Professor Holly Thorpe and colleagues are aiming to remove some of the stigma around issues faced by young women athletes.
She is involved in the University of Waikato’s third Female Athlete Health Symposium - HPSNZ, happening in Auckland on 4 April. The focus on women is needed because almost everything that people know about female athletes from training mechanisms, internal drive, external motivation, recovery, and nutrition has been based on men and generalised for women.
The pressures young athletes face are greater than they have ever been before, and those pressures are coming from a range of different places: schools, parents, coaches, social media, their peers, and themselves. Professor Thorpe says young athletes are often bombarded with expectations and contradictory messages. “So what we are seeing is increasing rates of low energy availability, relative energy deficiency, injuries, burnout. These things are happening to younger and younger athletes.”
Young women athletes are not only at a vulnerable age, but it is also a critical phase. Dr Thorpe says they are setting up their future health, particularly their bone health. “Hormonal changes associated with not fueling properly can affect most of your key health systems, including your long-term bone health. If a young athlete is not getting good nutrition during her early career, then her bone health may be compromised for the rest of her life. Also your relationship with your body, eating disorders, self-confidence, these kinds of things are being set up here, and they can go on to have major implications for their lives more broadly. We need to get the message through to young athletes, and we also have to reach teachers and coaches at this critical time in the athletes lives.”
But sometimes the conversations are really quite hard to have. Dr Thorpe uses the example of a male coach who may feel uncomfortable talking to a young woman about her periods. “But when we frame it up around performance, and help these coaches understand that their athlete’s performance will drop and their long-term health is going to be compromised if they aren’t fuelling their training properly, then they tend to take these issues more seriously. Coaches can no-longer put their head in the sand. They see their athlete dropping weight, getting sick or injured all the time, their performance is impacted, but many don’t know how to have these conversations. What we’re trying to do with the Symposium is help coaches and health professionals, as well as parents, teachers and athletes, know what to look for, know where they can get help, and break down some of that stigma.” This is a key strategy underpinning the event: “to help debunk some of the myths and breakdown stigma, the symposium will feature a range of coaches as well as athletes who have worked through these issues and learned a lot of important lessons along the way. Their voices and stories are very powerful”.
Dr Thorpe also says it is about empowering young people with education about their own bodies. “They are not just victims to all these pressures, many of them are very smart switched on young people. They're just being spun around by lots of different sources of information, pressures and expectations. So we’re also trying to empower young people with this knowledge.” Thorpe says the Symposium will “bring together sport scientists, health professionals, coaches, and athletes, to broaden the knowledge base, and really help those on the front line of youth sport. Bringing the different disciplines together, this is about making the latest research accessible, putting it into everyday language, and creating space for conversations about the most effective ways of supporting young athletes towards healthy and successful lives in sport”. New Zealand is leading the way in such interdisciplinary approaches to female athlete health.
Dr Thorpe and her University of Waikato colleague Dr Stacy Sims are presenting at the 2019 Female Athlete Health Symposium that is being organized by the University of Waikato in conjunction with High Performance Sport New Zealand and with support from ACC among other health providers. Thorpe and Sims are also part of the High Performance Sport New Zealand working group WHISPA (Health Women in Sport: A Performance Advantage), and are collaborating on a range of research projects focused on female athlete health.