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How sports kit is failing our female athletes: From ill-fitting bras to equipment designed for men

'Who wants to do sport if you are in pain all the time?' Ill-fitting bras and equipment designed for men are just two examples of how kit is causing harm to female athletes; sportswomen share their stories in Sky Sports' exclusive documentary 'Fit For Purpose?' to highlight the issues

Is women's sport kit causing needless injury?
Image: Is women's sport kit causing needless injury?

Sportswomen have been suffering needless and sometimes career-threatening injuries due to equipment designed for men with female athletes calling on investment and innovation to sustain the health and wellbeing of their colleagues and future generations.

From ill-fitting sports bras causing breast damage to bikes based on a default male causing saddle sores, equipment has been failing sportswomen. Yet with more eyes and visibility on women's sport than ever before, will individual sports ensure vital research and resources are spent in order to prevent further athletes suffering?

Research carried out by Portsmouth University in 2020 found that 75 per cent of British elite female athletes from Olympic and Paralympic sports had never had a sports bra fitted and 26 per cent of them reported that breast pain affected their ability to give their all in training or competition.

'Who wants to do sport when they're in pain all the time?'

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Ellie Cardwell talks about the importance of the sports bra and the reaction to her openly talking about it on social media

England netball player Ellie Cardwell is on a mission to spread the word on the importance of wearing the right sports bra and encourage more athletes and young girls going through puberty to get a proper fitting.

The goal attacker/shooter, who has won 55 international caps, uses social media to share and review her experiences with sports bras and has been blown away by messages she has received and heartened to hear that many have heeded her advice and gone out to buy some of her recommendations.

"I remember at school when I started to have my growth spurt, getting larger breasts and just thinking I need to wear a sports bra for PE. I'm in pain trying to do sport," Cardwell told Sky Sports as part of a documentary 'Fit for Purpose' exploring how women's sport kit has been holding back our sportswomen.

Cardwell, who taught in schools in England before her switch to play netball for Adelaide Thunderbirds in Australia earlier this year added: "I was a PE teacher the last two years and you can just see young girls looking uncomfortable and they don't know themselves yet.

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"If you don't have large breasts you will never, ever think about it because you whack your top on and off you go, you're fine. But if you have larger breasts then you're thinking 'have I got the right sports bra? Am I going to be in pain today?

"There's lots of different reasons why girls stop playing sport, but I imagine not having the correct sports bra, or not having a sports bra would stop them - they're going to be in pain."

Portsmouth University found that nearly half (46 per cent) of schoolgirls who were surveyed reported their breasts affected their participation in sports which could be on the main factors as to why a study by Women in Sport last year found that one million girls who thought of themselves as sporty at primary school lose interest in physical activity as teenagers.

"Who wants to do sport when they're in pain all the time?" Cardwell added. "I know that sometimes I didn't want to turn up to training as I didn't have the right sports bra, so if they don't have the knowledge that I have, there's no way they'll want to do it."

Breast injury is another topic that rarely gets the discussion and research needed with a study in 2022 surveying 500 elite female athletes representing 46 different sports finding that more than one in three (36 per cent) reported breast injuries.

'The majority of gloves available are modelled on a default male's hand'

In combat sports such as boxing, breast impact protection is vital and is just one area where the sport is continuing to explore ways to better protect its female athletes.

Andrea Smith is founder and CEO of Unorthodoxx, the UK's first women's boxing glove, protective equipment and clothing brand built purely for women which was set up in 2019.

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A special documentary featuring Jessica Ennis-Hill, Charlotte Edwards and Katherine Grainger examines whether there is a gender bias in kits and equipment used within women's sport.

"There are a lot of women who still wear the male groin guard, which has got a huge box to protect their reproductive organs," Smith told Sky Sports. "Now women's reproductive organs aren't in this area, so I designed quite a sleek, pelvic guard, specifically for women that does protect their reproductive organs.

"In our focus groups we did find some women had had ultrasounds after sparring and where they had had low blows, they had inflammation on their ovaries. It's quite dangerous for women of any age, but especially for younger women who may want to go on and have a family."

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Andrea Smith, founder of Unorthodoxx, talks about why there is a need for boxing gloves designed for women

As well as protective gear, the company makes bespoke gloves for women who generally have narrower hands and wrist compared to men.

"The majority of gloves available are modelled on a default male's hand, consequently, they're only going to suit a very small majority of females," Smith added.

"If you're experiencing injuries, and your wrists are hurting each time you're hitting the pads, you're not going to feel very confident, whereas if you're wearing a glove that feels really nice and supportive, it does make you feel very confident.

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Former England cricketer Lydia Greenway reflects on the changes in kit and equipment for female cricketers

"One of the complaints from women and the boxing gloves they were using was that the fingers were hurting and pushing in the finger pocket area. So what we did when we designed our gloves, we made that area an inch longer to accommodate women's nails."

