A report in the journal Sports Engineering suggests that women playing elite football are at risk because they are playing using equipment designed for men. Scientists say that the use of boots and balls created for male players could be putting women at higher risk of injuries such as damage to knee ligaments and even brain injuries.
The report, led by Dr Katrine Kryger of the Faculty of Sport, Allied Health and Performance Science, St Mary’s University London, says that though there have been some studies into designing football equipment for women, no major boot manufacturer has yet produced a suitable design, despite the fact that the profile and popularity of women’s football in the UK has increased since England won Euro 2022.
The group of sports and exercise researchers, doctors and staff involved in the elite women’s game, including England captain Leah Williamson, conclude that more kit and technology needs to be tailored to women’s needs and body shape.
Their prime example is football boots, which don’t take into account the fact women’s feet, heels and arches are shaped differently to men’s, and as their stride is different, the length and design of studs also needs to be changed. Wearing the wrong shaped boots often causes blisters and stress fractures in women players, and having the wrong type of studs can cause them to get boots stuck in the playing surface.
Dr Kryger also concluded that another factor in women’s injuries could be playing “on uneven surfaces where men’s teams have played the day before”.
A co-author of the paper, Tottenham Hotspur club doctor Craig Rosenbloom, says that anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knee injuries are “at least twice as common in elite female footballers when compared to male footballers”, which he says is putting a huge burden on players and clubs, as women footballers normally take longer to recover from ACL injuries than men. “Elite female football squads are usually smaller than male squads, so missing players for longer has a big impact on player availability,” Dr Rosenbloom says.
Another area of concern is the risk to female players of concussion from heading the ball. “There’s a higher level of microtrauma in the white matter in women’s brains,” says Dr Kryger; “That’s not seen in men’s football – so there could be a medical reason to change the ball.”
The reports also highlights the need to design more comfortable and practical sports bras, shorts and hijabs, and the authors say that health tracking technology should be better designed for women too.
The FA says it wants players to feel fully supported on these issue and that any feedback from women will be fed into future kit designs, but so far the only real response, from a number of clubs including Manchester City, has been switching to dark-coloured shorts for women because of worries over visible leakage when players are menstruating.
The report concludes: “Women footballers are still not facing a level playing field and this is also evident from the sports technology perspective. Manufacturers are acknowledging this and a positive shift in developing women’s specific football technology is happening. Though, due to a lack of research (with data often being extrapolated from men to women) not enough is known about the specific challenges facing elite women football players, thus technology advancements are limited by the level of research conducted….demands and views of those playing/working in the elite women’s game are changing. Previously, gratitude was high for any gifted garment/equipment/device. Today, focus has shifted to constructive collaborations and player/staff demands for change towards woman specificity. Changes have started, but more attention is still needed to ensure the kit meets the requirements and desires of players.”