Will Netball Australia’s new kit help open up discussion of menstrual cycles in sport?

Netball Australia have announced a change in kit to improve inclusivity and comfortability for their players, as the conversation around women’s health in sport picks up

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In 2016, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui held onto her stomach following her 4x100 metre relay race. When asked about it, she later said: “I feel I didn’t swim well today. I let my teammates down. My period came last night and I’m really tired. But this isn’t an excuse, I still didn’t swim as well as I should have.”

Six years later and the sentiment Fu shared is still too prevalent in the world of sport. Fu starting her period will have undoubtedly hindered her race, so why should there be any shame or fear in admitting that?

But some progress is being made. Netball Australia have recently confirmed they will be updating their uniforms withvariations that will now recognise individual preferences, religious beliefs and climate. All members of the eight organisations within NA are expected to comply.

Women netball players have traditionally played the sport in short dresses, but in a bid to make the sport more inclusive, this dress code will be updated on 1 January 2023, with players set to have the option of wearing a dress, singlet, bodysuit, short sleeve or long-sleeve shirt, skirt, shorts or long pants.

NA’s executive general manager Glenn Turnor has said these new guidelines are to help with the inclusivity of the sport as well as making sure everyone “can feel comfortable playing netball”. This kind of initiative opens the door to the wider subject of clothing in women’s sport, and more specifically, during certain times of the month for females in their chosen discipline.

Over the past year there has been increasing discussion about what female players feel comfortable wearing while on their periods. In fact, the momentum has built to the extent that various teams in both the Women’s Super League and Scottish Women’s Premier League have recently changed their kit colours, after concerns were flagged by players having to wear white shorts.

This issue was also raised by Lionesses hero Beth Mead during the Euros last summer. Speaking to the press during the competition, she said: “It’s very nice to have an all-white kit but sometimes it’s not practical when it’s the time of the month. We deal with it as best we can. We’ve discussed it as a team and we’ve fed that back to Nike.”

The conversations around female athletes and their menstrual cycles have often felt very taboo or closed off, with many embarrassed to open up about the struggles or battles they have felt as a result of being on their period. At the World Championships earlier this year, Dina Asher-Smith shocked the world when she finished last in the 100m sprint. She had been a strong contender to win gold but was forced to stop racing when both her calves began to cramp.

Asher-Smith was forced to stop running in 100m finals at 2022 World ChampionshipsAsher-Smith was forced to stop running in 100m finals at 2022 World Championships
Asher-Smith was forced to stop running in 100m finals at 2022 World Championships

During the press conference after the race, Asher-Smith put it down to ‘girl stuff’ saying: “More people need to research it from a sports science perspective, because it’s huge. Sometimes you see girls that have been so consistent and there’s a random dip and behind the scenes they’ve been really struggling. I feel if it was a men’s issue there would be a million different ways to combat things.”

Asher-Smith was not the only British athlete to comment on this particular topic as Eilish McColgan spoke out about having to withdraw from two competitions due to period pain in her career.  The long distance runner took to Twitter to voice her opinion and received a remarkably unhelpful comment from a male follower.

The Scottish gold medalist said: “His solution was to not bother competing when it’s my time of the month and to just schedule another race. As if I could simply call up the Olympic Games and ask them to move my event to the following week to fit my cycle. The mind boggles sometimes… but it also just shows me the complete lack of awareness that some people have.”

And it is this last point that is so key - a ‘complete lack of awareness’.

Both progesterone and oestrogen are at the lowest during the entire length of a woman’s period, which makes people feel tired and less energetic. Sporting activities such as yoga, pilates or other light cardio outings are recommended, while an increase in cardiovascular activity or strength training should be restricted. According to Dr Brandon Marcello on HealthLine, being on your period “doesn’t mean to stop training - to the contrary, this just means to cut back a little bit.”

However, as McColgan points out, this isn’t really possible when it’s your livelihood.

Additionally, McColgan and Asher-Smith’ have spoken about the shortage of knowledge in this area, with numerous scientific studies and news articles on the subject of menstrual cycles reporting there is ‘little or ‘no evidence on this topic to suggest…’ which clearly indicates ‘no’ or ‘little’ research has been actually carried out.

It’s a straight matter of fact that a menstrual cycle affects physical and cognitive ability, and another beauty of the monthly affair is that these effects on physical and cognitive ability hinder females in differing and often contrasting ways. What is normal for one female athlete will invariably be different for another, so it seems fair to assume that the limited research cannot resonate with everyone.

Organisations such as Netball Australia and Manchester City, who have also changed their kits, are not just allowing women to feel more comfortable when playing sport - they are also opening up a very necessary conversation around the menstrual cycle, which can hopefully extend to the equally pressing need for greater investigation into what can be done in the long-term to help reduce the negative impact periods can have on performance.