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Boob Armour: Protecting women in sport for the future

Boob Armour

Launched in 2020, Boob Armour (which is officially licensed by the AFL and AFLW) was founded by Suzie Betts with the sole ambition of giving more women and girls the confidence to play impact sports while protecting their breasts from injury.

A world-first for women’s sport, Boob Armour inserts are designed to provide breast support and to minimise unwanted movement during running, as well as absorb impact to alleviate injury to breast tissue.

The inserts are made from a soft but strong polyethylene that is just two millimetres thick. These inserts extend around the underarm for added protection, stabilising the breasts into position and are easily insertable into a sports bra.

Inspired by personal experience, Betts sought medical research for the need of protective inserts for women. What she found was an underwhelming lack of attention given to the issue, and furthermore, that the products designed to do the job were ill-suited to the vast majority of women.

Suzie Betts Photo

To start off, what is Boob Armour?

Suzie Betts: So, Boob Armour is protective inserts for girls playing contact, impact and ball sport. They’re two-millimetre-thick polyethylene inserts that you slot into your sport bra or crop top pre-match. A lot of girls obviously don’t want to have anything heavy in any shape or form, and the inserts weigh about fifteen grams each.

Once they’re in, you’re basically invincible. You could get kicked; you could get punched – you won’t feel a thing. By absorbing the impact (which is what the polyethylene does) it actually alleviates any injuries.

What inspired you to initiate the Boob Armour project? How did it all come together?

Suzie Betts: In 2018, I found lumps in my breast. And the first thing my cancer surgeon asked me was whether I had received a trauma, which I found strange at the time. What I’ve since found out is trauma lumps, which present themselves later in life, can present themselves as breast cancer cells. Even through MRIs and ultrasounds can’t differentiate between them. So, you have to go down the path of what I did – biopsies and three lots of surgery to find out I didn’t have breast cancer (which I never thought I had) – to find out the lumps were a result of a trauma I received when I was younger.

So, with that in mind I had two girls who played AFLW and basketball and after asking them about their experiences they acknowledged that they’re hit in the boobs all the time whilst playing. From thereI began to look for research and found that basically, globally there’d been really nothing in terms of studies.

There’d been a study done in America in regard to football that had found out that out of 90 girls playing, 50% had reported sustaining a breast injury. And most of them hadn’t reported it to anyone. Part of the challenge would’ve been that most of the coaches were male at the time so it would’ve been difficult for the players to talk about and the guys aren’t going to ask about it. 12% of those girls actually said that the injury had affected their participation.

So, I went in search of what there was to protect girls’ boobs and really came across nothing except products that were unsuitable. So, we’ve made sure that our shells encapsulate the shape of the breasts and we’ve got seven sizes; so, there’s a size for everyone.

Originally, my background wasn’t in football it was in Aussie Rules. But as we’ve gone along, we’ve had a lot of interest from Europe and the United Kingdom in regards to football and rugby as well. And so, it dawned on me about how many girls were avoiding chest passing in football. [From there] what we’ve found is a lot of parents who previously avoided letting their kids play football, rugby or Aussie Rules are now letting them play.

Boob Armour in kit

Has it been a challenge to educate and get people on board with the product?

Suzie Betts: Absolutely it has been a challenge. Because even though we’re talking female sport and it has been around for years, it’s still run a lot by men. No one really has thought about those injuries and that’s why the research hasn’t been there.

Not until 2020 was anything done in regards to AFL injuries, which saw 207 girls who were playing AFL and rugby surveyed. About 60% of them said that they had had a breast injury and most of them have said they couldn’t play on because of it. The numbers are there when they do it but it’s been difficult to get any further research done other than what is available. Only through my own trauma do I know the next steps.

So, opening up the conversation with the male contingent has been the hardest bit and avoidance of talking about it [for years] hasn’t really helped.

Since the launch of Boob Armour, what has the response been like from the overall sporting community?

Suzie Betts: For women this is like the best thing they’ve ever seen. We’ve got some co-ed schools taking on board the point that girls need to be protected in the same way boys are in cricket for example.

And the response has been phenomenal. When the girls put it on the confidence they get for tackles, marking and chest passing is like a newfound confidence, because they know that they can just run through it or have the ability to mark or chest the ball without any injury.

So, it’s been phenomenal but the key is education. All of our medical research and promotion of that education is essential because we want it to be like the mouthguard of the future. We want it to be in every girl’s kit; if you’re getting ready of football you’ve got your shin guards, your mouthguard and your Boob Armour.

[And with it] all the girls play tougher. After every game they say with confidence that they went for it and previously it wasn’t like that without Boob Armour. And in addition, it works to minimise bounce. Another study we found discovered that a lot of teenage girls drop out of sport because they don’t have the right support. So, we don’t want that to be a reason why girls stop playing sport. We need everyone to stay in [sport] for as long as they can, so, if that tiny thing is keeping you away from sport, we’re here to alleviate that problem.

