Interest in women's football is on the increase whether this be from a player or spectator point of view. The large audiences participating at each World Cup and the advent of the professional game demonstrate this ever-growing popularity. However, evidence does show differences from a playing point of view between the men's and women's game, especially at a physiological level which influences performance. This article attempts to analyse the game and offer advice guidelines to coaches and players.
It is important as in any sport to study the physiological characteristics of female athletes. Not only do females have a smaller body size and lower strength and power levels compared to men, they also differ in other ways. Here we will look at the differences.
Females in general have a lower maximum aerobic power capacity than men (65-75% of male aerobic power) due to lower haemoglobin levels and a greater amount of adipose tissue (fat). They also play at an exercise intensity of around 70% of VO2 Max during matches.
Heart rate patterns are similar between both male and females during match play with the latter recording values of 89-91% of maximal heart rate during two thirds of the game. However, the lower intensity levels generally associated with the female game are due to a lesser physical capacity. It has been suggested that the anaerobic system is better developed in women footballers than their aerobic system.
Scientific evidence shows that female athletes tend to have higher body fat levels than males and body weight does vary considerably between players as does height. However, women athletes do seem to be able to burn body fat better than men (due to different hormonal effects), the reason why they often excel at long distance endurance events.
Sports anemia is unfortunately a regular occurrence in endurance sports. Women who are physically active are likely to more at risk of iron deficiency. Those who suffer from heavy periods can lose enough iron to cause problems in transporting oxygen to the muscles resulting in tiredness both on and off the pitch. Regular monitoring as well as a quality diet will help prevent this from occurring.
Also, women who train heavily may find their periods will cease, this is known as amenorrhoea. Disruptions in the menstrual cycle are commonplace in endurance sports, especially when body fat is reduced. Stopping or reducing training will allow the periods to return. Hormonal changes effect the emotional state of players and can lead to mood swings, poor coordination and concentration levels. Amenorrheic athletes are also more at risk of stress fractures and fragile bones and during the menstrual cycle, the risk of traumatic injury is greater. The use of the contraceptive pill has been shown to reduce the risk of traumatic injury. The coach must be understanding when emotional problems occur and may keep data recording the menstrual phases of players.
Finally, Evidence shows that women players suffer more anterior cruciate knee ligament damage than males. Special leg strength training for the hamstrings/quadriceps can help reduce the risk. Also, pregnant women should be discouraged from playing soccer due to the possible risk of shocks although gentle sports such as swimming can help maintain fitness and even help in childbirth.
Evidence has shown that females players can lose 2.3 Kg during a game and that the total energy spent is around 4600 KJ, this being less than for their male counterparts. Poor diet is often a factor at all levels in football and a player with low muscle glycogen levels due to incorrect eating habits will probably experience difficulties at certain moments in the game.
This shows the importance of correct nutrition. Davis & Brewer from the Lilleshall National Training Centre in England recommend that dietary regimes for female players be based on a high carbohydrate intake (50-65% of total calorie intake) and a low fat quota (no more than 35% of total calorie intake).
Calcium (dairy products) is also vital to maintain strong bones and can help prevent osteoporosis. Finally, protein should not be over-consumed, a guideline is approximately 1.5g per kilogram of body weight per day. For more specialised information on nutrition click here.
There is very little difference in the training potential between men and women. Jens Bangsbo from Denmark showed that after supplementary training, members of the Danish National Soccer team had lower body mass and fat levels, greater VO2 Max, could jump higher and run for longer. He also states that female and male players should train in similar ways although due to possible changes in the menstrual cycle, intensity for females should be gradually increased.
A 90 minute session twice a week is a good basis for acquiring fitness, with the emphasis on technique work and small sided games. Four a side soccer has been shown to provide a good training stimulus for women (players are shown to work at 74% of VO2 Max) and will help increase fitness levels. Short 30 min supplementary sessions can also be added 2/3 times per week.
The off-season should be used as a recovery period although players should be encouraged to maintain basic fitness levels. Non-contact sports such as cycling, swimming and tennis are useful for aerobic training along with light flexibility work. Circuit training is useful during early pre-season. If aerobic fitness has been maintained, a period of anaerobic training can be introduced in the middle of pre-season. Women can acquire fitness through playing competitive matches although it is the level of fitness gained during the pre-season which really counts. Methods such as weight-training and plyometrics should only be adopted by players if they have completed their physical growth and if a good standard of fitness has already been acquired.
During the competitive season, fitness levels may not be maintained through playing matches so extra training sessions should be included. The frequency and intensity of the training should be based on the number of matches played. It is also important that specialised individual training be implemented as women players are often limited in their free time (few teams are professional) thus the time spent training should be best adapted to the individual's needs. Finally, regular fitness checkups are required to ensure the health of the player.
The physical demands of women's football are no different to the men's game although men do require more strength, power and pace. Overall, the intensity of match play is less in women's football although players often run similar distances during a game to males. Bangsbo calculated that a Danish international ran 9,5 Km in 80 minutes (equivalent to 10,7 Km over 90 mins) indicating the similarity in activity profiles between men's and women's soccer.
Very little statistical analysis on performance in women's football has been carried out. However, work undertaken at the University of Kobe in Japan shows that women do not sustain passing movements as long as men. Also, the study also showed that the percentage of time that the ball was in play is generally less than in male football with 50% of actions being unsuccessful, this was put down to limited technique.
Ted Copeland, manager of the England Women's football team mentions that females have problems kicking over long distances, experience difficulty in dealing with back passes and distributing the ball over distance with speed. Females can have trouble heading the ball (technique or fear ?). Coaches involved in the game also state that the game is too static with not enough movement off the ball with this due to poor coaching or poor fitness levels.
Finally, Davis & Brewer indicate from scientific data that female players are better adapted to a slow possession game rather than a direct game requiring much physical effort. Selected periods of high intensity play mixed with recovery periods where the team maintains possession and slows the rhythm of the game will delay the onset of fatigue.
The female game of football is still under development both from a physical and technical point of view. It is essential that players and coaches have good knowledge in sports medicine/sports science in order to make the most of their potential. However, there is still much room for further research into a game that is both extremely exciting to watch and which frequently produces moments of high skill.
Female players whatever their physical fitness levels, must at all times be carefully observed and advised to reduce the risk of injury and ensure continual good health. Coaches must be discrete and understanding when dealing with women footballers and it maybe useful to have a female within the playing staff when discussing personal problems.
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