The room opens. In 2022, the room I refer to is virtual of-course! I meet multiple women and men in this room every month to talk about menstruation and it’s effect on athlete performance. On my screen I see a lot of faces – curious, confused, shy, disinterested even. Most of them are girls, sometimes women and once in a while there are a few men or a man in the conversation too. I notice that they are staring at the screen eagerly waiting for me to quickly start the conversation but then also may be to end it quickly. The conversation I am about to have is not exactly a conversation they are comfortable with. Neither the men, nor the girls.
I ask the question, “What is a period?”
There is pin-drop silence, always.
Now I begin to see their faces more clearly, because there is not much that they are saying. Some girls start giggling, some roll their eyes, some run away from the screen, some laugh, some are blank, some want to almost say something, but they stop short of that. Mostly fearing they might say something that is wrong. The male coach generally doesn’t say much. I am not sure if he’s just unsure or that he thinks the question is only for the girls or other women in the session and not him.
Why would it be for him? Nobody has asked him the question ever before. Let alone in a room that has mostly women and he is probably the only man. It is a woman’s issue, not a man’s.
When I was ten years old, I had a coach who believed that all athletes should wear white and white clothes only. White shirts, white shorts, white socks!
This was okay till girls in our group hit puberty. Once that happened, they were not comfortable with anything white. A red stain on a white shorts is disgusting, isn’t it ? It still is for most of us. The coach would give in a little and allow us to wear dark coloured shorts, ‘on those days‘.
Our hearts should have been filled with gratitude because our coach allowed us to wear dark colour shorts, ‘on those days’ right ? Alas ! that didn’t happen. It would actually embarrass us more. As dark colour shorts was a public announcement about us menstruating, to the rest of the group which included the boys. Our coach never had any other conversation with us on it, other than ‘ Wear dark coloured short, ‘on those days.’
This was a mistake.
He should have told us about menstruation and how it affects our performance. He should have told us about the importance of eating right amount of calories during menstruation to avoid injuries. He should have told us to not over train during menstruation. He should have told us there is nothing to be embarrassed about a red stain on a white shorts. He should have empathised with our pain. Instead he said, “What will you do if you were in a tournament?”
There is enough and more science now on how menstruation has a direct impact on performance.
Research and studies suggest that, there is a slight increase in body temperature (~0.5 degrees C) during the luteal phase of the cycle which can cause dehydration. Hormonal shifts in the body could affect multiple parts of the body including muscle, bone, endurance, energy level and attention. Pain levels and pain perception are also affected for many women. Bad nutrition, could cause low body weight, irregular menstrual cycles and low bone density issues for athletes. Stress fractures and other problems that the female athlete suffered from could limit an athlete’s activity and potentially even end a sporting career.
And yet, when I desperately call academies and coaches to register for our workshop, I hear more ‘No’ then ‘Yes’. There are various reasons/excuses to not engage. Parents are not comfortable, participants won’t be able to sit through the entire workshop, athletes are preparing for tournaments, they are travelling, they are too young, etc. What coaches need to understand is that until understanding the female body and how it functions (which includes menstruation) is not their priority, female athletes are not their priority.
There could be many reasons to say, “NO”. There is only one reason to say, “Yes”- because it is the right thing to do.
After the radio silence on the question- “What is a period?”, the room does open up. I make sure it does. Learning doesn’t happen over a presentation, it happens over conversations. Uncomfortable, honest conversations where we share our own experiences and our struggles! Of all the answers I have heard over the course of me conducting these workshops, this one has truly stayed with me – “Periods, it is a beautiful problem.”
When I asked the girl to explain, she said, ” Because periods help us bring a new life into this world which is beautiful, but with that it also gives us pain, mental and physical problems and causes embarrassment – which is problematic, right?”
I didn’t correct her. There was nothing to correct. Period is a problem for every female athlete, that is playing any sport, at any level, anywhere in the world. It is a bigger problem for some than the others. The only way to solve the problem is to speak up and acknowledge it – by both the athlete and the coach. And then to educate ourselves on how can we manage this problem so that it helps us perform better.
I, for one, never spoke up about it when I played my sport. I know now it was as much my mistake, as it was my coach’s. My mission now is to engage with every female athlete on the subject so that she doesn’t have to remain ignorant like me. If I have learned one thing since launching the ‘Menstruation and Sports’ workshop it is this – Talking about menstruation in sport is not easy.
But I can promise one thing I will I keep engaging till I reach every one of the female athletes or their coaches.
So to all the coaches – if you haven’t still received a call from me, expect one soon. The change for me begins with you, not the parents or the athletes.
And I am going to make sure you start the conversation.
And if you have not heard from me yet BUT are reading this, please please please reach out to me so that we can accelerate the change. Simply Sport Foundation is actively running Menstrual awareness workshops for Sports Coaches and Athletes.
Let us start the conversation here.