We’re really targeting the grassroots, which is why I am proud to see the young girls wearing it because they’re the ones we’ve got to educate to keep it. Some girls are only going to play for fun but they’ll be protected along the way and that’s the most important thing. It’s all about prevention.

Zena Sport: Helping female goalkeepers stay protected

Donna Johnson started Zena Sport with the aim of protecting women athletes in high-impact sports. With the help of her husband, former AFL footballer and Western Bulldogs captain Brad Johnson, Zena Sport is changing the way female athletes look at injury prevention.

Their Female Impact protection garment, known as the Zena Z1 performance vest, offers support and impact protection, while also giving compression for enhanced post-game recovery.

The impact vest isn’t visible under a jersey or shirt while being lightweight and breathable without restricting a player’s movement, weighing only 160 grams.

Donna came up with the idea after after she watched a local women’s AFL game, with plans to continue expanding the product line after their initial success.

“My wife Donna was at a local game with her best friend who had a couple of daughters playing, and one of them came off that game with a big knock to the breast,” Brad said.

“We thought is there anything to help these girls during that development phase of life? That’s how the conversation started with us, and we continued to explore it.”

After discovering there wasn’t a large body of research in the area of injuries specific to women’s athletes, Zena Sport conducted their own.

“We worked with Deakin University in that process, and there were a lot of things to tick off,” Brad Johnson said.

“We went through their Centre of Sports Research, and the vest has been validated to show it absorbs a high level of contact.”

The AFLW embraced the impact vests, and now Zena Sport is expanding into other sports.

“The last 18 months we’ve been going flat out, AFLW was our first port of call but Melissa Barbieri jumped onboard quickly and she loves wearing it in goal,” Donna said.

“Soccer is one sport that the vest has been well received, and the feedback has been great so we want to push it even further and harder through the soccer world.”

Melissa Barbieri, a former Matilda’s goalkeeper, had an early opportunity to test the vest out before launch.

“Once I tried it I felt that little more protected in collisions, and as a goalkeeper hitting the ground and the ball hitting your chest,” Barbieri said.

“I have some breast cancer in the family, so I wanted to protect myself as much as possible, so it was a welcome revelation.”

Barbieri, who played 86 times for Australia, values the product as perfect for women goalkeepers who need extra safety during games.

“First and foremost I feel it gives you compression, which is always good for recovery, but it also gives you an extra layer of protection from any hits you might have via the ground, opposition coming in or friendly fire,” she said.

“Certainly when you are in a one-on-one predicament in a game, coming out and spreading yourself with as much width as possible and not protecting yourself in the chest area, it’s perfect for feeling that little bit of extra protection.”

Brad Johnson is the Western Bulldogs’ all-time appearance holder in the AFL, and his own experiences in professional sports influenced the design of the vest.

“It was always wait until you are injured, and then protect it to return to play. In that regard, I wore a rib-guard in the final few years of playing, under my jumper without anyone knowing, and away I went,” he said.

“So from that I was keen to add that element to it which has become a really popular part of the vest.”

For Barbieri, the impact vest not only offers her safety and confidence on the field, but she also believes in the company behind the product.

“Supporting someone who is so passionate about female athletes is really great to see, and it’s a homegrown family company, so I want to get behind them as much as much as possible,” she said.

Zena Sport is providing women and girls the opportunity to play contact sport to their full potential while raising awareness about the need to protect themselves from injury.

You can visit the Zena Sport website for more information, or view the ZENA Z1 Impact Protection Vest.

Catherine Cannuli: “It wasn’t easy to pursue coaching as I felt like I was back at square one again”

Catherine Cannuli

June 1 this year saw long-time stalwart of the Western Sydney Wanderers – Catherine Cannuli – appointed to the role of Head Coach of the Women’s side for the upcoming 2021/22 A-League Women’s season.

In addition to having built up an impressive resume through her role as Women’s Technical Director at the Southern Districts Football Association, Cannuli has been announced as the latest addition to the Executive Committee at Football Coaches Australia (FCA).

Her landmark year of achievements thus far reflects her immense efforts in working to reach what she acknowledges as a personal high point in her coaching career. Cannuli’s success is undoubtedly a testament to her determination, but her transition from player to coach was self-admittedly challenging one.

The lack of clear routes towards securing coaching roles at all levels of the game has led FCA and Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) to announce – within their Memorandum of Understanding strategies –all members of PFA’s Alumni will have their joining fee to FCA waived in an effort to provide additional support to aspiring coaches.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, Cannuli spoke on her efforts to reach the point she is at now in her career and highlighted the significance of this recently announced FCA and PFA Alumni partnership.

Coaching

It was announced in June that you were to become the new Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers. What has that been like for you so far?

Catherine Cannuli: It’s been exciting and challenging. Obviously, with the current COVID-19 situation that we’ve been in, I probably had four or five weeks in charge as the head coach and then we went into lockdown. So a lot of it has been done from behind a computer. But it’s been a great time to be able to plan and make sure that everything was ready to go come first day of pre-season.

In terms of opportunities for females in football following the end of their playing career, can you give us some insight into what was going through your head as you were coming to the end of your playing time?

