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Girls, sports and periods: ‘I’ve been playing in Croke Park and had to say, Would you check my shorts?’

Encouraging younger athletes to talk about their bodies’ normal functions could help them maintain their sporting activities

Clubs such as Manchester City and the Kerry women’s Gaelic football team have made the move to darker shorts, but are we doing enough so preteen and teen girls don’t feel the need to miss out on sports?

Fears of leaking and cramps, and an inability to use tampons yet, are just some of the reasons parents gave when I asked if their daughters missed out playing sports because of their periods.

Elite athletes are acknowledging the challenges, and clubs such as Manchester City soccer club and the Kerry women’s Gaelic football team have made the move to darker shorts, but are we doing enough to support our preteen and teen girls to ensure they don’t feel the need to miss out on sports when they’re menstruating?

Dave Paul coaches the girls under-14s soccer team at Granada Football Club in Blackrock, Co Dublin. The club are working hard to make sure their girls feel comfortable continuing to play during their periods.

“Because we don’t experience the same thing that girls do,” he says, it’s probably difficult for men to get to grips with, even in terms of a basic response such as changing the colour of the shorts. “It’s a no-brainer. But there’s probably not a man, really, who would have ever thought of that in the last five or six years. It’s a bit more relevant now because it’s more topical.


“As a committee and as a coaching group, we do talk about it and what we can do ... even having period products in the clubhouse available, in the kitbags, if someone gets caught short. It’s making it visible and making sure that it’s just normal.”

Granada under-14s with their three coaches, Dave Paul, Damien Mara and Phil Norton

The coaches involve the parents too. “At the very start of this football season I spoke to all the parents as a group about a number of aspects of the upcoming season. One of them was around body changes and periods ... It was around awareness and a, ‘Look, tell us if your daughter gets up on a Sunday morning and she’s not feeling great. Just give me a tap on the shoulder and say she’s got cramps today.’ I think it’s important that we open up the conversation with parents.”

Granada also has a female liaison officer on each team, Paul explains, “who’s going to be present all of the time if there’s something up with one of the girls. It’s trying to create an environment where the girls feel comfortable, because a player might not be comfortable coming up to me or one of the other coaches, going, ‘I’m after getting my period. I need to go to the bathroom.’ As much as we’d say, ‘There’s pads in bags, just grab one and run to the bathroom,’ they may not want to say something because they’re young girls and can get embarrassed.”

The club have also brought in experts to chat with the girls about sports and periods, body changes and nutrition. Paul believes it would help hugely if more women became involved in coaching.

Joe Shine coaches under-13s rugby at St Mary’s College in Dublin. He raised the issue of darker shorts with Leinster Rugby, in response to seeing the practice in England. As “a middle-aged white male, it hadn’t come across the radar”, or that of anyone he’d spoken to. There’s a “nonawareness in the sport in general”, he says.

He points out a generation gap. “I wouldn’t say my mother talks to other women about periods. My wife would probably talk to other women about it. And my children all speak to all their friends about it, and it’s a different view – but they’re not the people who are running any of the programmes, so there’s an age [factor]. We are still the products of our time.”

The issue also applies to the school uniform, he says. “My daughters will not cycle to school because they have to wear a skirt. That’s bizarre, but it could be changed as easily as changing a pair of shorts.”

Shine says that, as a coach, he’d like to learn more about making things easier for girls who play rugby to manage. “The other big thing I think people aren’t aware of is the effects of women’s rugby on their ligaments. Women have eight times more chance of doing their ACLs” – anterior cruciate ligaments – “and their shoulders and their elbows and other important joints because of oestrogen. If I told you men had eight times more chance of concussion than women, we’d be doing something about it!”

Moving to darker sportswear isn’t an option for everyone. Caitlín Mooney, a karate instructor at Hombu Dojo in Dublin, has experienced the problems wearing a white gi can pose when having a period. “I’ve had [leakage] happen to me many, many times – even at competitions, which resulted in me not being able to compete. I use a menstrual cup now, which creates internal suction and prevents bleeding,” she says. “I know for younger girls that’s not a typical option, and the fear of leaking through a gi is a big one.”

Caitlín Mooney: ‘If there’s period products provided in the bathroom of dojos and gyms, with a sign saying ‘Take what you need’, it could help remove some of the ‘shame’ and stigma that come with periods’

But Mooney isn’t sure “how good an idea it would be to move away from the white gi, as it’s rooted in tradition, although that would make a lot of people much more comfortable. However, I think creating gi with internal padding, similar to what is used in period underwear, could be one solution.”

