As they took to the pitch in Sunday’s European Cup final against Germany, the England women’s national football team not only had the support of the country, but also the support of specially designed sports bras, chosen in consultation with scientists.
It might have remained a hidden secret weapon had it not been for Chloe Kelly’s now-iconic bra-baring celebration after the winning goal, sparking national discussion in the papers and on the airwaves and a massive sales spurt for sports bras.
“Cups and trophies: how the bra inspired players to a fitting final,” read a headline in The Guardian. “Now bring home a sports bra,” read another of The Times, a play on the English football anthem Three Lions (It’s Coming Home).
Department store John Lewis reported a 130 percent increase in sports bra searches after the winning moment and a 15 percent increase in sports bra sales from the previous week.
Perhaps the last time a sports bra had such a big moment in football was in 1999, when US player Brandi Chastain removed her jersey after hitting the World Cup final winner against China.
In fact, Chastain tweeted to her England counterpart on Sunday, “I see you @ ChloeKelly, well done.”
While there has been much talk about the iconic bra-wearing cheer moment, it has also shone the spotlight on women’s breast health.
“I think it’s absolutely fantastic because we’re spending a lot of time raising awareness of this important area of women’s health,” said Joanna Wakefield-Scurr, Professor of Body Mechanics and Head of the Breast Health Research Group at the University of Portsmouth.
The Wakefield-Scurr team consulted with the Lionesses ahead of the tournament to help them find the best bra for the job after the Football Association learned of their previous work with Olympic athletes.
“What we found when working with 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 athletes training without a bra to get a baseline of tissue movement and then repeating the activity with different sports bras to assess how different models can potentially improve performance.
In the professor’s lab, braless athletes run on a treadmill while sensors record the movement of tissue. These exercises are then repeated in a variety of sports bras as the researchers study how different bras create or restrict movement and change the load on the body.
Commercial sports bras have been around for a long time. A “jogging” bra was invented in 1977 by two New Jersey women who sewed two jock straps together. But the importance of bras in football and the application of technology to make them better and more responsive to women’s needs is a more recent development.
“[Sports bras] can, for example, improve your running mechanics. They can improve your breathing rate, they can lower your heart rate so you become more efficient,” Wakefield-Scurr said.
CLOCK | Researchers are studying how chest support affects athletic performance:
The wrong sports bra, she said, can also complicate balance and muscle loads, altering body dynamics by repositioning breast tissue and weight, which can change players’ center of gravity and force them to work harder.
“From a performance perspective, there are many competing implications in terms of how we should reposition breast tissue, where we should place it, and how we should support it,” Wakefield-Scurr said.
The research team found that bras with compression tops that press breast tissue against the chest wall, commonly worn by soccer players, may not be the best model for the sport.
“By squeezing the breast tissue toward the chest wall, joining the left and right breasts together, and minimizing the movement… creates a heavier mass in the chest area,” Wakefield-Scurr said.
Instead, research shows that bras that enclose 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 made working on the health and performance of women athletes a priority and has a variety of projects in support of the England women’s team. It noted that each lioness went through individual sports bra ratings with the research group to find the best bra for their health, comfort, and performance.
The federation said it intends to continue using all new technologies that benefit players on and off the pitch.
On an East London pitch, 21-year-old veteran footballer Olivia Worsfold, who leads women’s development at her club Leyton Orient, knows first-hand how the wrong sports bra can affect a player.
“You look really unwell. You end up holding yourself in weird positions. Maybe you don’t want to run. You know when you have a bigger breast it can start to get painful. [Some people start] she said. “And then you don’t perform, do you?”
Worsfold is excited to see science applied to women’s football.
“We’ve been using it on boots for years – [men’s star David] Beckham was famous, wasn’t he, for having something like that extra detail in his boot. So why can’t we as scientists now use it positively for our performance? That’s such an advantage.”
CLOCK | British football veteran Olivia Worsfold applauds the emphasis on science in sports bras:
Worsfold said the new national emphasis on the science of sports bras could open doors for women with larger breasts, who have often struggled to find support and may have decided against team sports as a result.
“It’s an embarrassing situation, isn’t it? Like… ‘I can’t run. It’s uncomfortable.’ Instead of trying to solve a problem, they just shy away from it,” she said.
“But now it’s out there, it’s not embarrassing anymore. You know, women have breasts, so we have to make sure we take care of them just like we take care of the other part of our body,” Worsfold said.
Wakefield-Scurr is thrilled that instead of being sexualized, Chloe Kelly’s victory celebration is seen as empowering and has led to more awareness of sports bra technology.
“We did a big survey a few years ago where we found that breasts are a barrier to exercise for 17 percent of women,” she said.
Wakefield-Scurr hopes that could change for some women as Lionesses sports bras take the spotlight.