Catherine Cannuli: I really didn’t think about coaching straight away to be honest. I retired and I thought I was going to get my weekends back and be a normal person. My friends were always having a go at me for missing so many significant birthdays or weddings.

It was after being off for about six or seven months, and not having football, where I realised more than anything what it left in me as a person. Football’s been such a big part of my life. It took me some time to realise that I couldn’t be a player anymore, because the commitment at the time was really hard – juggling full-time work and doing everything that I wanted to do. I was at a crossroads in my career at that point. It was thinking ‘do I sacrifice another four years or do I just focus on work and preparing for life after football?’.

It was at that point that I got into contact with the Southern Districts Association and explained that I wanted to give back to our community and asked what I could do to get involved with the girls. I went down and did some sessions with the team at the time, and within six months I’d landed myself my first coaching gig. I took over the First Grade Women’s team there and that was it. I fell into coaching.

What was it like mentally traversing that transition period between playing and coaching?

Catherine Cannuli: It was clear, because everything that I’d spoken to the club about they were on board with what I wanted to do and the vision that I had for young girls in the South-West region. For kids in the Liverpool and Fairfield areas, young girls like myself didn’t have the opportunity to be mentored or be coached. They didn’t have an environment where they felt they’d be able to really excel.

For me it was pretty clear from day one that I wanted to make a change. It was hard to transition, because after my first couple of years in coaching I remember going back to some of my coaches that had coached me for a long time and apologising. Because I didn’t realise what it actually took to be a coach. As a player, you turn up; you train; and you go home. As a coach there’s so much planning going on in the background that players just wouldn’t have an idea about.

The transition was definitely difficult, but after my first 12 months of coaching, I chose to dedicate myself to it. I had a business at the time and I stepped away from it to be able to then go into coaching. At the time I was working at Westfields Sports High School and Southern Districts and learning my trade, and it wasn’t easy when I decided to pursue coaching as I felt like I was back at square one again.

But it was really important for me to experience it that way. Even now that I’m at the top of my game as the Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers, I feel that as a coach it is really important that you learn your trade, go through different environments and see different things before you actually get there. It shapes you as a person and as a coach.

Cannuli

What have been your key learnings in your role as Women’s Technical Director at the Southern Districts Football Association?

Catherine Cannuli: I think that the main one has been learning to build an environment for not just your players, but your staff and everyone to excel in. I think it’s important that everyone knows what your vision is and what direction you’re wanting to go in within your program and your football. It’s important that everyone understands that if they’re on this journey with you, they have a clear understanding of what the message is and what you want to do.

Whether I’m at Southern Districts or at the Wanderers, having that clear message with your players and your staff of ‘this is what it’s going to take to be successful’, and that we can do it as a collective.

Sometimes you see people saying ‘it’s my way or the highway’, whereas with me it’s about bringing people on the journey with you and making them understand what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it.

Do you feel the partnership between FCA and PFA Alumni will aid aspiring female football coaches?

Catherine Cannuli: I think back to when I did my first C License and how far coach education and support has come. FCA have been a massive game changer in the coaching space, not only for females, but for males.

For any coach that aspires to be better and wants to be helped, even for those A-Leagues players wanting to transition out of playing into coaching, I think it’s important that there’s a mentorship and a process in what we want to do and how we want to do it.

Sometimes when we jump straight into the deep end it becomes difficult to have an understanding of what the role of a coach is. If you are a player, the role of a coach is a very different role to when you’re a player.

The partnership between FCA and PFA is huge. I’ve always said that football needs to come together and we need to work together as one. This is showing that together we can be stronger. And these partnerships are only going to allow our players and people to grow and further develop their skills in that space.

You’ve recently been announced as an addition to the Executive Committee at FCA. What initiatives will you be looking to drive as a part of your work there?

Catherine Cannuli: I think the main one is to give as much coach education as we can for all coaches. Giving all people from all different levels the number of resources that they can get onto. You can already see that with a lot of the workshops that we’ve been running. The numbers that we’ve been getting for these have been fantastic.

For me, the key thing with FCA is to drive its existence for people to understand that FCA is there and what it can do for coaches. Because I’ve already seen how it supported me over the last two years as a member. And I think, down the track, FCA is going to have such a significant impact on the coaching life. It’s going to be amazing to see where it’s going to be having known where it started.

FCA

What changes and opportunities for the women’s game are you hoping to see come to the fore leading into and after the 2023 Women’s World Cup?

Catherine Cannuli: The greatest achievement for me with receiving the opportunity to be the Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers is that other females can look to this and say: ‘Hey, I can be a Head Coach at the A-League Women’s as well’. That’s the most important, that young female coaches can actually aspire to be a coach in the A-League Women’s.

The more that we see it on the TV and the papers that there are female coaches leading the way, there’s going to be even more opportunity for young females to come through NPL clubs and do coaching.

At the moment, the number of coaches in the female space in a professional environment is probably quite low. And that’s something that we need to keep driving change for; changing the dynamics around females not thinking that there are those opportunities for coaching when there are.

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