Periods and performance: Yeovil Town Women and the importance of listening to your players

‘Push when you can, back off when you should.’ It’s a phrase the Yeovil Town Women’s squad are used to hearing. Those nine words encompass Yeovil’s approach to training and performance.

According to Ewan Greenhill, Head of Performance at Yeovil, the approach is ‘ultimately about protecting the player but giving them that opportunity to keep working and keep pushing because they still want to get better.’

Ewan Greenhill of Yeovil Town Women works with the players

Ewan Greenhill, Head of Performance at Yeovil Town Women, puts the players through their paces

There’s been a flurry of press coverage in recent weeks about performance in the women’s game; more specifically about how adapting training to the stages of the menstrual cycle can both improve performance and lessen the chance of injuries.

Emma Hayes spoke about how Chelsea are working with Dr Georgie Bruinvels from sports consultancy at Orreco to help players track their cycles and adjust their regimes accordingly.

Bruinvels is the woman who joined forces with Dawn Scott to do a similar thing with the US women’s team, the results of which Scott said played a part in them winning last year’s World Cup.

Scott has, of course, recently joined England women’s team as Senior Women’s Physical Performance Manager where Head Coach Phil Neville has tasked her with doing a similar thing for the Lionesses.

He said: ‘Dawn has already spoken to a lot of the players about it and made a big impact already. Dawn has a big thing on men aren't women and women aren't men. We have to tailor our philosophies, profiles, the way we test, strengthen and condition and she is making things really bespoke.

‘What we're seeing in the Women’s Super League is, they're starting to implement that as well through the influence of people like Dawn, and the top people in the world.’

But it’s not just the national team and the WSL where work is being done to tailor training to the intricacies of female bodies and experiences; periods included.

Yeovil have been working on their strategy for around 18 months.

An insight informed strategy

Greenhill is at the forefront of this strategy which uses insights about players’ cycles – and other more general factors about their wellness – to support and improve the way they train.

He’s been working in the women’s game for ten years, and views the approach as an amalgamation of the understanding he’s gained from working with players over that time, the increasing amounts of research coming out, and his method: coaching the person.

Greenhill says: ‘If you’re listening to your players, you don’t need wellness data half the time. If you’ve got a good enough relationship with your players they’ll soon tell you what’s going on’.

The 2017-18 season, when the club were in the WSL, is when things began to take a more structured approach. He says: ‘We were seeing the players every day. So we were able to do the wellness data, a standard few questions about how they’re feeling, how their sleep was, how their body’s coping with things.

‘Being able to ask the players how they are every morning when they come in was a big thing. We were able to say ‘Right okay, now we’re starting to see the trends coming out.’

‘It was very anecdotal the season before, but we were able to manage it because Jamie Sherwood and I have a similar way of working with players.’

Consistent work among turmoil

Sherwood is Yeovil’s head coach. He’s in his second spell with the club, returning to post in November 2019 having previously been in charge from 2014 to 2018.

Sherwood’s reinstatement follows Yeovil’s reversal to part-time status and drop to the FA National Women’s League Southern Premier Division – where they currently sit in third position – from the WSL.

The club avoided going into administration in 2019, but were deducted 10 points from their league campaign, and then denied an operating license for the Championship.

Adam Murry took over the club in July 2019 and his ownership has restored some stability to the club along with a rebrand including a name change – from ‘Ladies’ to ‘Women’ – and a new team badge. Yeovil’s Twitter profile proudly declares ‘New vision. New Identity.’

Yet against a sometimes uncertain backdrop, Greenhill’s work has been consistent. His role has changed slightly, it’s now more of an operational job which he describes as ‘kind of sporting management combined with the business side of it as well’ but his work around player performance has continued to develop. He says: ‘Last season (2018-19) the data started to open up a couple more insights. What we found is the players don’t really want to have the pitch side of things impacted.

‘Ultimately all the players want to do is kick a ball around, train with their team and play the game. So we took a slightly different approach and we’re allowing players to back off in training where they need to.

‘If they do report that they’re feeling a bit tired or sluggish or sore in that few days to a week – whatever their cycle length may be – then we can make those adjustments on the field for them.

‘So maybe allowing them to not push to the maximum in some of our sprint work because they don’t feel like they can. It’s ‘okay, just give me what you can and we’ll deal with it.’’

Ultimately all the players want to do is kick a ball around, train with their team and play the game. Ewan Greenhill, Head of Performance at Yeovil Town Women FC

This approach extends from the training pitch to the gym. Greenhill says: ‘Basically, you’ll always want to lift above 80 per cent. So what we’ve started to create is players working with the maximum for that day, then pitching their own 80 per cent of that.

‘We know that within every four weeks we’re going to get one week when they’re not feeling so great. That’s the opportunity to back off.

