International Women’s Day takes place on March 8th and this year’s theme is calling for a #balanceforbetter in women’s sport. The aim is to get all of us to place more value on the efforts of our female athletes and provide them with the support and respect they deserve.
The day is about reflecting on progress, celebrating successes and thinking about how we can strive for future gains to achieve equality in sport. This year, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented and dedicated female athletes at the Leeds United Girls Regional Talent Club (RTC), as part of my MSc in Sports and Exercise Nutrition and its applied practice placement. With International Women’s day just around the corner, I thought this might be good time to reflect on this new role working in sport and what it’s been like working with the girls, their parents and guardians, the coaches and performance staff.
As I begin this post, I am already a few months into my placement, so I guess a good place to start off is at the beginning with a little background information. As part of the Masters programme here at Leeds Beckett, there is an opportunity to integrate work experience alongside academic study with partner sports teams and athletes. The placement provides the opportunity to work under the guidance of experienced performance nutritionists and with other MSc students to develop the skills required to become a registered sports nutritionist. The Leeds United RTC, where I have been placed, is a Tier 1 club and is part of the Leeds United Foundation, which supports the development of elite female footballers including progression onto the England Talent Pathway. The RTC programme is one of 34 FA-approved centres in operation across the country, and provides weekly quality coaching and a localised fixture programme for ‘excellent’ girls from the age of 10-16 years. The girls train every Monday and Wednesday, with the older girls also attending training and prehab/ rehab sessions on a Thursday. There is no questioning the girls’ dedication and commitment, but what is also refreshing to see is the environment that has been created to support them. With their coaches expertise, the girls also have the support of a diverse performance team including physiotherapists Olly and Stephen, with the support of Beckett students Beth and Rachael; strength and conditioning coaches Eoin and Sean and Beckett students Jake and Andy; performance analyst and Beckett student James; and in addition to the nutrition sessions, they also attend psychology workshops run by sports-psychology BPS trainees Luke and Kelly.
So far, the nutrition workshops have been running smoothly and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the process. Before Christmas, I had the opportunity to conduct a needs analysis with the players, their parents and guardians, and the coaches. Reflecting back, taking the time to complete a needs analysis was very worthwhile. I have learned a lot about the different barriers and facilitators to supporting the nutritional needs of young elite players, particularly within their demanding schedule balancing both their education and training. For instance, we found that some players struggled trying to maintain a high quality diet while traveling to and from training/matches and avoiding a reliance on convenience foods. Another challenge identified, has been trying to ensure the correct timing of the girl’s meals/snacks within their busy timetables to enable the girls to train, compete and recover at a high level. The results of the analysis made the planning of the upcoming workshops as well as integration into the club much easier. I was able to work as part of the multidisciplinary team, in particular with the Luke and Kelly, the sports-psychology trainees who had also conducted a similar needs-analysis pre-season. Collecting this information has enabled us to identify the nutritional needs of the players as well as ways to involve core individuals, such as the parents and guardians in the nutrition support we provide.
We started our nutritional curriculum with the girls before Christmas, and so far we’ve had a ‘Rate my Plate’ workshop regarding the importance of a balanced diet, and we’ve also taken a deeper look into the factors that influence food choices. Through activities and games, we provided them with nutritional knowledge to fuel their performance but also took time to promote the importance of nutrition for overall health. The girls’ engagement in the sessions has been great across all age groups, and their personalities and honesty made the workshops even more enjoyable. For the parents and guardians, our nutritional support has been focused on practical approaches to performance nutrition to fit around busy family life. Up to this point, we’ve looked at solutions to recovery nutrition, particularly from evening training sessions, and we’ve also had a Hydration and Smoothie-making session held at the Nutrition Kitchen at Leeds Beckett. The engagement of the parents and guardians so far has been great and much appreciated. Working together with the parents and guardians in specific nutrition workshops has been an aim of the support to help us create a positive environment around nutrition for the girls.
So far, I have gained some great experience working at Leeds United Girls RTC. The opportunity has provided me with knowledge that I would never have picked up in the classroom and has given me even more of an appreciation for the role of the multidisciplinary team in a high-performance setting. Coming from playing lots of team sports growing up, being part of this programme which provides such a high-level of support to young girls has made my placement even more fulfilling and shows great promise for the future of women’s sport. Going forward, I am keen to involve myself in women’s sport in particular, and with the knowledge that in the UK only 31.9% of women take part in sport at least once a week, compared to 40.5% of men, I hope that in the future we can all work to improve this so that more women and girls can gain the lifelong benefits that sport can provide. I hope everyone takes an opportunity on March 8th to reflect on what they can do to support our female athletes going forward, be it as simple as sharing the hashtag #BalanceforBetter.