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Menstrual Cycle – A real headache for Women in football

by Lesley Ngwa
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Menstruation and competitions do not mix well because of the less than stellar performances and the inconvenience for female players to compete in the middle of their menstrual period. Yet women play football like their male counterparts, training daily, competing in numerous matches, winning trophies like them, with the only difference being that they have to deal with the challenges of biology. Like all women, women footballers are subject to menstruation which has a significant impact on their physical and mental state. The prejudice to players’ performance caused by menstruation, which was once overlooked by football governing bodies, is increasingly being broken down and brought to the forefront to enable players to be fulfilled and perform well throughout the month. “The menstruation period of female footballers is a subject that is regularly addressed as mentalities have evolved today compared to some time ago. Menstruation must be addressed and taken into account in women’s football to educate and edify the female footballer on her menstrual cycle, the inconveniences caused by it, and try to find solutions to soften or even reduce these unpleasant sensations during menstruation,” says Bernadette Anong, assistant coach of the Cameroon national team.

The impact of menstruation on the physical, emotional and mental state of female footballers.

In football in particular, menstruation is an inconvenience for players, whether it be physical, emotional or psychological. Ange Bawou, goalkeeper for the Indomitable Lionesses of Cameroon: “My menstrual cycle lasts almost five days and it is usually accompanied by pain in the lower abdomen. It’s a period of discomfort and stress, because psychologically there are hold-ups during training sessions and certain matches. If there are things you can’t do because you’re wondering; will my sanitary towel fall off? Will it move? It’s little questions like that that you ask yourself when you’re in the thick of things during your period. “

  The same is true of her national teammate Melvis Tantoh, whose period limits her performance by affecting her physical condition. “I have severe pain in my lower abdomen for the first two days of my five-day period. These pains, usually coupled with high fatigue, often prevent me from training and being effective on the field. To the point where, in the national team as well as in the club, when I have often been asked to do certain sequences or efforts during my period, it has been noted that the result is not the same as when I am not bleeding.

   In Cameroon, menstruation is no longer taboo. “It is a subject that is being discussed more. In many training centers, this subject comes up again to prepare the young girl footballer to face the inconveniences caused by the menstrual cycle. The menstrual cycle has an impact on different levels emotionally, physically and in terms of performance. And as the manifestations are different depending on the girl, we talk about it to better prepare them to manage this situation,” says coach Bernadette Anong. According to the current players of the national team, the female presence in the coaching staff is reassuring. “It’s easy to discuss this kind of issue with the ladies and explain the situation. They are always understanding. I was systematically put on rest during the two painful days of my cycle and then I came back as soon as I felt better. Sometimes some of them would say to me, you can deal with it despite the immense fatigue. You will recover later,” says Melvis Tantoh.

Although the manifestations of menstruation in female footballers are diverse, menstruation does manage to affect players. From experience, coach Bernadette Anong confides, “Some players when they bleed are a bit stronger, emotionally affected, weakened, effaced or overexcited. Personally, when I was playing and I was in period, I became a bit rougher, overexcited as if I had taken a little drug. As I got older, I developed other symptoms like joint pain and a temporary fever. On the other hand, there are some who can perform well, so it depends on the organism. I don’t think that my menstrual cycle prevents me from practicing, even though I can’t do certain things during this period. Inwardly, I tell myself that I cannot miss an important opportunity for a natural and temporary situation because bleeding is a temporary period. I can’t lose an opportunity because I’m bleeding. It’s a situation that has quickly adapted to my profession and that I manage quite well,” reports the Cameroonian international.”

 Menstruation is also conducive to injury for female footballers, as it alters their hormonal levels, and the body is more or less sensitive to stress. According to one study, the menstrual cycle is an inflammatory process and excessive inflammation can lead to injury. Indeed, because of the lowered red blood cell and iron levels during menstruation, the menstrual cycle interferes with the performance of high-level players, especially when physical and mental fatigue is noted. “When a woman is in period, she loses a lot of blood and mineral elements. This can lead to anemia. I remember a match abroad and one of the national team players had already told me the day before that her period was coming and that it would bother her. She was very upset. I asked her to take iron, drink lots of water and try to relax. The next day, the day of the match, she was in the starting 11, because we said she would be fine. But before the warm-up she called me again to tell me that she was dizzy and so on. I told the head coach and he didn’t play her. Because if we took the risk of putting her in, she would certainly get hurt. At that moment, she would risk hurting herself, physically and mentally. These are complicated situations that we live with,” explains Bernadette Anong, assistant coach of the Cameroon women’s national team.

