Olympic medallist Gail Emms was forced to confront issues that are usually kept private and personal during the course of a conversation with a sports coach. It got her thinking about whether up-and-coming sportswomen have the right information, from the right people, to make the right call on their health and well-being. From her own experience of climbing the sporting ladder, she asks the provocative question: Whose Body Is It Anyway?
I had a meeting the other day with a friend who is a sports coach. We chatted about many different things like you do when you are sitting in the sun with a nice coffee. The conversation turned to a young girl, aged about fourteen or fifteen, who the coach was working with. Within minutes we were discussing the girl’s menstrual cycle and how this could be impacting on her performance. After ten minutes of discussion about the sports science behind the research looking into menstruation and injuries, I stopped and said: “This poor girl has no idea that I am sitting here talking about her periods.”
I am still mortified by this conversation. Not because that I don’t believe in the research around training programmes fitting in with the female menstrual cycle. There are many studies going on to determine why 13 to 18-year-old girls are up to eight times more likely to suffer from an ACL injury than their male counterparts, and if it is linked to hormones or just the anatomy of the female skeleton. But the fact this girl is 14 to 15 years old, is coming to terms with her body as she goes through puberty and two people are talking about whether or not she should go on the contraceptive pill to see if this would help her with the physical development of her sport! Is the young female athlete body not private anymore?
I have grown up in a world where coaches (mostly male) have made comments about my body. Too fat, too strong, too stocky, too masculine. I have seen fellow female athletes struggle with diets that have often become eating disorders, so they can fit in with the coach’s ideal perception of what the perfect body should be for their sport. I have received countless items of clothing from sponsors that would just about fit a 12 year old because they want me to show as much flesh as possible on the badminton court so I get the media coverage. And now, even the prospect of hormones are to be monitored so that not only the outside of the body is scrutinised, but there is no escape for the inside, either.
Looking back at my time as a 14 to 15 year old, my hormones were all over the place – like many other teenagers. My menstrual cycle was never a cycle: it appeared whenever it wanted and was usually extremely heavy. My menstrual cramps would be so painful that sometimes I couldn’t leave the sofa. Nobody ever talked to me about the situation and how I could improve it, but that suited me just fine. I was mortified about this problem and my family would never have been able to talk openly about periods and how to solve the situation I was in, let alone my coach at the time.
When Heather Watson admitted that she wasn’t at her best during a match in the Australian Open due to “women’s problems”, my phone went crazy. And the best bit of all were the awkward male producers from TV and radio stations asking the question I am sure they would never have wanted to ask: “How did your periods affect you as a player?” I could hear the cringing and the embarrassment down the phone line. The truth, as I told those producers, was that it didn’t affect my badminton. As I got older, my body adapted and my periods didn’t affect me with tiredness, cramps, or even balance. But it is not the case with some of my friends. One female badminton player used to trip over her feet whenever she had her period as the hormones affected her that badly.
As an elite athlete travelling the world, I decided to go on the contraceptive pill as a practical way of being able to control my cycle. I was over 18 and I made the decision myself. But what for this girl in question? Is this the answer? And who should bring this subject up? Is a male adult coach the right person to have a conversation with a 14 or 15-year-old girl and suggest she goes on the pill? What support system do we have to help young females with the battle between the female body and being an athlete? As part of coaching and mentoring courses that I have completed recently, I identified those times in my life when a mentor would have been appreciated. Someone other than family or a coach who I could really talk to about how I was feeling without any judgment whatsoever.
Sport coaches may have the knowledge of the sport, the experience in competitions, but sometimes it is about developing the soft skills that can help in situations like this. The young female athlete, if not careful, can be lost. The rapport, the trust and the relationship between coach and athlete is crucial to the next stage in their progression. This is the time where eating disorders can develop; embarrassment over body issues and identity crisis can take over, and lead to the athlete giving up completely.
What happens when this girl is then moved, as often happens, to a centralised training programme, miles away from her home town and familiar environment. The level of trust with the coaches has gone from high to very low, and can that athlete now talk about personal topics? This person will now be at the bottom of a pack, a sparring person, and a training partner for the better athletes, learning to deal with high pressure without people she can turn to. Older girls will try and belittle her to keep her down in the pecking order and the nice, comfortable and enjoyable training has disappeared to a colder, harsher, more adult and often bitchy, high-pressured one. Is there enough support or should it be a “survival of the fittest” attitude?
On the flip side, am I being too soft? Am I protecting something that doesn’t need protecting and, as girls or women in sport, should we just toughen up? A human body is just that; it is an incredible machine so specifically designed that should we just accept the facts – a period is just a period, a part of growing into adulthood and preparing the body for having children. There is no part of the evolution process that says the female body can be adapted for sport, so why am I getting all concerned about this? I did biology A Level and can watch the goriest medical documentaries without squirming one bit. I even wanted to go into the medical profession when I was at school, so I should be saying, “Come on, girls, it’s just a period. Deal with it and accept it. It’s a part of what all women have to go through”.
With the research going into young female athletes and menstrual cycles, especially in respect to injuries and tiredness, I am not worried or concerned that the sports science behind training regimes isn’t suitable. It is more the emotional and personality development that will be the key to success and well-being of the athlete. We have the sport psychologists, the nutritionists, the performance lifestyle and the physiologists, but in my eyes there is still something missing. We owe it as coaches, as mentors, as ex-athletes, as journalists, to ensure a duty of care and not eat up and spit out the young sportswomen who have the talent to realise their dreams. Who decides whether they are comfortable with what is going on? Does a parent take over, as the athlete is under 16, but can they have different motives? Is it just assumed that because the athlete is there at a training session, it is all right to talk about her and her body, and if she doesn’t like it, well, there will be another wannabe athlete to take her place? Who has asked what the athlete wants?
To the girl I spoke about in that conversation, I feel I must apologise. You don’t know me, and I hope that you never know that I talked about you, but I still feel the need to say sorry. To me, I have betrayed a trust and your body is personal. I hope you have someone who you can talk to you about all of the above. And, most importantly, I wish you all the success and healthy well-being for the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gail Emms MBE is one of Britain’s most successful badminton players, best remembered for her silver medal in the mixed doubles at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. With partner Nathan Robertson, she won gold at the World Championships in 2006, the Commonwealth Games in the same year, and the European Championships in 2004. Gail was six times national mixed doubles champion and national ladies doubles champion five times. Since retiring after the Beijing Olympic Games, Gail has been a versatile sports presenter on a variety of television and radio programmes. She was awarded the MBE for services to badminton in 2009. She is the mother of two boys. Gail’s latest articles