Open discussion about the menstrual cycle is still absent from many GAA dressing-rooms but efforts are now being made to change that culture
A scene you don’t see often in a sports documentary can be found in the first episode of One Team, One Dream which is a behind-the-scenes series about Chelsea FC Women that launched on the streaming site DAZN last month.
Emma Hayes, the manager of Chelsea Women, is drawing something on a flipchart. But she’s not drawing a set-piece formation or a tactical diagram. She’s drawing a pair of ovaries.
Hayes is in a meeting with one of her players, forward Bethany England, and other members of the coaching team and she’s trying to show the effects of endometriosis. Beth England suffers from this condition and she’s filmed in a pre-season training session looking completely out of sorts.
“Struggling, can’t move, is missing shots on goal, in excruciating pain because she’s an endometriosis sufferer,” comes the voice-over from Hayes about her player.
England didn’t appear to show any awkwardness as she sat in front of her manager as Hayes drew a picture of ovaries to illustrate her condition in a meeting in front of coaching staff and also for the world to watch in a documentary.
And there should be no awkwardness, obviously. Two years ago, Chelsea Women became the first club to announce the use of a specialist app to tailor training around players’ menstrual cycles to try and improve performance and reduce injuries.
In episode two of the doc, Hayes is filmed in a meeting going through some effects of the menstrual cycle – like slow reaction times and low serotonin levels.
“The menstrual cycle will be an important tenet of how well we do this year, if we master it,” Hayes tells her (mainly male) support staff. So, you get the drift of how important this topic is to her and her team.
And how thoroughly refreshing it is to watch a sports manager talk so openly to her staff and players about this. The only embarrassment that should be linked with the menstrual cycle is the lack of qualitative and quantitative analysis on its effects on sportswomen which is part of a historical and world-wide gender health inequality.
We get still scenarios in sport like a male interviewer’s embarrassment when he was stunned with the answer given by golfer Lydia Ko last month when she said what her on-course treatment was for period pains.
How are we still here? But we are. Three years ago, research carried out by Plan Ireland showed that over half of 1,100 Irish teenage girls surveyed were embarrassed by their periods.
So, what’s it like for Irish amateur sportswomen in a team environment?
Representatives from 16 inter-county Gaelic football teams playing in the LGFA championship across the senior, intermediate and junior tiers answered three questions sent to them by the Irish Independent.
The aim is to get a sense of where conversations are at with inter-county teams and if the menstrual cycle is taken into consideration in any aspect of their set-up. The questions were:
1. Are training programmes in any way tailored around players’ menstrual cycles?
2. Is the menstrual cycle factored into training or nutrition in any way?
3. Is this a topic openly discussed between management and players?
Nine of the 16 answers from inter-county teams said ‘no’ to all of the above questions, which we’ll call category A. The other seven answers from inter-county teams were more nuanced, which we’ll call category B.
With regard to the first question, it is important to note these are amateur teams without, obviously, the funding or coaching personnel available to them compared to a full-time professional set-up like Chelsea Women FC.
Also, in the paper ‘Periodisation: tailoring training based on the menstrual cycle may work in theory but can they be used in practice?’ (2020, Science and Medicine in Football), a conclusion is that the benefits of tailored training is not definitive, with more studies called for. And as one answer from an inter-county team in category B said about tailored training, “this isn’t a factor that we know of yet that warrants adapting the training for”.
Over half the replies to the Irish Independent said the menstrual cycle is not openly discussed between players and management while other replies indicated it would only be discussed if brought up by a player.
One LGFA county board representative rang the Irish Independent to say she’d barely talk to her own daughters about the menstrual cycle not to mind to inter-county players. Another player said the menstrual cycle and its effects are something that “players are not educated enough on”.
While all seven inter-county teams in category B don’t tailor training around players’ menstrual cycles, the use of wellness apps – where players could also add information about their menstrual cycle – are mentioned as being used by four teams.
Nutritionists and dieticians have also been brought in to educate players about what foods to eat at certain times of the cycle while players might talk to staff like a strength and conditioning coach or a female liaison officer about any issues with periods.
One management team said it “plans to educate the players on the menstrual cycle” which “will inform us of what training might need to be altered in each phase (of the menstrual cycle), which will give the players the knowledge on how to adjust the training themselves”.
Antrim have two women in lead roles with their inter-county team – manager Emma Kelly and head coach Kyla Trainor. Last year the team changed their shorts from white to green because some players were “paranoid” about wearing white shorts.
A spokesperson for Antrim said their training isn’t tailored but “Emma and Kyla would know when the girls are on their cycle due to the open relationship” and “they would discuss any pain or cramps and adjust the intensity around this”.
The presence of female coaches appears to be a positive factor in helping to normalise the conversation around the menstrual cycle.
A comment from another inter-county management team, with three female selectors, said: “Players are very comfortable talking to us and, in turn, we relay if a player is feeling sick or lacking in energy. Irish females in general aren’t overly open about speaking about cycles etc let alone inter-county players who want to continuously train at the top level.”
One of the apps mentioned among the replies is Actimet. The Galway company last month launched a menstrual cycle component to their app which allows athletes to share this information with their coaching team and it also gives guidance to coaches on how different training regimes may impact athletes depending on where they are in their cycle.
Co-founder Rory McGauran says eight teams from across camogie and Gaelic football currently use this service. They hope to have data in the future to show links between performance, tiredness, injury etc with the menstrual cycle.
Galway camogie player and general practitioner Dr Caitriona Cormican says it’s only in recent years that players have felt comfortable with talking about the menstrual cycle in the Galway dressing-room.
“It was something that was never talked about. If girls had their periods, they just kept it to themselves and they struggled by themselves, if they had cramps or if they felt tired.
“I’ve been playing since 2005 so I’ve had a good few years with all different panels and managements and it’s definitely only of late that it’s something that we talk about and girls can approach the coaching staff.”
Former Dublin footballer Dr Noelle Healy says she never needed to have a conversation personally with manager Mick Bohan about her menstrual cycle but has seen other team-mates struggle with the pain of it.
“Because it’s so unspoken about you just get on with it, it’s like we just don’t help ourselves. We need to speak more about how difficult it can be and what a pain in the a**e it can be.
“Even just the effect it has on your mood, how you see yourself, your confidence, it’s tough. As players ourselves we’re not great for putting our hands up and saying, ‘I need to look after myself’. I think it’s something that we need to start slowly bringing into the conversation.”
The sooner the conversation starts in a team environment, the quicker it becomes normalised about one of the most important biological rhythms.
And sport, once again, has the power to lead the way on this.