Australian women’s cricket team tracks players’ periods in focus on women’s health and fertility

Australian pace bowler Megan Schutt wants to have kids, but as is the case for…

Australian pace bowler Megan Schutt wants to have kids, but as is the case for many people, it’s not always as simple as it sounds.

The 27-year-old and her wife Jess Schutt have started researching what could be the long and costly process of IVF.

“We’ll be doing reciprocal IVF — that’ll be using my eggs and putting them in Jess and then we’ll do vice versa once I’m ready to carry a child, which isn’t going to be for a long time I imagine,” the South Australian says.

While Schutt isn’t ready for pregnancy just yet, even the process of extracting eggs will be demanding on her body.

“It’s going to bloat me, I’m going to look pregnant, I’m going to be hormonal from the injections.

“And then the actual extraction process is going to leave me in quite a bit of discomfort for the next week or so they normally say.”

It’s rare for elite athletes to share their fertility journeys, particularly same-sex couples who have the added challenge of IVF.

But Schutt is an open book, and while she’s prepared for the road ahead, that’s not the case for all players.

Learning about fertility and family planning

It’s a topic that has been ignored by many sports in the past, but the Australian women’s cricket team doctor, Pip Inge, is trying to change that.

“It’s funny at the start of an athlete’s career you seem to be spending all this time educating about how not to get pregnant.

“And then the other end of it, you start to go down the other pathway of how can you get pregnant.”

Dr Inge says mass education around something like fertility doesn’t work, especially for younger athletes who aren’t in the right headspace to absorb that information.

“But I think once you start discussing contraceptive use and once you start getting that one-on-one environment and you develop that rapport, ideally early 20s is a really good time just to at least start flagging those types of things.”

She says some of the biggest issues athletes need to be aware of include age-related infertility, how irregular periods can affect their chances of getting pregnant, and highlighting the process for same-sex couples.

“We’re thankful that we have a full-time doctor with us now. That wasn’t the case a couple of years ago,” Schutt says.

“So now I have someone that I could turn to on a regular basis, for any issues, and for something like this I’m really glad it’s a female doctor.”

Schutt had always pictured retiring before carrying a child herself.

But with the organisation’s parental policy now in place, she admits it may be something she considers sooner.

“I don’t think I would ever see myself doing it while I’m still playing for Australia. But while I’m playing just state cricket … I would love to have a child and try and come back.”

Are you on your period?

It’s a question more and more sporting organisations are asking their athletes as part of menstrual cycle tracking — and Cricket Australia has now jumped on board.

Periods are integral to a woman’s overall health, and abnormal, irregular, or absent periods could be a sign of bigger problems like endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, amenorrhea or infertility.

“There’s traditionally not a lot of understanding from athletes about their menstrual cycle,” Dr Inge says.

“And there’s not always that realisation that not having a regular period isn’t a normal thing, and not everybody realises they should be seeking help about it.”

The aim is to see whether players are regular, and what symptoms they might have.

“If we can start to collect those types of things, hopefully down the track, we can start to look at those other facets of the menstrual cycle and how they can actually start to affect performance as well,” Dr Inge says.

So how can menstruation affect athletes?

It depends on the individual.

For a start, it’s estimated nearly half of elite Australian female athletes take hormonal contraception, meaning they don’t even have a period.

That can mask any potential problems.

And Australian researchers have found female athletes’ overall knowledge around periods and contraceptives is poor.

But by being more aware of their cycles, athletes can adapt their training accordingly.

“I’m very in tune with my body and I have been for a long time because I’m a whinger,” Schutt laughs.

“If I’m on my period, I know I’m not going to run as fast, I know I’m not going to be able to lift as heavy in the gym.

“And I’m going to complain about it, because my coach needs to know why I’m probably not going to be at 100 per cent that day. And not everyone is as open as me.

“If those symptoms are quite problematic, I think that can certainly impact your ability to train,” Dr Inge adds.

“Whether that is things like fatigue, poor sleep, change in mood, muscle soreness, menstrual pain, I think actually identifying those things is really powerful.”

While some sporting teams say cycle tracking has helped give them a performance edge, Dr Inge is more cautious.

“In terms of altering training around the menstrual cycle, there’s some research that’s coming out around those areas and people definitely trying this in different sports.

“But I don’t think we’ve really got the data to support that as a good reason to be necessarily altering it en masse in a whole team environment at this stage.”

Schutt just wants to see more of her teammates, and coaching and support staff, have a greater understanding of a normal part of women’s lives.

“So I think this actually will just start the conversation more, taking away the taboo that’s attached to your period, which I don’t think should be there.”