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‘Listen to your players’
Adapting training to the stages of the menstrual cycle in order to both improve performance and lessen the chance of injuries is a key priority at the top of the women’s game.
Chelsea, for example, are working with Dr Georgie Bruinvels from sports consultancy Orreco to help players track their cycles and adjust their regimes accordingly.
Dr Bruinvels is the woman who joined forces with Dawn Scott to do a similar thing with the US Women’s National Team. Scott is now working with England as senior women’s physical performance manager.
But it is not just the elite level where work is being done to tailor training to the intricacies of female wellness.
Yeovil United, who play in England’s third tier, have been working on their strategy for a couple of years, using insights about players’ cycles – and other health factors – to support and improve the way they train.
Ewan Greenhill, the club’s chief operating officer, has worked in women’s soccer for more than 10 years. He views the approach as an amalgamation of the understanding he has gained from working with players over that time, the increasing amounts of research coming out and his own method: coaching the person.
“If you’re listening to your players, you don’t need wellness data half the time,” Greenhill says. “If you’ve got a good enough relationship with them, they’ll soon tell you what’s going on”.
It was in the 2017-18 season, when Yeovil played in the Women’s Super League, that a more structured approach was taken.
“We were seeing the players every day,” Greenhill said. “So we were able to do the wellness data; a standard few questions about how they’re feeling, how their sleep was, how their body was coping with things.
“Being able to ask the players how they are every morning when they come in was a big thing. We were able to say ‘Right, okay, now we’re starting to see the trends coming out’.
“It was very anecdotal the season before, but we were able to manage it because [head coach] Jamie Sherwood and I have a similar way of working with players.”
“If you’ve got a good relationship with them, players will soon tell you what’s going on.”
Yeovil reverted back to part-time status following a two-division drop in 2019, yet amid the off-field turbulence and against a sometimes uncertain backdrop, Greenhill’s work around player performance has continued to develop.
He said: “During the 2018-19 season, the data started to open up a couple more insights. What we found is the players don’t really want to have the pitch side of things impacted.
“Ultimately all the players want to do is kick a ball around, train with their team and play the game. So we took a slightly different approach and allowing players to back off in training where they need to.
“If they do report that they’re feeling a bit tired or sluggish or sore in that few days to a week – whatever their cycle length may be – then we can make those adjustments on the field for them.
“So maybe allowing them to not push to the maximum in some of our sprint work because they don’t feel like they can. It’s a case of ‘okay, just give me what you can and we’ll deal with it.’”
This approach extends from the training pitch to the gym. “Basically, you’ll always want to lift above 80%,” Greenhill added. “So what we’ve started to create is players working with the maximum for that day, then pitching their own 80% of that.
“We know that within every four weeks we’re going to get one week when they’re not feeling so great. That’s the opportunity to back off.
“That gives us a natural recovery week, or a deload week, and then the rest we can choose how we build into it. That’s the way I like to work: three to one and try to base it around the cycles.”
So that’s on-pitch training and time in the gym, but what about match days?
Greenhill said: “I think that’s the difficult one for anyone, because I don’t think any manager in their right mind is ever going to drop a player for that. I certainly have never seen that happen.
“It may explain why performances may drop, but we certainly don’t have anything to do with impacting matchday because ultimately it’s whatever the head coach wants that squad to look like.
“Also the players want to play. I think that’s the real robustness that comes with the female game. Players do tend to power through a lot of things when actually you’re wanting them to sometimes say ‘look I can’t do anymore’.
“Every player I’ve worked with, they never see it as a limitation. I don’t think I’ve had one player that sees it as an excuse to do less.”
Greenhill says having open conversations with players is the key.
“I think not being scared by it and being able to have those conversations and be quite frank both ways is important,” he said.
“They can say ‘Ewan, I’m feeling awful today’ and we talk about what it is. Players don’t tend to shout about it [their period] but having those conversations leads to me saying ‘Okay, well just do this or that, we’ll back you off on the pitch, you just tell me if there’s an issue’.
“A couple of senior players have different names for it and that’s how they let me know that something’s not right and it’s their week.
“We work out what plan to put in place and how to get through the week so we can keep playing on the pitch.
“Immediately you get buy-in and as coaching staff, the minute you do that you’re on to a winner and your relationship with the player will just grow.
“I think as a male working in the women’s game if you can break that barrier, and the supposed stigma of talking about it, then actually it works well.”
For those working or volunteering at a certain level in the women’s game, collecting wellness data isn’t feasible.
But even without a performance team in place, Greenhill believes a few simple things can be done when considering players’ menstrual cycles and wellness generally.
He said: “Getting to know the player, having those open conversations – none of that costs, apart from the time of the coach or the person looking after it.
“But if you can read a player’s body language when you ask them how they are, or if you notice a change in them, then that’s helpful.
“Some players have different names for it, that’s how they let me know it’s their week.”
“Over time that breeds the ability to guess they might be struggling with their period that week. But it could be anything – something going on at home, something going on at work.
“We can cover wellbeing as more of a global thing, to look after the player, who is ultimately an asset for the club.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re paying them or not paying them, they’re there to do a job for you at the club.
“I think wellness tests are a great idea, but you can also keep it really simple and just ask a player how they are and have that conversation.”
What’s clear is there are different approaches to integrating the menstrual cycles of players into a club’s training regime.
Chelsea, for example, were one of the first clubs to use the FitrWoman app, developed by Dr Bruinvels for Orecco, through which coaches can access player information and tailor their training programmes.
Greenhill said: “We know the research is still in its very early stages. It’s not a one size fits all situation. You have to tailor it for each individual because everyone feels it a bit differently.
“There are lots of improvements to be made. The robustness of wellness data, for example, could be improved and the things you can do to make your data work need to be considered.
“But if we’re all doing it in our own way, and saying this is helping us, then it’s going to help everyone.”
Across the industry, there’s still a long way to go. According to the 2020 BBC Elite British Sportswomen’s Survey, 60 per cent of sportswomen have had their performance affected by their period, while 40 per cent do not feel comfortable discussing their period with coaches.
Greenhill added: “If coaches like myself, a male in the female game, can talk about it and understand it, then between the community of all these different groups that come together to support elite athletes now – sports science, the medical staff, the nutritionists – if we’re using this information that little bit more, then it’s going to be out there more, and better understood.
“It will eventually just be a part of how we support players.”
Six sports podcasts on the menstrual cycle
1. FEMALE ATHLETE PODCAST
Series 1, episode 14 – Puberty and Periods
How to normalise the area for young girls and what happens when it’s done right.
Dr Georgie Bruinvels
Using the menstrual cycle as a personal trainer.
3. FAIR GAME PODCAST
Periods and menstrual health for athletes.
4. FA WOMEN’S & GIRLS’ COACH DEVELOPMENT PODCAST
Episode 5 – Dawn Scott
Talking about the menstrual cycle with Dawn Scott, senior women’s physical performance manager at The FA.
5. THE CURIOUS CLIMBER PODCAST
Dr Stacy Sims – Women Are Not Small Men
Better understanding the differences women may need to consider in sport.
6. WELL FAR: THE RUNNING PODCAST
Miles and your Menstrual Cycle
How to be fit and fertile.