She also believes it would help to make period products more widely available in sports. “If there’s period products provided in the bathroom of dojos and gyms, with a sign saying ‘Take what you need’, it could help remove some of the ‘shame’ and stigma that come with periods.”

The young girls at risk of giving up sport are those who see tampons as something they find too difficult to cope with

It’s no surprise that parents mention swimming as the most challenging sport to manage once their daughters start menstruating, but Tric Kearney, a coach and former competitive swimmer, says periods needn’t be an obstacle. “In my opinion the young girls at risk of giving up sport are those who see tampons as something they find too difficult to cope with. They may try one brand and give up or believe they are for when they are older. They begin to lose days at their sport when they are on their period, and in time they drop out, as periods can be unpredictable, especially in the first year or two of puberty.”

Kearney says it’s important to “educate parents, if they ask, especially about various tampons and age. Girls can wear dark togs. But, overall, normalise it. It’s not an issue when they learn to deal with it. In school swimming, parents will skip swimming for their daughters quicker than advising about tampons. Why? I think it’s an ideal opportunity for an open discussion if they’ve not had one”.

Her awareness of the difficulties young players have with their periods inspired the basketball coach Ellie Loftus to found Nickeze

The basketball coach Ellie Loftus is well aware of the lack of comfort many girls feel playing sports during their periods. It inspired her to found Nickeze, which offers solutions whether the sport is in the water, on a pitch or anywhere else. Periods are still shrouded in secrecy, “especially in that preteen and early-teen stage”, she says. “From my perspective, and looking at it from a coach’s perspective, it’s the loss of girls [from sport] around that stage, or avoiding PE in school because they’ve their period that week. Cramps and discomfort are an issue, but it’s not just about that. It’s about leaking; it’s that fear and embarrassment.”

As more and more inquiries came in, Loftus moved from stocking just period underwear to also stocking period swimsuits, shorts and bikini bottoms. The swimwear has proven to be a solution for girls who don’t feel comfortable wearing tampons. “There are solutions,” she says; people just often aren’t aware of them.

Cork's Orlagh Farmer celebrating with the national league trophy

Orlagh Farmer is a PE teacher and lecturer in sport education. She also played football for the Cork women’s senior football team for 13 years. “Last year, when I was playing with Cork ladies, that was my first year in all of my time playing with Cork that we actually decided on changing the colour [of the shorts] to navy or black”, she says. “When I was on my period and in white shorts, there’s been plenty of times over the years – that I’ve been playing at senior level in Croke Park – I’ve had to say to my friend, ‘Do you mind just checking the back of my shorts?’ That shouldn’t be something that I have to be worried about when I’m preparing for an All-Ireland final.”

Farmer says it’s vital to have talk openly with younger players. “I think to break that stigma we do need that open communication. I know that’s easier said than done, because nine times out of 10 you’re going to have male coaches. I know they have talks in schools, but not specific to sport and PE,” she says, adding, “Perhaps we need more education for coaches as well. It’s not even just the stigma – periods and menstruation can have such an impact on performance as well.

“It’s important for coaches to appreciate that girls may be affected by menstrual-cycle-related symptoms, too, such as heavy bleeding – it’s going to impair their performance, their fatigue, their energy levels, their motivation.”

Why should we be embarrassed to menstruate?

Getting girls comfortable having the conversation among themselves is important too, Farmer believes. “I have no problem now, as an adult, saying ‘Has anyone a tampon?’ in the the dressing room. ‘My period just came.’ But I know younger girls would be very hesitant and feel embarrassed. But why should we be embarrassed to menstruate? It’s a normal part of life.”

Using period-tracking apps can also help manage periods and sport, she says. “You can prepare. You know when your period is coming. You know when you’re feeling a bit sluggish. You can track the symptoms and see a pattern.”

When it comes to PE, which may be some girls’ only exercise, Farmer says that, as a teacher, the onus is on her to see what she can do to ensure girls don’t miss out on it because of periods. “You need to step in and help,” she says. “Talk to the students to see if there’s anything they could do to feel a bit better, to have more energy levels – maybe it’s sleep, maybe it’s nutrition.”

Farmer says you can also remind students that lower-intensity exercise is also good. “Maybe they don’t need to do the full class, maybe it’s just dip in or out. There’s always ways around it that you can adapt and help influence their motivation.”

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family