Research seeks elite female athlete experiences, to develop motherhood policy for post-partum return

29 September 2022

CQUniversity researchers are working in partnership with the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) to design best practice guidelines to help new mums continue their sporting careers after childbirth – and are seeking elite female athletes past and present to share their experiences for the groundbreaking project.

CQUniversity PhD researcher Boden Tighe is leading the three-year project' and said elite sports need better policies and systems to give female athletes more options around motherhood.

"Within their athletic careers' female athletes too often feel they have to choose between motherhood and sport'" he said.

"There is currently limited research of factors that influence the return of elite female athletes to sport postpartum … more so limited policies and support systems exist that ensure return even happens."

"It is necessary for sport organisations to develop supportive environments for female athletes who wish to return to sport postpartum. At present' this support is limited and inconsistent. Some professional sporting codes' such as netball' cricket' and rugby have recently introduced policies to better support women' and this is fantastic. However' many of these policies lack an evidence-informed approach and are based primarily on consultative practices".

For the CQU research' past and present elite athletes who have had children or are considering having children' as well as coaches and sport organisation staff will be asked about their experiences and perceptions regarding elite female athletes and their return to sport postpartum.

"This research is not only necessary to understand what factors can influence the return of elite female athletes to high-performance sport postpartum but to create best-practice guidelines' informed by evidence' that will advise sport organisations on what is needed and what best can support elite female athletes who decide to return to sport postpartum'" Mr Tighe said.

The project's initial work has captured the growing number of female athletes who compete in sport up to and during motherhood' with news articles reporting on pregnancy and childbirth within high-performance sport becoming more prevalent suggesting that pregnancy and childbirth within sport is an increasing phenomenon.

"You'll often see sport organisations treat pregnancy like an injury mostly because they are unsure what to do – but having a baby definitely isn't the same as an injury!" he said.

To participate in this vital research' elite female athletes' as well as coaches' support and sport organisation staff from state and national sport organisations can register their interest by completing a short survey:

Mr Tighe's PhD supervisor is CQUniversity's Dr Melanie Hayman' who is a leading Australian researcher in this field.

She recently co-authored the Australian exercise during pregnancy guidelines and led the development of the first Australian exercise and physical activity screening tool for pregnant women.

Dr Hayman is also part of the Mum-Alete Project' an Australian-first study into the impacts of pregnancy and postpartum for elite female athletes' led by the Australian Institute of Sport.

Next steps will include conducting focus groups with athletes' coaches' and staff from the QAS' the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS)' and other national sporting organisations' to develop the guidelines that support the postpartum return of elite female athletes to high-performance sport where he will use an organisational participatory research approach.

"The findings from this study will be used as evidence to create best practice guidelines that will inform the QAS' AIS and other sport organisations of what support is necessary for the return of elite female athletes to sport postpartum'" Mr Tighe said.

"For this study we'll be looking at every aspect that either positively or negatively impacts an athlete's ability to return' this can be physical' social' or practical things like availability of childcare' maternity leave' or sponsorship."