How cricket equipment is changing for women

Former England cricketer Lydia Greenway is another entrepreneur with women's health and comfort at the heart of her business.

Cricket equipment and kit for women has changed over the years to meet the different gender needs
Image: Cricket equipment and kit for women has changed over the years to meet the different gender needs

Greenway formed The Female Store an online cricket shop for women and girls during the Covid lockdown having spent a career wearing pads that are too wide with length straps and using heavy and big bats.

"When we were younger we didn't get a choice over what cricket equipment we used, we didn't really ask questions. The leg pads that you wear as a cricketer historically have just been a men's fit which has meant that the straps are quite big. So if you think of a female calf compared to a male calf, there's a lot of overhang of the strap, which can make it hard to run in.

"In terms of a size of a bat, I would use a shorter handle bat, but a male who was the same height as me is naturally stronger, so he would also be using a shorter handle bat but the weight of it would be much heavier. If you've got a bat that's too heavy, if you're trying to play against really quick bowling, and you're not able to get your bat up quick enough, that can have a direct impact."

Lydia Greenway, seen competing in 2015, has helped oversee the development of specific cricket equipment for women
Image: Lydia Greenway, seen competing in 2015, has helped oversee the development of specific cricket equipment for women

Just as boots have become a talking point in women's football as to one possible reason for the increase in anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, with a quarter of last year's Ballon d'Or nominees suffering them, cricket spikes is another product of the game that needs to be looked at, according to Greenway.

"I've had two bad ankle injuries during my career and it was probably because of the cricket spikes I was wearing, they were too wide," she said. "The only option that we had as female players was to wear spikes that were designed for the male foot, and I can always remember my spikes feeling much looser around the ankle region.

"I remember rupturing my ankle ligaments just because I didn't have that security or protection. I wouldn't say out and out that was the reason for my injury, but it could've been a factor for it. That's probably something in the women's game that is still being addressed."

'Saddle companies have now started from scratch to meet needs of women'

For Paralympian Hannah Dines, years of pain and discomfort from riding a bike using a saddle based on a default male led to her requiring surgery in order to pursue her sporting dreams and not be forced into retirement.

The world champion trike cyclist who competed at the 2016 Rio Paralympics bravely opened up in an article in the Guardian back in 2019 on the five-year pain and chronic swelling she had encountered that led to her requiring surgery.

"I had vulvar surgery in 2018 and then again in 2019 because of injuries caused by trauma caused by the saddle sores," Dines told Sky Sports.

Hannah Dines has explained how a bike saddle designed for men led to years of pain and saddle sore problems
Image: Hannah Dines has explained how a bike saddle designed for men led to years of pain and saddle sore problems

"Generally this is really common in the elite cycling world - able-bodied or disabled. The fact is that I'd let the saddle sore get so bad, that I basically needed to get it removed. I was on a camp with British cycling and I remember thinking 'I'm in so much pain, I've got so much swelling, so I went immediately to my coach, and said this has happened, and they said, 'it's normal, everyone goes through it'.

"If you've got a really tiny racing saddle and it doesn't fit you properly that's going to cause you problems, but equally a very big saddle might cause you problems because there's too much abrasion going on. I never had a saddle fit, or a bike fit until after I had my surgery and I wish that I had had a proper bike fit."

Since going public with her experience, Dines says manufacturers have started to make saddles for female cyclists.

"Saddle companies have started from scratch, they've taken away their original model which was built for a man to cycle, and started with elite females and had lots of focus groups and had women cycling on them - now they have actual women's saddles."

Other sports have tailored equipment and recognised the differences in men and women's physiques. In 2004, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) introduced a smaller and lighter ball for female players to be used in all FIBA competitions.

The final Grand Slam of the year, the US Open, sees men and women use different tennis balls, with the men using extra duty ones as opposed to the women who use regular duty ones, which are thinner and lighter and said to play faster.

Meanwhile, conversations over whether women's rugby players should use a smaller ball in order to improve handling skills continue to be discussed.

A size 5 ball is used across men and women's rugby, but some players would prefer to use a smaller size ball to improve offloading.

Abby Dow scores England's opening try against France
Image: Conversations remain ongoing over whether women's rugby players should use a smaller ball to improve offloading skills

"I 100 per think think we should have a smaller ball," former England international Danielle Waterman posted on Twitter last year when the debate resurfaced again. "Skill set will increase massively in general play and although kicking is fast becoming more integrated into the women's game, in my opinion this isn't enough of an argument that outweighs improvements across the game ball in hand.

"Personally my handling was significantly better with a size four because I could hold it with one hand, and therefore had the ability to offload with confidence. I couldn't do this with a size five unless in two hands, because I couldn't grip it properly."

What remains key to any future changes, is making sure the sportswomen's voices are heard.

Watch 'Fit for Purpose?' on Sky Sports Mix and Football on Tuesday at 10pm and read the three-part series on the Sky Sports website and app

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