Apart from the embarrassment caused to the performance of the women’s footballers, the rules also affect the players’ coquetry. Stoke City head coach Lou Roberts said: “It’s real, the anxiety about the rules can start before or even during the game and the embarrassment associated with it, it obviously affects the players’ performances. Feeling like they are not focused on the game, probably worried about being exposed to an environment where women should feel relaxed and enjoy themselves. ” The stress of menstruation has led players to demand that clothing manufacturers match their menstrual cycles, particularly in the choice of colors, in an effort to maintain modesty. On 22 July 2022, during the Women’s Euro football tournament, English and French players asked Nike, their sponsors, to adapt their equipment to their menstrual cycles. “It’s great to have an all-white outfit, but it’s not necessarily suitable when we have our period. We try to deal with it as best we can,” England striker Beth Mead told The Telegraph. In October 2022, Puma and Manchester City announced that the women’s shorts will no longer be white from the 2023-2024 season but navy blue. The club explained in a statement that the decision was due to the creation of an environment for female players to “feel comfortable and perform at their highest level. We have always talked about supporting the players as best we can, improving the level of the girls as much as possible, not just at this club, at all levels for women’s football,” the club’s statement said.

How to control these nuisances.

    In recent years, women’s sport has been growing and gaining recognition for its value. It is important to note that every cycle is different and that, although there is a general rule, it is important to train intelligently, regardless of the sport you practice. Menstruation affects mood, fatigue and pain. There are peaks of energy and peaks of weakness. Fortunately, these symptoms are increasingly being discussed openly, and the resulting advances are definitely contributing to better education for the female footballer. For coach Bernadette Anong, “Players should eat foods that will give them iron before and after their red period. When I consumed it, I had less difficulties, fatigue and discomfort. They should drink a lot of water and get enough rest. Because recovery at this time is very important. As well as sleep, nutrition, drinking and massage, if possible, to alleviate some of the fatigue and pain. It is better to limit endurance efforts and concentrate on muscle strengthening, technique or doing splits. These are the little tips we give them“.

    She goes on to say that “the technical staff must also be present and listen to the players. In the national team, there are measures taken on the medical level. The team doctor has sanitary towels in his kit, irons, elements that can help recovery. On the social level too, measures are being taken. As technicians on the field, we do not force the player, because it is beneficial for us to avoid physical discomfort especially at the level of the joints. Because most of them, when they are in the period the joints are under the most pressure and can easily create injuries at that time. We consider that and we take measures for that, unless they feel well, they can do that, but if they don’t, they can only go for treatment so that they are a bit less tired.”

  Taking into account menstrual cycles could be beneficial for Cameroonian sports teams. Starting from the principle that menstruation should not be synonymous with stopping sport, voices are being raised in favor of taking better account of female footballers. Coach Anong says that “you have to consider that she is a girl and that she is different from the footballer of the opposite sex, even in terms of her training. These are things that are already taught at school about the specificity of the two. To be able to educate the young female player from her base team and to provide her with means so that at that moment she is less embarrassed, these are points on which we must improve to have a better performance. Similarly, we need to treat and value mother players better so that they are not lacking. Regularizing their salary situation, i.e. paying them the standard salary so that they can look after their children, will help them to concentrate fully. The Guinness Super League and the Cameroon Football Federation (FECAFOOT) kept their commitments regarding the salaries of the players last season (2022) and we support this. Today, women footballers feel a little more autonomous and can manage themselves, which is something to be encouraged, but we still have a long way to go,” she concludes.

   With a view to the growth and development of women’s football, the increased adoption of menstruation in women’s sport suggests that the lines are moving towards a better consideration of women’s difficulties in the field of sport and football in particular.

 Football and motherhood – a difficult time for women footballers as mothers?

 Juggling their lives as women and as top sportswomen is the daily routine for many women footballers. In women’s football, menstruation and childbirth are often breaks in the lives of players. Just like menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth are subjects that are often put aside. Today, with the evolution of mentalities, it is time for discussions and educational talks. Coach Anong says: “At some point, these subjects are addressed to prepare the girl for certain responsibilities when the time comes. The mother footballers are not left out. We try to enlighten them about the evolution of their bodies and the reactions that can arise emotionally, psychologically and physically. But talking within the technical staff between coaches and players is not enough. In the opinion of some professionals, “it would be wise to have people who have studied in this field who can give their expertise so that the education of young girls in sport is more dynamic and favorable to them“.

