Esther is a sports scientist working for Orreco (a sports science and data analytics company), primarily working in the daughter branch of the company that focuses on the female athlete; FitrWoman. Esther recently was awarded an MSc in Applied Sport and Exercise Physiology at St Marys University, where she investigated the effects of the menstrual cycle on running economy in her final research project. In a past life (or that’s what it feels like), Esther trained as a professional contemporary dancer and now likes to run quite a bit.
1) What has led you into youth sport?
Whilst my work at FitrWoman focuses on women and girls of all ages, two of our main aims and areas of work are in the education of female athletes and trying to increase female participation in sport. We know that when girls go through puberty, there is a massive drop off in participation in sport, and one of the reasons for this is the menstrual cycle. In fact, Women in Sport found that 42% of teenage girls don’t exercise when they are on their period, which could easily be changed if they were better educated about their bodies, and about how to exercise around their menstrual cycle. Personally, I didn’t have a particular encouraging introduction to sport, especially at school, and it was not until my adulthood that it became particularly important to me. I feel passionately that we need to change the conversation around women’s sport, making it more accessible (and cool!) for young girls, and eradicating historical barriers that have often gotten in the way, e.g. all things periods and the menstrual cycle.
2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?
A combination of things! I have partly been influenced by my own experiences in sport as a young girl (which were positive until I got to secondary school where it went a bit downhill). Also, getting to work with enthusiastic and incredibly knowledgeable people such as Dr Georgie Bruinvels and Dr Charles Pedlar is a huge driving force to my work… and I also am inspired by books such as Anna Kessel’s Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives. However, I think I am mostly influenced by seeing youth athletes; whether that is in person, or watching/reading about them online… seeing amazing achievements of the future sports men and women only makes me want to work harder and encourage more young people to get involved. Watching my little cousins run around playing football is what I keep in my mind – I want them to grow up in a sporting world with no barriers to participation.
3) What is your particular area of interest?
As I mentioned earlier, my particular area of interest is in the female athlete. There is a huge gender data gap in regard to research and advice, and this isn’t just in the sports science world! In 2014, in the USA, 80% of drugs were taken off the market because they hadn’t been tested in women but were subsequently found to have side-effects on women. *
I originally trained as a professional contemporary dancer, but decided to leave the dance world after a particularly difficult time. Knowing what I know now, I feel that had my training and practice been different my career may not have come to such a sticky end. I’d never really thought about how exercise and sport and training might be different as a female, but once I started reading the research, I knew that I wanted to be part of a movement that worked towards getting the information out there – enter Orreco and FitrWoman!
4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes?
When boys go through puberty, they often get taller, stronger and start to develop muscle. When girls go through puberty, they develop breasts, might feel weaker, and experience increased fat deposition around hips and upper legs. So, it’s safe to say, that this can be an awkward and challenging time for girls in sport, especially if they are still playing/training alongside boys. But the thing is, often training stays the same, and isn’t adapted for these gender differences or awkward pubescent times. If girls and (their coaches) can appreciate and understand a bit more, then they might feel more encouraged, more able to perform, and will be able to start working with their body; setting them up for better health and performance later in life.
5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
I think one of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given is to stop and really listen to what your body is saying (as clichéd as that might sound). I had a teacher in dance school who taught me this. I remember distinctly her coming over to me in the middle of the class. I was dealing with a niggly injury, and also feeling quite low, demotivated and sleep deprived. She asked me what was wrong, and when I told her, she said ‘well why are you trying to keep going? Give your body and mind a rest, and come back tomorrow when you’re really ready – you’ll be able to give 110%, which is better than 50% today and 50% tomorrow.’ She was completely right… we spend so much time trying to push through things when, actually, it would be better to stop, back off, and try again when we can put our whole efforts into it.
6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes?
I think the best thing that coaches can do is to talk to and really listen to their athletes. Encouraging, facilitating and normalising conversations, even ones that might feel difficult at first, is so important for the health and wellbeing of every athlete. I also think that coaches need to remember that their athletes are human beings as well, and not just performance robots… in youth athletes it is especially important for their development that they are fully involved in school and other activities/interests that they want to pursue.
7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?
Not that I’m biased or anything, but check out FitrWoman and FitrCoach. FitrCoach was especially developed to bridge the gap between athletes and their coaches, aiming at educating all involved, facilitating conversations that are often awkward, and allowing female athletes to train as females.
I would also check out a blog about puberty that Dr Georgie Bruinvels (Lead Sport Scientist for FitrWoman) wrote for Women in Sport – it may help coaches understand what their young female athletes might be going through which, ultimately, could inform training and improve the likelihood that the girl will stay in the sport.
8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)
Thanks to Esther for her time and expertise in this area!
Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.