When they took to the field to face the Germans in the Euro Cup final on Sunday, England’s national women’s soccer team didn’t just have the support of the country, they had the support of specially designed sports bras chosen in consultation with scientists.
It perhaps would have remained a hidden secret weapon but for Chloe Kelly’s now-iconic bra-baring celebration after scoring the game-winning goal, which prompted a national conversation in the papers and the airwaves and a massive sales bump for sports bras.
“Cups and trophies: How the bra inspired players to fit in the finale,” read one headline in The Guardian. “Now bring a sports bra home,” read another from The Times, a play on the English soccer anthem Three Lions (It’s Coming Home).
Department store John Lewis reported a 130 percent increase in searches for sports bras following the victorious moment and a 15 percent bump in sports bra sales from the previous week.
Perhaps the last time a sports bra had such a big moment in soccer was in 1999, when US player Brandi Chastain whipped off her jersey after netting the World Cup final winner against China.
In fact, Chastain tweeted to her English counterpart on Sunday: “I see you @ChloeKelly well done.”
While much has been made of the iconic moment of bra-bearing jubilation, it has also thrust women’s breast health into the spotlight.
“I think it’s absolutely fantastic because we spend a lot of our time trying to raise awareness of this important area of women’s health,” said Joanna Wakefield-Scurr, a body mechanics professor and head of the research group in breast health at the University of Portsmouth.
Wakefield-Scurr’s team consulted with the Lionesses before the tournament to help them find the best bra for the job, after the Football Association learned of her previous work with Olympic athletes.
“What we found when we were working with the Olympic athletes was that sports bras can have a performance benefit,” she said.
Wakefield-Scurr has been studying how breasts impact athletic performance for 17 years. Part of the methodology involves having athletes exercise braless to get a baseline of tissue movement, and then repeat the activity with various sports bras to gauge how different models can potentially improve performance.
At the professor’s lab, athletes run on a treadmill without a bra while sensors record the movement of tissue. Those exercises are then repeated in a variety of sports bras while researchers study how different bras create or restrict motion and change the stress on the body.
Commercial sports bras have been around for a long time. A “jogging” bra was developed by two New Jersey women in 1977 who sewed two jock straps together. But the bras’ importance in soccer, and the application of technology to make them better and more responsive to women’s needs, is a recent development.
“[Sports bras] can improve your running mechanics, for example. They can improve your breathing frequency, they can lower your heart rate, so they can make you more efficient,” Wakefield-Scurr said. “We’ve seen reductions in muscle activity, so that can actually help reduce fatigue during sporting activity.”
WATCH | Researchers are examining how breast support impacts athletic performance:
The wrong sports bra, she said, can also make balance and muscle strain more challenging, change body dynamics by repositioning breast tissue and weight, which can change players’ center of gravity and force them to work harder.
“There’s lots of competing implications from a performance perspective in terms of how we should reposition the breast tissue, where we should put it, how we should support it,” said Wakefield-Scurr.
The research team found that compression top bras, which crush breast tissue against the chest wall and are commonly worn by soccer players, may not be the best model for the sport.
“By compressing the breast tissue towards the chest wall, sort of joining the left and the right breast together and minimizing movement… creates a heavier mass in the chest area,” Wakefield-Scurr said.
Instead, the research demonstrates that bras that encapsulate each breast separately help athletes improve movement efficiency.
‘It’s such a benefit’
In an email to CBC News, the Football Association says it has prioritized work on female athlete health and performance, and that it has a multitude of projects to support England’s women’s team. It noted that each Lioness went through individual sports bra assessments with the research group to find the best bra for their health, comfort and performance.
The association said it intends to continue to use any new technology that benefits players on and off the pitch.
On an East London field, 21-year soccer veteran Olivia Worsfold, who heads up female development for her club Leyton Orient, knows from experience how the wrong sports bra can impact a player.
“You look really uncomfortable. You end up holding yourself in funny positions. Maybe you don’t want to run. You know if you’ve got a bigger chest, it can start to get painful. [Some people start] to shy away,” she said. “And then you’re not performing, are you?”
Worsfold is thrilled to see science being applied to women’s soccer.
“We’ve used it for boots for years — [men’s star David] Beckham was famous, wasn’t he, for having, like, the extra detail in his boot. So why can’t we now as women of science positively use it in our performance? It’s such a benefit.”
WATCH | British soccer veteran Olivia Worsfold applauds the emphasis on science in sports bras:
Worsfold said the new national emphasis on the science of sports bras may open doors for women with larger chests, who have often struggled to find support and may have opted out of team sports because of it.
“It’s an embarrassing situation, isn’t it? Like… ‘I can’t run. It’s uncomfortable.’ So rather than trying to fix a problem, they just shy away from it,” she said.
“But now it’s out there, it’s not embarrassing anymore. You know, females have breasts, so we need to make sure we’re looking after them, just like we look after the other part of our body,” Worsfold said.
Wakefield-Scurr is thrilled that rather than being sexualized, Chloe Kelly’s game-winning celebration is being seen as empowering and has prompted more awareness about sports bra technology.
“We did a big survey a number of years ago where we found that the breast was a barrier to exercise for 17 percent of women,” she said.
Wakefield-Scurr hopes that with the Lionesses putting sports bras in the spotlight, that might change for some women.