieve this, Dr Ní Chéilleachair and SHE Research PhD candidate Niamh Fogarty will undertake a year-long study, interviewing coaches from around the country to get a thorough understanding of the current challenges and barriers they face in supporting athletes around the menstrual cycle.
“We want to hear about their experiences of coaching female athletes: what are they doing well with and what do they need support with.
“Are they comfortable tackling the topic of menstruation, for example, and if not, how can we help,” Dr Ní Chéilleachair said. “These are the types of answers we’re hoping to unearth through this research.”
Outputs from the study are expected to inform the development of educational tools like infographics, videos and other resources for coaches and athletes, at both basic and advanced levels.
“There’s a big education piece needed around this topic,” Dr Ní Chéilleachair explained.
“It’s an area that’s getting a lot of attention at the moment, which is great, because it’s so important that both athletes and coaches understand the basics of what the menstrual cycle is so they know what’s normal and not normal and how to signpost if further help or medical support is needed.”
The research study, which will run until December 2023, will see both male and female coaches of female athletes at club level right up to elite level participate, which Dr Ní Chéilleachair says will give “a broader perspective” on what’s happening nationally.
“This is about understanding female aspects of sport and exercise science and issues relevant to female athletes that just haven’t been researched before,” she said, “and to do that we need insights into a broad range of experiences and across different coaching levels.”
Speaking to the genesis of the project, Eamonn Henry, co-ordinator of Offaly Sports Partnership, shared a personal anecdote, explaining why this research is so “incredibly important”.
“Like many volunteer coaches, there were times when I was not properly equipped to plan training programmes with full regard to the specific requirements of female athletes,” he explained.
“I believe that the findings from this research and subsequent resources that will be developed will contribute greatly to improved coaching for the growing numbers of sportswomen in Ireland.”
Coinciding with International Women’s Day on March 8, SHE Research and the Offaly Sports Partnership will hold a special talk on the topic, aimed at coaches, athletes, parents and the wider public, in the Bridge House Hotel, Tullamore.
This free talk, titled “Coaching the Female: Special Considerations”, will be led by Dr Niamh Ní Chéilleachair and PhD candidate Niamh Fogarty and address some of the key aspects that are unique to the female athlete, from anatomical differences to physiological differences. Everyone is welcome to attend. Register here.