  There are many women footballers who are mothers. There are some who have conceived naively or by accident, as if to speak trivially, without considering the impact that this may have on their careers, without having previously wanted to become mothers. The coach, Bernadette Anong, believes that: “It is important to address these issues to avoid precociousness in some and accidental cases in others. You have to prepare the arrival of a child psychologically and financially. We address these issues to educate young girls who want to pursue a career in football or who are just passing through. The menstrual cycle and childbirth should not be seen as inevitable for female footballers. The real problem is to be able to do it under the right conditions. Because a young female footballer who wants to make a career in this sport cannot give birth just any old way, and that’s where it gets awkward. She should know that there is an age when she is mature enough and that she is supposed to get married. So, you have to think about having a partner first before you have a baby. Because if she lives with someone who is recognized by her nuclear family, by her professional family and who has taken responsibility for her, it is logical that she should have a baby. In this case, she will only have to schedule the births in relation to her various competitions. But when these conditions are not met, we see more or less broken destinies. In other words, we see players still in training who are pregnant, and this is upsetting. Because they find themselves with responsibilities that they cannot assume. It is difficult to accept for both parents and educators.”

  For mother footballers, it is not easy at a certain point because they have to think about the child’s education, its mental, emotional, physical and social development at the same time. This requires a lot of concentration in order to perform well. If the mother footballer has a caring partner, she can easily manage her daily life and sports activities. However, if she does not have a spouse or partner, it will be difficult, especially if she lives in precarious conditions. This will have an impact on her performance in terms of organizational difficulties and the inability to solve these problems.

On the other hand, there are some who manage to manage their lives as footballers and mothers with ease. They manage to concentrate on trying to do their best as mothers and as professional footballers. And the coaches pay special attention to this, especially in the case of major competitions. Coach Bernadette Anong told us an anecdote to this effect: “We give consideration to mother players on two levels. When their children are still small. During training sessions, the child’s partner or father can bring the child all the time so that the mother can see him and the maternal affection is not broken and she can feed him. In 2016, during the African Cup of Nations (CAN) for women held in Cameroon from 16 November to 3 December 2016, we had this case with the national goalkeeper Annette Ngo Ndom who had just given birth 4 months earlier. We wrote to the Minister of Sports at the time, Mr. Pierre Ismaël Bidoung Kpwatt, to ask him to authorize the child and his father to come to the Indomitable Lionesses’ training camp so that he could be easily fed. This was done. For the mother footballer whose child is no longer small, sometimes we ask that the child be brought from time to time so that his mother is less tense and that she is concentrated in the game and has a better performance in terms of game production, it is very important.”

   As far as the behaviour of women footballers who are mothers at club level or in the national team is concerned, the maternal instinct takes over. The testimonies of the coaches on this aspect are all unanimous. As far as Cameroon in particular is concerned, Coach Anong confides: “I have had to coach mother footballers. They are a little more attentive than the other players. They are the most protective of the group and they have a particular contribution to make in educating the other girls and in discipline. They make an effort to be exemplary both on and off the field. Maybe it’s because they have children. If they have a problem with their offspring, they tell the coach. This makes them feel more comfortable and freer, knowing that at any moment they can be called upon to deal with the case of this child.  They don’t find it difficult to express themselves and look after the other players in the group. “

A combination of housewife and top-level footballer.

  In the footballing world, the question remains on the table: is it possible to combine a professional footballer and a housewife?  The answer to this question is of course yes! This is evidenced by the words of Watford and Wales striker Helen Ward in her interview with FIFPRO in 2021 about her own experiences of balancing motherhood and a playing career: “It’s very important for young girls to realize that having a family doesn’t mean stopping living. I always thought that having children would be the end of my football career, but when I got pregnant with my daughter over seven years ago, I just wasn’t ready to stop my career. There were starting to be more and more cases of women footballers continuing to play as mothers, such as England player Katie Chapman, and they were real role models, showing the way to have children and return to the top level. In fact, being a mother has enhanced my career and strengthened me as a person. Before I had a child, I could mope about a bad match result for five days after a match, whereas now I just don’t have time to mope about it. I come home and my kids ask me for a hug or a treat and suddenly the bad result is not the end of the world. That’s not to say that results don’t matter to me as much as they used to, but I’ve developed a better sense of priorities. This new ability, to compartmentalize my life between football and family has worked really well for me in my career. 

At present, the Fédération International de Football Association (FIFA) is more concerned with the difficulties faced by women in football. Maternity regulations in football require federations to provide for maternity leave, defining it as a minimum period of 14 weeks paid leave, of which at least eight must be taken after the birth of the child. This regulatory framework, together with an obligation to pay the player a minimum of two-thirds of her salary, however, only applies to professionals. Coach Anong believes that at the national level, “women footballers who are mothers must be better treated and valued so that they are not left out of the picture or marginalized. Their salaries should be paid regularly so that they can take care of their children. Stable funding will enable them to give their best.

 Taking better account of women footballers who are mothers would help to strengthen the progress made in protecting the rights of current and future women footballers who are mothers and to provide them with greater job security in football.

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