Fifty per cent of the population has breasts, but it’s still a taboo subject in the locker room, according to All-Australian and AFLW premier player Libby Birch.
And this taboo contributes to the fact that girls are less likely to participate in sports than boys once they begin puberty.
During her eight years playing at an elite level, Birch said “only recently have I received training on breast support and protection in sport.”
Birch wants to change that and make girls and women feel comfortable talking about their breasts with their peers and coaches.
Three-quarters of Australian women suffer from breast pain
One of the big physical changes a girl experiences during puberty is a change in her breasts (among other things).
They become larger, heavier and tenderness may develop. This can be a delicate and stressful process.
And almost three-quarters of Australian women experience mastalgia (breast pain) at some point in their lives, according to the Westmead Breast Cancer Institute.
Mastalgia is a phenomenon that women generally experience between the ages of 20 and 30 during a menstrual cycle.
Director of Breast Research Australia at the University of Wollongong, Associate Professor Deidre McGhee, is determined to ensure all breasts are “covered” and is pioneering research into the barriers women’s breasts may have on physical activity levels and sports performance.
“A bra is like a pair of shoes, they fit everyone differently,” she said.
She is pushing for sports bras to be included in players’ uniforms, rather than as something girls and women are expected to buy for themselves.
Until recently, there was only one large-scale study conducted on breast injuries among women in contact sports.
Associate Professor McGhee said one reason could be that when women are given a chart showing the location of their injury, it is often a chart depicting a man.
“Many women also don’t always feel comfortable talking about their breast support needs or injuries because many people in management and coaching positions are men,” she said. she declared.
“It makes them uncomfortable.”
Girls learn techniques to protect their breasts
In October 2019, the Australian Institute of Sport launched the Female Performance and Health Initiative. The main objective was to improve knowledge and support regarding girls and women in sport.
Since then, 14 educational modules and resources have been developed on topics ranging from the woman’s menstrual cycle, through puberty and development, to breast health.
Brooke Patterson, a former AFLW development coach and injury prevention researcher at LaTrobe University, spends much of her time speaking to coaches at the community level.
She teaches them how to train girls playing Australian Rules in the best tackling techniques to avoid serious injuries, including chest injuries.
“It’s important to talk about ways to approach the problem differently to better protect your breasts,” Patterson said.
“But it’s also important to help coaches feel comfortable doing this… without feeling like they’re overstepping their personal limits.”
At the same time, girls and women need to have the confidence to ask for help or advice.
But it’s not just about the coaches and the girls playing sports.
A recent study published in Science and Medicine in Football found that nearly 60 percent of elite female athletes have suffered a chest injury, but only one in ten report it to their healthcare professional or coach. .
Both Patterson and Associate Professor McGhee believe that physiotherapists and doctors need to improve their skills in all areas, to better equip them with the tools needed to identify breast injuries.
This way, when a girl or woman visits a clinic, problems can be diagnosed and treated with confidence, allowing the patient to feel heard and seen.
Is protective equipment the solution?
Some experts also believe that women could wear protective equipment to deal with the situation.
Due to the location of the breasts, they are more vulnerable and susceptible to impact injuries during contact sports.
Suzie Betts is the owner of Boob Armor, a company that designed removable bra cups.
Questioning why mouth guards, shin guards and cans are included in a “uniform” but not breast protection, Betts said she wants to see girls able to play sports with the same confidence as boys.
The current AFLW collective agreement, for example, states that boots and sports bras are requirements when it comes to a player’s “tools of the trade”, but clubs only have to pay boots.
So, is it the responsibility of the players to protect their chests, of the clubs or of the sporting code?
Birch said it should be a mix.
She experienced breast bruising and tenderness, but said playing with breast protection made her feel less vulnerable when tackling or marking the ball.
She also advocates for medical staff to receive the proper training to better diagnose and treat breast injuries, and wants to see sports bras and breast shields as an option in women’s sports kit.
Associate Professor McGhee has high hopes for girls and women in Australia, but his ultimate goal is to see a global, research-based approach to breast lesion prevention with the aim of creating change.
So, whether it’s a well-fitting bra or protective cups, experts agree: more research and attention is needed on breasts in contact and combat sports.
“No woman should be stressed about their breasts,” Birch said.
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