Football breast injuries happens but protection is often unsuitable

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Football breast—Gabby Frost was told to be “careful of your boobs” while playing Aussie Rules football, but a lack of education and appropriate chest protection is leading to a growing, yet still taboo, injury problem in women’s contact sport.

Key points:

  • Research has found a large number of women playing contact sport have suffered breast injuries
  • Only 10 per cent of study respondents reported their injuries to medical staff and chose to play through pain
  • Aussie Rules player Gabby Frost says protective equipment is both unaffordable and inappropriate

Soon after she signed up to play two years ago in Wollongong, she realised mastering the skill of a new sport was only one of the physical challenges she would face.

“I would joke around holding my chest when I ran because it would hurt and it would get laughed off,” she said.

“I’m one of the bigger-busted girls, so I started wearing two bras to get comfortable but it still wasn’t working.”

Ms Frost said she had never run so much in her life, not to mention tackling, marking kicks on the chest, jostling for a dominant position and shepherding.

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Aussie Rules, like all football codes, involved a lot of physical collision with the torso.

“They said to ‘be careful of your boobs’ when you’re doing this or that, but you can’t tackle someone without going in and hitting their chest area and it was getting painful and I noticed that.

“When you’re not getting that support because you’re in pain, it’s hard to perform to the best of your ability.”

Ms Frost’s experience is likely to become more common as women’s Aussie Rules, rugby league and rugby union grows.

Gabby Frost gives a peace sign on a football oval dressed in her Aussie rules uniform.
Gabby Frost says there are inadequate options for breast protection for female footballers.(Supplied: Gabby Frost)

Research reveals rates of football breast injury

Associate Professor Deirdre McGhee from the University of Wollongong specialises in breast health and biomechanics and recently finished a four-year study into breast injuries in women’s sport.

She found 48 per cent of respondents who played contact sport had experienced a breast injury, yet only 10 per cent had reported it to anyone.Want more local news? Sign up to the Illawarra Weekly email newsletter

“They basically said it’s a combination of they don’t think anyone can help and sensitivity about talking about breasts with a male coach or physio,” she said.

“They want to be like men and they don’t want their breasts to be an issue.

“They love their sport and don’t want anything that would impede them from playing, so they just put up with it.”

Sarah Darcy tackles Lauren Brazzale
Lauren Brazzale of Carlton is tackled by Sarah D’Arcy of Collingwood during an AFLW match.(AAP: Joe Castro)

‘It’s not a fashion show’

If identified, physiotherapists should be able to treat football breast injuries quickly and effectively in the same way they treated any soft tissue injury.

However, appropriate padding to prevent the injuries in the first place is virtually non-existent.

“I’ve always struggled finding any protection that’s fully rounded and not extremely overpriced and that’s frustrating because some of us are uni students,” Ms Frost said.

“Also what’s on offer is completely inadequate … I’ve always had to wear two bras and it’s ended up like I can’t breathe and then I suffocate because it’s like a corset.

“You’re playing sport and getting sweaty, it’s not a fashion show.”

Deirdre McGhee puts a white sports bra on a blue mannequin in a lab.
Associate Professor Deirdre McGhee says a sports bra is a minimum requirement for women in contact sport.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

Football breast protection designed for boys

Associate Professor McGhee said only 17 per cent of women footballers she surveyed wore any padded breast protection, and when they did, it was usually made for boys in junior rugby league.

“The padding needs to be fitted to the torso and breast shapes of women,” she said.

“I think it’s completely underestimated how much a supportive and comfortable, well-fitted sports bra can affect how a woman runs and how she throws or catches a ball.

“If we increase the breast support and encase the breast so it moves less, or we add some padding so it’s more protected, it’s far less likely to [negatively] affect their performance.”

Associate Professor Deirdre McGhee leans on a lab table with an open breast model.
Associate Professor Deirdre McGhee says women are reluctant to speak up about breast injuries.
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