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The Olympics or a little one? Australian-first project to ensure elite female athletes don’t have to choose

Published:17 November 2021

CQUniversity exercise science researcher Dr Melanie Hayman.

An Australian-first study into the impacts of pregnancy and postpartum for elite female athletes aims to boost their career longevity, and CQUniversity researcher Dr Melanie Hayman says the work will be a gamechanger for our nation’s professional sportswomen.

The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) launched The Mum-Alete Project on 13 November 2021, and Dr Hayman is one of eight researchers exploring the physical, mental, financial, and social impacts that pregnancy and post-pregnancy have on an elite female athlete’s decision to remain in sport.

Led by AIS Sports and Exercise Medicine Registrar Dr Victoria Forsdick, the project is seeking high-performance female athletes to respond to a survey that’s open now until February 2022.

Rockhampton-based Dr Hayman has spent nearly a decade supporting women to stay active through pregnancy and post-partum through her research, but she says there’s big knowledge gaps when it comes to female athletes, even more so among athletes wanting to also become mothers and return to sport postpartum.

“Most of the data that drives how our elite female athletes train and perform, it’s actually drawn from male studies – and that is really unfortunate, because we know that women are physiologically different,” Dr Hayman explained.

Elite athletes returning to sport postpartum is becoming more common. In Queensland this year, big-name netballers Kim Ravaillion and Gretel Bueta (nee Tippett) returned to the Firebirds after both becoming mums in 2020/21.

Dr Hayman said the progress was encouraging, but that much more work was needed.

“Too often we lose our elite athletes when they decide to have a family, because they see being an athlete and being a mother as mutually exclusive. It is our job to change this. It is our job to ensure that motherhood is simply another part of an athletes journey, not the end of it." she said.

The Mum-Alete Study is aligned with the AIS Female Performance and Health Initiative (FPHI), established in 2019 to improve knowledge and resources for athletes, coaches and health professionals.

Federal Minister for Sport, Richard Colbeck, said it was another example of the national sport sector leading the way in vital research to benefit athletes at every level.

Dr Hayman is also currently supervising a PhD student embedded with the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) to help design an evidence-based approach to support women to return to professional competition after having a baby.

Another CQUniversity PhD scholarship is currently open for applications, to undertake similar work with the AIS.

Applications close on 30 November 2021. Visit cqu.edu.au/courses/future-students/scholarships/offerings/phd-elevate-scholarship-cquniversity-and-australian-institute-of-sport-partnership for more information.

Scholarship applicants must be Australian citizens or permanent residents and have completed at least a bachelor’s degree with honours or equivalent, in a field relevant to exercise science, science, organisational management, psychology or other organisational disciplines.