Research seeks female athletes to improve motherhood choices, as star Serena unwillingly bows out

05 September 2022

CQUniversity researchers are working with the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) to design best practice guidelines to ensure new mums can continue sporting careers after childbirth – and will be asking female athletes past and present' as well as coaches and sport staff to share their experiences for the ground-breaking project.

The study kicks off as all-time champion of women's sport' Serena Williams' faces retirement due to family – and the tennis star has been vocal about the unfairness of the choice.

"Believe me' I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family'" she recently wrote in Vogue magazine' as she prepared to play in the US Open' her career swansong.

"I don't think it's fair. If I were a guy' I wouldn't be writing this because I'd be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labour of expanding our family."

CQUniversity PhD researcher Boden Tighe is leading the three-year project' and said professional sport needs better policies and systems to give female athletes more options.

"Within their athletic careers' too often female athletes feel they have to choose one: their career or motherhood'" he said.

"There is limited research to help understand the factors that influence the successful return of female athletes to sport postpartum ... and limited policies and support systems exist to ensure that return even happens.

"It's been a privilege to see Serena Williams play' and obviously it's her decision to 'evolve away' from tennis and pursue growing her family – but it's incredible that female athletes are still put in a position of having to choose between their sport careers and having a family."

While the World Tennis Association does offer ranking protection for mothers returning to tour' Mr Tighe said it takes more than rules changes to ensure return.

"It's the responsibility of sport organisations to provide an environment that supports and encourages athletes in their decision and ability to become mothers and return to sport postpartum."

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

"This research is necessary to understand and create evidence-informed best-practice guidelines that will advise sport organisations on what is needed to support elite female athletes in their return to sport postpartum'" Mr Tighe said.

Mr Tighe's initial work has captured the growing number of female athletes who compete into motherhood – for instance' news articles reporting on pregnancy and childbirth within high-performance sport have become 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.

Mr Tighe's PhD supervisor is CQUniversity's Dr Melanie Hayman' who is also a researcher on 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 (AIS).

Dr Hayman recently presented to the Women in Sport Congress' with a keynote Pregnancy considerations' fertility conversations and the female athlete.

Next steps of the research will include online focus groups with elite female athletes' coaches and staff from the QAS' the AIS' and other national sporting organisations' to identify barriers and enablers to postpartum return to sport

"Ideally' these findings will be used as evidence to create best practice guidelines that will inform the QAS' AIS and other sport organisations and allow organisations to develop their own specific policies'" Mr Tighe said.

"We'll be looking at every aspect that affects an athlete's ability or decision to return' this can be physical' social' or practical things like availability of childcare' or opportunities to be able to look-after and care their child or children."