A leading researcher on sport, gender, and menstrual health says that youth sports coaches have to educate themselves about periods.

Studies show that girls drop out of organized sport at more than twice the rate that boys do, especially at the onset of adolescence. Dr. Sarah Zipp's research has found that one of the biggest obstacles preventing young women from staying in sport is menstruation and that most athletic programs lack the supports to help them play through their periods or even discuss them with their coaches or adult volunteers.

“We need to a) be able to talk about it, we need to break down the stigma,” said Zipp, whose non-profit Power to Play, Period, seeks to demystify the menstrual cycle in the world of sports. “B) we need to have better education. We need to know more about what the menstrual cycle is, how it impacts people, what are the symptoms.

“And then c), we need to do the things that we can that are within control of coaches and program leaders to better support them to keep them playing.”

Zipp said that it's not just about the period itself, but about how to best manage nutrition and the fatigue that can sometimes affect people who have menstrual cycles. Helping young athletes have the courage to say they're not able to practise or play is an important step, as is making sure they have access to menstrual products, should they need them.

“As a part of being a coach, you need to know about menstrual health, just the basics,” said Zipp. “Have the resources to be able to teach that and to assess your own environment to make sure that it's supportive for girls.

“I think that's probably a big enough goal. If we can get to that in the next five years, that would be really powerful.”

Research conducted by Canadian Women & Sport - an independent non-profit - shows that by late adolescence, one in three girls leave sport. By comparison, one in 10 boys leave around the same age.

Women and Gender Equality Canada, a federal department, is responsible for the Menstrual Equity Fund Pilot. That program uses Food Banks Canada to distribute sanitary products across the country.

A spokeswoman for WAGE Canada said that although there is not yet a program to distribute menstrual products through sports organizations, Food Banks Canada is looking into how to best get them to people who can't afford them.

“Food Banks Canadawill focus on testing approaches to distribute free menstrual products to community organizations serving diverse low-income populations across Canada, and the organization will partner with grassroots organizations across the country that are already advancing menstrual equity, to scale up education and awareness activities to inform Canadians about period poverty and reduce stigma around menstruation,” reads the statement.

Zipp contends that menstrual health education should be about more than the menstruation phase, however. To truly understand menstrual health, she argues that coaches need to learn about the ebbs and flows of the complete cycle.

Hormones change throughout the cycle, impacting the physical, emotional and mental health of all people who menstruate.

“I think educating coaches, educating athletes is really important,” said Zipp, who also teaches at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland. “As people progress, maybe they're more focused on improving performance or adapting training around menstrual cycles.

“I'm not a physiologist, but there's a lot of research on that, and I have resources available so that people can learn more about their cycles and what they can do to continue to improve their performance.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2023.