‘That gives us a natural recovery week, or a deload week, and then the rest we can choose how we build into it.

‘That’s the way I like to work: three to one and try to base it around the cycles.’

Match day impact

So that’s on-pitch training and time in the gym, but what about match days? Greenhill says: ‘I think that’s the difficult one for anyone, because I don’t think any manager in their right mind is ever going to drop a player for that. I certainly have never seen that happen.

‘It may explain why performances may drop, but we certainly don’t have anything to do with impacting match day because ultimately it’s whatever the gaffer wants that squad to look like.

‘Also the players want to play and I think that’s a real robustness that comes with the female game. Players do tend to power through a lot of things when actually you’re wanting them to sometimes say ‘look I can’t do anymore’ but they just keep going and keep going.’ Greenhill cites this as one of the reasons he loves working in the women’s game so much: ‘Every player I’ve worked with, they never see it as a limitation. I don’t think I’ve had one player that sees it as an excuse to do less.'

One of the main benefits Yeovil have seen from the work of Greenhill and other backroom-staff is the reduction in injuries, particularly anterior cruciate ligament injuries which have plagued the women’s game for a number of years. Greenhill says: ‘Although we don’t have the quality of data, it’s quite anecdotal and more the applied side of it at the moment, I think we’ve probably been proven right.

Our injury rate since I’ve been at the club has been phenomenal, touch wood. We’ve only had one ACL injury in three years, and that was my first ACL in ten years of working in the women’s game.’

Another plus has been the improved relationships with players: ‘Our relationships with players have improved, 100 per cent.

‘I think not being scared by it and being able to have those conversations and be quite frank both ways is important.

‘They can turn around to me and say ‘you know what Ewan, I’m feeling awful today’ and we talk about what it is.

‘Players don’t tend to shout about it [their period] but having those conversations leads to me saying ‘Okay, well just do this or that, we’ll back you off on the pitch, you just tell me if there’s an issue.’

‘A couple of senior players have different names for it and that’s how they let me know that something’s not right and that’s their week.

‘We work out what plan to put in place and how to get through the week so we can keep playing on the pitch and keep the team stuff together.

‘Immediately you get buy in and as coaching staff, as support practitioners, the minute you do that you’re onto a winner and your relationship with the player will just grow, because in a way you’re just there for them.

‘We might be paid by clubs but we’re there for the players and I think that’s a massive thing.

‘I think as a male working in the women’s game if you can break that barrier, and I suppose the supposed stigma of talking about it, then actually it works well.’

Tips for coaches and professionals

For those working or volunteering in the women’s game in an environment where collecting wellness data isn’t feasible, or a performance team isn’t in place, Greenhill believes a few simple things can be done to start thinking more about players’ menstrual cycles and, more generally, their wellness.

He says: ‘Getting to know the player is probably the best thing, having those open conversations. None of that costs.

‘It only costs in probably the time of the coach or the person looking after it, but if you can read a player’s body language when you ask them how they are, or if you notice a change in them then that’s helpful.

‘Over time I think that breeds that ability to go ‘oh right, okay, well maybe you’re struggling with your period this week,’ or it could be anything actually. It doesn’t have to be that.

‘It doesn’t matter what it is; it could be something going on at home, it could be something going on at work.

‘We can cover wellbeing as more of a global thing, to look after the player, who is ultimately an asset for the club.

‘It doesn’t matter if you’re paying them or not paying them, they’re there to do a job for you at the club.

‘I think wellness tests are a great idea, but if you can also keep it really simple and literally just ask a player how they are and have that conversation.’

As a male working in the women’s game if you can break that barrier, and I suppose the supposed stigma of talking about it, then it works well. Ewan Greenhill, Head of Performance at Yeovil Town Women FC

What’s clear is there are different approaches to considering and integrating menstrual cycles into training. Yeovil seem to take a different approach than Chelsea do, for example.

At the moment, Chelsea’s regime features the FitrWoman app, developed by Bruinvels for Orecco. Players are encourage to download the app, and coaches can then access their information and tailor their training programmes. Greenhill says: ‘We know the research is still in its very very early stages. It’s not a one size fits all situation. There is no one stop intervention. You have to tailor it for each individual because everyone feels it a bit differently.

‘We’re probably a little bit away from everyone being on board and backing it just now. There are lots of improvements to be made.

‘The robustness of wellness data, for example, could be improved and the things you can do to make your data work need to be considered.

‘But if we’re all doing it in our own way, the more we can tell people ‘yep, we’re doing it too, this is helping us’ then it’s going to help everyone.

‘If coaches like myself, a male in the female game, can talk about it and understand it then between the community of all these different groups that come together to support elite athletes now – sports science, the medical staff, the nutritionists – if we’re using this information that little bit more at the forefront then it’s going to be out there more, and better understood.

'It will eventually just be a part of how we support players.'