Supporting the development of athlete pregnancy guidance

Research from Loughborough University is supporting national sporting bodies to improve the support offered to pregnant athletes.

Historically, starting a family and being an elite athlete have been viewed as mutually exclusive. Female professional athletes have faced a number of gender inequities – from unequal pay, media coverage and sponsorship to inadequate contracts and pregnancy support.

Such challenges are especially pertinent to elite athletes in receipt of funding and support (such as medical services, sport science and coaching) from high-performance funded programmes because these athletes are not under contracts of employment.

However, national sporting bodies are now beginning to take athlete pregnancy support seriously. UK Sport’s recently announced pregnancy guidance is the culmination of an 18-month consultation with athletes, coaches, medical practitioners, sports scientists, and Home County Sports Institutes.

Collaborative research carried out by academics in the School of Sport, Exercise, and Health Sciences at Loughborough University also supported this work.

While there remain significant gender inequities within the systems, structures and environment of elite sport programmes worldwide, the development of comprehensive, flexible, and adoptable pregnancy guidance is certainly a small but important step forward for all female elite athletes.

Dr Emma Pullen

Research in focus

Led by Dr Emma Pullen, researchers were asked to document the experiences of female elite athletes who were considering pregnancy and/or had experienced pregnancy while being a member of an Olympic or Paralympic high-performance programme.

In response to Loughborough University’s research findings and the wider consultation process, UK Sport developed comprehensive pregnancy guidance, including:

  • Providing advice to athletes about how and when to share their pregnancy with their sport’s governing body;
  • Providing advice to sport governing bodies should an athlete share their pregnancy with them; and
  • Recommending a framework which athletes and sport governing bodies can follow to ensure a responsible and reasonable approach is adopted pre, during and post-childbirth, including return to training and competition.

Importantly, communication around pregnancy and parenthood, and knowledge within an athlete’s immediate support structure, were placed at the centre of the policy.

The wide-reaching guidance is designed to better support elite female athletes funded by UK Sport through Olympic and Paralympic high-performance programmes.

It is hoped that the flexible approach taken will enable other sporting bodies around the world to adopt the guidance when seeking to improve on the support they offer to female athletes wishing to start a family during their sporting careers.

To read the guidance in full, visit the UK Sport website.

Meet the expert

Dr Emma Pullen is a social scientist who is broadly interested in the relationship between sport, social inclusion, and health and well-being.

Her early research explored the experiences of chronic sport related injury. More recently, Emma has focused on disability and gender in sport, the role and impact of Paralympic media and broadcast, and gender (feminisms) at the intersection of disability.

Emma is continuing her research in the area of disability sport and welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with fellow researchers and organisations.

Dr Emma Pullen

Dr Emma Pullen

Lecturer in Sport Management