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Addressing the injury management deficit in women’s sports in Ottawa

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By Brendan Shykora

Recent years have shed glimmers of awareness on the gender disparities in sports injury management training, and two former Ottawa soccer players can vouch for the gaps that exist in resources available to men and women when it comes to keeping their bodies intact through the high-performance grind.

Alexis O’Bryan and Taryn Forrester, both 26, played on the same competitive youth soccer team in their pre-teen years. From there, the two had different experiences in overcoming injuries throughout their high-level sporting days, which led them to different branches of the sports rehabilitation field after university.

O’Bryan has spent the last five years at Ottawa’s Capital Strength Training Systems, a high-performance gym that runs a catalogue of strength training sessions with sports teams and the general public, including all-girls sessions like O’Bryan’s popular women’s-only boot camp.

She says she was fortunate that playing top-level high school volleyball left her with only minor knee and ankle sprains. In the gym she often encounters young girls dealing with more traumatic injuries — girls whose parents or coaches, in many cases, have been putting all their athletic eggs in one basket, with the misguided aim of reaching the highest levels through exclusive training.

“Overspecialization at a young age is kind of a big thing,” O’Bryan told the Sports Pages. “We get these 13 to 14 year-old kids who play hockey and that’s the only sport they’ve ever played.”

Whereas gymnastics has more robust injury management practices — perhaps by necessity due to the high-impact and repetitive nature of the sport — O’Bryan sees more girls with traumatic injuries in team contact sports like soccer and hockey, “where you can get slide tackled, you can get hit, and it’s not necessarily in your control all the time.”

When the muscles they’ve spent most of their training time on get side-swept by a dangerous slide tackle, there’s always the chance of a lasting injury.

Instead of trying to create superstar hockey or soccer or volleyball players, O’Bryan looks to build a well-rounded athlete. In its sixth year, the gym has been successful whenever COVID-19 hasn’t disrupted operations. As it stands, they’re able to hold sessions with 10 athletes at a time, making use of the gym’s 6,000-square-feet and 10 squat racks, and working exclusively with free weights to engage as many muscles as possible.

On local sports teams, O’Bryan sees a shortage of well-informed injury management for girls — training programs that consider the physiological differences that young girls need to know about when they’re growing up playing co-ed sports or in gym class, wondering why the boys can do certain things their bodies can’t.

“Training for females should really revolve around her menstrual cycle, and knowing when are the proper times to focus more on strength gains versus more active recovery,” O’Bryan said, offering an example.

In the younger age groups especially, these essential understandings are lacking, O’Bryan says. It could be the strangely politicized tendency to obfuscate the innate differences between men and women, out of some perception that acknowledging these differences is a disservice to women.

Where sports are concerned at least, O’Bryan says the differences are extremely important.

Alexis O’Bryan (Photo provided)

To counter this, she and her gym mesh themselves into the season schedules of young athletes in a range of sports, particularly volleyball and hockey on the women’s side.

“We are able to tailor our programming and our sessions by taking a look at their seasonal plan, so if we know they have a tournament and we’re seeing them the next day we know that we can modify a few things.”

As O’Bryan says, it’s an attempt to bridge the distance between the gym’s women’s injury management training and the coaching staffs that oversee most of the players’ training time.

When it comes to preventing and managing injuries for women, O’Bryan says the biggest need right now is improved education for both athletes and coaches. There are misconceptions floating around sporting organizations and in mainstream media about how women should be spending their training time, especially at higher levels of sport.

One common but misguided idea is that lifting weights at the gym is a “guy’s thing,” and women will get too bulky if they go to the gym other than to use the elliptical.

“I hear that a tonne,” O’Bryan said. “It’s very difficult for women to put on muscle mass, so you’d have to literally want to become bulky for it to happen.”

On top of discouraging women from building up diverse muscle groups in the gym, O’Bryan believes the misconception can lead sporting organizations to give fewer resources to the women’s side.

The pandemic has made some of these inequities more visible. A recent example that caught media attention took place in women’s NCAA basketball. Earlier this year, Oregon Ducks basketball player Sedona Prince took to social media to reveal the workout provisions that had been provided to the women’s side, posting side-by-side images of a fully loaded men’s gym and a measly dumbbell rack in the women’s training area.

“Three weeks in a bubble and no access to (dumbbells heavier than 30 pounds) until the Sweet 16?” she tweeted March 18.

The failure to properly account for the differences in male and female physiology is often what leads to injuries down the road. O’Bryan says women are much more prone to having knee and lower back issues, for instance, “because our hips are wider, which means (we) tend to have more of the knock-knee stance.”

Her former youth soccer teammate, Forrester, knows that first-hand, having suffered both knee and lower-back injuries in her early days of long-distance running and competitive soccer — injuries she’s still managing to this day.

Forrester now works as a registered sports massage therapist at Ottawa’s Vitality physio centre. She found interest in the field as competitive soccer became (and remains) her primary sport.

“I would say for every five youth who come into (our centre for rehab), three to four are going to be girls,” she told the Sports Pages.

She suffered from Osgood–Schlatter disease, an inflammation of knee ligaments, which has taught her “how much sports affects the body, and how if you don’t take care of yourself there’s repercussions.”

Forrester says she knows there are high-level athletic streams for girls in Ottawa; the issue is more a shortage of well-supported opportunities than the sheer number of opportunities available, particularly where injury management is concerned.

“The guys are always put above, I find; they’re given all the resources, their professional teams are stacked with all the therapists and sports psychologists and everything they need, and I think that kind of lacks on the girl’s end.”

That’s in line with seminal studies like Harvard scholar Robert H. Schmerling’s The gender gap in sports injuries in 2015, which found women are significantly more prone to most common types of sports injuries than men.

It’s hard to get a complete picture of the top-down effects that mismanaged injury prevention can have on a city or region’s sporting environment.

Forrester may well have been good enough to play in a professional league, were one available to her in Ottawa during her peak playing years. Many other female athletes, too, may have been good fits for an Ottawa-based professional sports franchise, had their bodies not been over-spent by coaches, gyms and sporting organizations — all of which have only recently begun reckoning with head-trauma on the men’s side, with arguably less attention paid to gender or age distinctions that could be useful for non-male athletes.

“Maybe that’s why there are no pro sports girl’s teams here,” Forrester said, leaving the question open-ended.

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