Bangalore-based Simply Sport Foundation (SSF) team worked its way through a pilot study across Indian women athletes in 2021, the answer emerging became too obvious. It was the silence – and ignorance – about the ‘P’ word – period, menstruation and the part it could plays in the female athlete’s training and competitive life.
Over the last fortnight women’s sport has been front and centre in India, starting with the wrestlers’ Jantar Mantar protest with serious allegations by their Lok Sabha MP from Kaiserganj federation president. It was followed up by a stream of good news from cricket – the sale of Women’s Premier League (WPL) media and franchises ownership rights at eye-goggling rates. Followed up by the first-ever World Cup victory for Indian women’s cricket, by a spunky, sparky bunch in the inaugural U19 Women’s T20 World Cup. There’s more expected from cricket: the T20 Women’s World Cup begins on Feb 9, the WPL auction on Feb 13 and hopefully some updates from the MYAS on the committee formed to look at the wrestlers’ allegations.
But what if we looked at Indian women’s sport through a wider lens, distanced from this cocktail of controversy success and moolah?
What would you imagine is the single factor common amongst a group of 200+ female athletes from across four Indian states? Which include Haryana and Manipur, dominant among India’s elite female athlete demographic as well as Bihar and Rajasthan far from female-sport-focussed territories. What is the single denominator that overrides all other differences – sport played, level of expertise, individual background, community culture, diet or training or any other point of distinction. Take a guess.
As the Bangalore-based Simply Sport Foundation (SSF) team worked its way through a pilot study across Indian women athletes in 2021, the answer emerging became too obvious. It was the silence – and ignorance – about the ‘P’ word – period, menstruation and the part it could plays in the female athlete’s training and competitive life. Aditi Mutatkar, SSF head – athlete and women initiatives, says, “Menstruation was the single most dominant issue with taboo, ignorance and wrong practices all mixed up”. SSF asked 213 female athletes from the four states, plus 34 of their entourage members (coaches/ support staff/ administrators) about whether they knew how the menstrual cycle could be examined and used to optimise performance, they drew a blank across every single respondent.
Mutatkar, Commonwealth Games silver medallist in badminton and former national champ says, “I knew the answer would be no. Because I came from the same system. I couldn’t say the word period in front of my coach, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t speak about it in front of the elitest of the elite coaches, they never said anything in front of me – and we were city people – Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore.” (Only in the last few years have we heard a famous female Indian athlete – PV Sindhu in this case – talk about their periods.)
SSF was set up by entrepreneur Ankit Nagori (founder of Curefoods, co-founder of cult.fit, ex-Flipkart) in October 2020 to work across grassroots sport. When setting up its vertical for women’s sport, the foundation’s members first wanted to be thoroughly informed of ground realities around women’s sport in India. At the outset, what was obvious was the lack of a basic knowledge bank or any in-depth research focussed on Indian women’s sport. It led to SSF starting out on its own pilot research project with permissions from the Sports Authority of India to access its athletes and entourage members in 2021. The findings are now presented in the the SSF’s Breaking Barriers for Women In Sport which covers a range of issues around women’s access to and inclusion around sport, safety, discrimination, post-career transition possibilities etc.
Out of the findings of this study, SSF chose to launch its earliest female-centric initiatives by speaking directly about the unspoken single common factor in Indian female sport – menstruation. Mutatkar says, “No one was talking about it, nobody knows anything about it, everybody is happy not knowing about it and it’s not about male coaches or female coaches, – nobody knows.” The athletes said they had merely been told by their mothers, that “blood aata hai” and that was it. In the survey data on menstruation, the study revealed that 100% respondents – female athlete and coaches – did not factor the menstrual cycle as part of their training, 85 percent female athletes confirmed being trained just like men, 73 percent athletes did not feel comfortable discussion menstruation with their coaches and 49 percent said skipping training during their period would negatively affect performance.
From August last year, SSF launched a series of workshops called Simply Periods and have conducted around 30-odd, reaching out over 1000 athletes in the last six months. Simply Periods works with groups of 30-40 at a time and talking to roomfuls of male coaches helped the SSF team work past their own misconceptions. Mutatkar says, “the coaches tell me we want to help our athletes but ‘no one has talked to me about this – how and why can I talk about it to my athlete who also doesn’t know anything and so it’s no use asking them.’ ” She then realised, “that this blame game will not work” and what the workshops must aim to do is to empower the coach and athlete with information and tools to work with. To give an female Indian athlete the language with which to talk about their period with their coaches, and the coaches the awareness of how to deal the difference between the period as a problem and the period as an opportunity.
The fact that a female athlete’s performance can be optimised by taking her physiology into account is a recent one only just emerging in India from advanced sporting ecosystems like the United States. Mutatkar cites the work of US athlete-scientist Dr Stacy Sims, a leader in female physiology and training, whose research shows that training and performance can be calibrated by working alongside the female menstrual cycle. It has proved that knowledge of the cycle will help an athlete minimise injury to understand, “what is the right time to pull back, what is the best time to recover.” The sports nerd may consider this: the female athlete it has been discovered is most prone to an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury during ovulation. The ACL is the muscular band/ ligament that connects the thigh bone to the shin bone. So during ovulation women athletes are better served to focus on strength exercises rather than anything like agility or skill work that strains the ACL.
The Simply Period workshops are now run in three versions: a two-day programme for coaches and sports science staff, a one-day version or now a short burst of an hour for athletes themselves. They start with the Period101 and talk about female hormones, PMS, anxiety, mood swings, the entire gamut and have created an Indian version from the findings from Sims and other female physiology experts. “When I was training” Mutatkar says, “there was no differentiation in the way you train the woman or the man, or how you talk to her or don’t talk to her.” The SSF’s Simply Periods workshops could mark the start of a changed conversation between women athletes and the Indian sport ecosystem. One athlete and one coach at a time.