Today as part of our continued effort to bring more awareness on female athletes, teams and associated trends related to female athletes, we have the honor to interview a group of female sports performance experts:
Laura Matthes, the head of sports and research at VivoSensMedical, a German small innovation and female health company producing and distributing OvulaRing.
Mélanie Pauli, Best Player on the Pitch & Athletic trainer at the Swiss Football Association.
Kirsten Legerlotz, Professor at the Humboldt University.
Saba Shakalio, the Head Athletic Trainer at FC St Pauli.
📝Show Notes: Through this interview, we touched on some reports saying that only 9% of sport science research focuses on female athletes and how we can improve that. Then we touched on some studies suggesting that female athletes need more sleep. Then we discussed whether or not women sports teams have a more diverse staff than men's teams. Lastly we we touched on their approach towards injury prevention, and what the best practices are.
🚀Best Quotes: Here are some of the key discussion points and best quotes from our conversation with Laura, Mélanie, Kirsten and Saba:
On why only 9% of studies are focusing on female athletes:
“I think that's not very surprising. We know that there is a gender data gap which is happening in sports science, but it's the same in medicine as well. So over the whole range of natural sciences of medicine and sports science, it's the same uneven distribution”.
“Regarding research subjects it's quite clear that it is easier to do research on men because it's cheaper due to the fact that you get less variability or you expect less variability because of all those hormonal fluctuations you have to consider in women. ”.
“The second point is that women can get pregnant and it's with all medical research. So this is an insurance issue, there's a risk you are taking, and it's also something that ethics committees are very concerned about and it is far more difficult to get a study with women through ethics compared to doing it in men”.
“I couldn't agree more with Kirsten. On one side, women have always been the second sex in sport. Even now in our vocabulary we talk about women's sport, women's football, and football”.
“So it has always been like this. And on the other side, we see that nowadays the sponsors, supporters and fans, are getting more and more interested and invested in women's sports, especially in women's football. But the sports research doesn't seem to be keeping up with this trend as much as it should be”.
“So in my opinion, it is because they didn't realize the sex related differences between men and women, and they believed for a long time that they could apply the scientific outcomes done with men and apply them to women in sport without doing any testing on them”.
“I agree with Kirsten and Saba. As they said, it's much more expensive to conduct research with women. It takes much more time. And that’s probably the excuse some people are using. Personally I see this as an excuse, not as a real argument. And I also think that with the gender theme becoming more and more prevalent these days, I believe that we will hear much more about women health in the next couple of years”.
“And 9% of research done on women athletes is for me already better because for four years we were still at about 6%”.
“One thing that I was thinking about a while back is that people are just used to it (the fact that only 9% of research focuses on women). That it is done like that and it's very sad I think. But in my opinion, it is necessary to have a disruption in a field like research, not only in sports, but also in medicine as well”.
“A few weeks ago somebody, who was more in favor of men’s sports, said to me that women are so complicated. And I said to him, well, if sports science would have been developed based on women, then you would now say that men are complicated just because you are used to something else. So I think it's also a perspective thing”.
On the assumption that female athletes need more sleep, about 20 extra minutes of sleep per day:
“ Some people just need three to four hours of sleep whereas others need 12 hours of sleep. And then I think that those 20 minutes don't matter a lot actually, because the variability between human beings is so far bigger than the variability or the difference between men and women. And that accounts for some variables where we do find differences between men and women”.
“I think while there is a great deal of interest in exercise science, and in studying sleep quality and its relationship to recovery. And there is a really big data gap on sleep changes related to the menstrual cycle. There are only a few studies that have looked at gender specific sleep differences in athletes”.
“And there is I think one or two studies that could actually prove that the quality of sleep, the quality of the light sleep and deep sleep, changes during menstrual cycle”.
“So it is also important to address that the defluctuation of the sex hormones can affect the sleep quality of athletes and the sleep quality is more important that the duration of sleep in my opinion”.
“I agree with Saba. We know that there will be a difference because of the menstrual cycle which will have an effect on sleep, but as she said, it's the quality and not the quantity which is the most important thing here. And it's important that we conduct some research, but we also have to be careful with the interpretation of those studies”.
“The methods are really different and it's really difficult to make a statement like this (Women need to sleep 20 more minutes). For me, it's saying nothing. And I don't know what I can do with this. I can't just say, okay, you must sleep 20 minutes more. We must go much deeper. We will need much more research in my opinion”.
On whether or not women's teams have a more diverse staff than men’s teams:
“I think it really depends on the sports and the country. In England, in my opinion, they understand these things. The point for me is that diversity is the challenge and it's the key to success (…) I can only speak about Switzerland, but in soccer in Switzerland, there are still some people saying things like you have to come from the soccer world to understand the soccer world. And I am also a bit of an exception because I'm not coming from the soccer world. I'm coming for the volleyball world”.
“And I can apply this experience (in volleyball) for my job in soccer, but I was hired partially because of our board who had an open mindset. So I think it’s really dependent on the individuals and how they are thinking. And that will have an impact on the diversity of the team”.
“But in Switzerland there is still not so much diversity in women teams. For example, in ice hockey, or I should say, in professional sports in Switzerland, only 10% of the teams’ staff are comprised of women. So I think it really depends on the country, and I think the board of the teams is really the decision maker”.
“You said it at the beginning, that Manchester City’s women team, is one of the best women soccer teams in the world, and their staff is very diverse with people from various background. So I think it's speaking for itself, isn’t it?”.
“Research have shown that the more diverse teams are, the better the results are because they have more perspectives as Mel already said. And so historically, for a long time there were men in many fields”.
“So this is changing. And it seems that women teams that are led by women, independent of the sports, seem to be more diverse (..) and the diversity is key. As Mél said, it's coming. It's getting there”.
“Similar to Mélanie, I am also working with female football players, but I never played football. I used to play water polo and, in my opinion, diversity is really positive”.
“But we cannot afford to be picky in women's sports because we do not have that much knowledge about training women. And so if we come from different sports and background, we could share more about our various experiences with each other and we can help each other to fill in the gaps in our recovery and our training program. So I think having more diversity in the staff helps women's sports, and especially more so than in men’s teams”.
On what needs to be done to increase the percentage of studies focusing on women athletes and teams:
“I think that, and this is not only in the sports field, we know that female investors tend to invest more in women. So if we have more female leaders in decision making positions, we will have more funding and more decisions for women's specific topics such as research. So I think that one essential point here is that we need more women in decision making positions”.
“Getting more visibility is important and as there is more visibility on women athletes and teams, it'll also help get more investors and investments. And like I said at the beginning, the woman health thematic is becoming more important and will be in the future. And right now it's growing in popularity really quickly”.
“The sports will help get more visibility to help to get more investors, and sponsors. These people will say, okay 50% of the people on the planet are women, so there is a big gap that we have to fill”.
“I think that it is at the end of the day a political decision and something that the funding bodies have already reacted to. In fact, if you apply for funding now, you most of the time have to comment on if you have included gender aspects in your research proposal”.
“So nowadays, if you apply for funding and you just exclusively focus on men, you really have to have good arguments to do that study because usually you have to include both sexes or you have to have a very good excuse why you don't do that”.
“So to get funding now, you actually have to consider both sexes because funding bodies and politics now have both accepted that we need both perspectives and that also men and women do not necessarily adapt in the same way, so we need data from both sexes”.
“I think the problem is multi-dimensional. We have funding problems. We have women sport that is not getting that much attention. However, it's getting better day by day. But I think one problem we have to address is also the number of female professors, and female scientific staff who are working at universities in order to have a female perspective when we are researching about women. This is really important”.
“We need more female scientific staff working on those topics and women's sports. Women teams and athletes are breaking records year after year. For example, in women's football, we saw that last year, three records were broken”.
“UK's women's sport was one of the fastest growing sports in the United Kingdom and in Germany. In Germany, the most watched football match on television was the European Women soccer championship”.
On whether or not in the next five years, 20% to 30% of research will be focused on female athletes and teams:
“So I think that assuming that 25% of the studies in the next 5 years will be focused on female athletes and teams, is a reasonable assumption”.
“I hope it'll be, but like you said, that’s assuming that we have the fund to do so. So if we have the funds necessary to do the studies, yes. But if not, realistically, I would say that in five years we will be probably at around 11%. And in 10 years, I hope we will be even more”.
“I think we can agree on the fact that the number of studies in women and from women will rise, but I don't know how quickly it will. Usually, it takes longer than you expect. But I think we are slowly getting there, but it is a very slow process”.
“I hope so. But I think in the next five years, probably the next 10 years it will happen. We have the public attention right now and I think with the right finding, we can realistically get there in 10 years”.
On their approach towards injury reduction and the best practices there:
“For me it's really important to talk about the women's specificities. So the first thing is to break the taboo that says that you can't speak about a woman specificities, and I'm just not speaking about the physiology, but also anatomy”.
“So it's really important to speak about it, not just in the elite world, but speaking about it with the youth teams, to make them stronger, and have the coaches and staff educate the players about monitoring and tracking”.
“I think in women's sport, the ground of the lot of injuries, is due to the fact that coaches don't know the women's specificities and they don’t know how to develop strategies to go through that”.
“For me, the menstrual cycle is like this Swiss wheel of the watch. It's the little one down, and every wheels have to work together. And this woman's specificities, specificity, the knowledge, if you put a little stone on it, the full mechanism will not work”.
“So you have to know that. And the menstruation cycle is a big tool, a great tool to help you to understand the women's specificities. And education is, for me, the big part of the game. And I already observed that in Switzerland, we speak about it and there is a lot of attention on that, and there are a lot of trainers who want to know a little more about this because they find it interesting. We made them aware of the problem. They have the injuries and now they understand why there are a lot of injuries. So we have to think about this to begin to think about it in another way”.
“With the OvulaRing, we enable trainers and athletes to do exactly what, what Saba was talking about. We help track if there is an ovulation or not, to get an assessment of the menstrual cycle health to see is there a risk for a female athlete, athlete triad or based on the ovulation data”.
So to use the menstrual cycle as a diagnostic tool to see whether there might be symptoms for an energy deficit, is important. And another point that Kirsten probably can talk about more much in detail is the higher risk of injuries due to higher risk taking behaviors during special days in the menstrual cycle”.
“I think one of the huge problems is that when we look at women or study women, we tend to use a deficit oriented approach and compare them to men. And then men are standard and whatever is different in women is deemed to be worse or less good as what we found in men. And we should get away from that. We should look at women just as women and see how they're affected by injuries or what could be the cause of injury and not just solely compare them to men and look at the difference between men and women”.
“For example, we do know that connective tissues can differ in stability and stiffness between men and women. But that's not to say that it's actually bad that women have more compliant ligaments or tissues .We don't really know that. Just because they're different to men doesn't make them less good”.
“So we also have to be more open-minded in our research approaches to really find the causes for those injuries because they could be very complex because it could be behavior, it could be postural stability, it could be connective tissue changes, it could be a different way of playing. It could be all sorts of things, or a combination of all sorts of things. So that makes it really tricky to get to the bottom of this”.
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