Sally Munday

Starting a family and being an elite athlete should not be mutually exclusive - that is what we want to make abundantly clear to everyone involved in the Olympic and Paralympic high-performance community, and beyond.

This important message comes as UK Sport, this week, published pregnancy guidance for athletes and sports, following a wide-ranging and in-depth 18-month consultation period with athletes, sports, stakeholders, charities, medical practitioners, and organisations outside of the Olympic and Paralympic high-performance community.

Having a child dramatically changes your life, and for many parents can give a new meaning too. It is a key milestone in life to be celebrated.

Through this guidance, and how we interact as a high-performance community on a daily basis, we want to provide athletes with the confidence that their pregnancy will be supported fairly and appropriately by their sport. We also want to ensure the health and safety of athletes and their children and support their return to training and competition post-childbirth.

UK Sport are recommending a framework which athletes and sports may wish to follow to allow for a responsible and reasonable approach to be adopted pre, during and post-childbirth. We are providing advice and resources in a readily accessible format, which is importantly, all in one place.

We have an ambition for our high-performance community to be world leading in this space. Sports look to us to take a lead, which they can then follow and amend according to their individual requirements.

Pregnancy, including pre-and post-childbirth can be physically and mentally challenging for a mother and it is essential that the right resources and guidance are made available for athletes and sports, to best support them and their partner.

For this reason, what we are not doing is recommending a one-size fits all approach. The care and support an athlete may require will vary significantly depending on the impact of pregnancy on their body, any delivery complications, and the nature of the sport they are returning to.

Dame Sarah Storey has won Paralympic medals for Britain both before and after becoming a mother ©Getty Images
Dame Sarah Storey has won Paralympic medals for Britain both before and after becoming a mother ©Getty Images

We are already seeing an ever-increasing number of elite athletes within our high-performance community becoming mothers. Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, Dame Sarah Storey, Laura Kenny, Helen Glover, Zoe Newson, Naomi Folkard, Jordanne Whiley, Lizzie Deignan, Charley Davison, Jeanette Chippington - to name a few.

There was also a record number of British mothers competing at the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo this summer. These athletes are the perfect role models and there is a lot we can learn from the mothers within our high-performance community, be it those who have started a family and returned to training and competition and also those who have chosen that as the opportunity to retire.

I think it’s important that we acknowledge that not all athletes who start a family do come back, want to come back or can come back but hopefully through talking more openly about this and highlighting the fantastic role models there are, it can be crystal clear that it is not either or when it comes to starting a family and being an elite athlete.

We are determined for athletes to feel that there is the right guidance available, the right support on offer and the right encouragement from everyone that they can start a family at the point that is right for them on their elite sporting journey.

We want our high-performance community to be truly open and welcoming to athletes wanting to start a family, which is why we believe it is so important to have researched, consulted, and ultimately, produced pregnancy guidance for Olympic and Paralympic athletes and sports, and beyond.

Collaboration is a huge part of our new mission at UK Sport to create the greatest decade of extraordinary sporting moments - reaching, inspiring and uniting the nation and I am hugely proud of the wide range of people and organisations involved in the production of this guidance.

Front and centre were the athletes themselves, both from Olympic and Paralympic sports and those outside the remit of the Games. We have listened to them and developed this guidance with the mother and child’s welfare at the heart of it.

In addition, we have worked extremely closely with the British Athletes Commission, who provide athletes with independent, advice and comprehensive, professional support, and the English Institute of Sport’s Female Health and Performance Team, who deliver world-class services to athletes.

Britain's Laura Kenny won Olympic gold both before and after becoming a mother ©Getty Images
Britain's Laura Kenny won Olympic gold both before and after becoming a mother ©Getty Images

We also placed a significant amount of importance on listening to other organisations, such as the Women’s Sport Trust and Women’s Sport Collective and universities such as Loughborough and Liverpool John Moores, as well as those outside of sport like the Royal Opera House, the Pelvic Floor Society and Maternity Action.

Of course, it wouldn’t be possible without the support of the sports and their performance directors, and we’ll be talking through the guidance in detail with the sports performance staff in the coming weeks.

While the guidance provides a template for athletes and steps which sports should be thoughtful and mindful of, we are fully aware that as UK Sport we have an important role to play in making athletes feel fully supported and comfortable.

Any athlete who becomes pregnant and is part of a world class programme will continue to receive their full Athlete Performance Award (APA) throughout the duration of the pregnancy and for up to nine months post childbirth.

Our policy with sports also states that they have to contain references to pregnancy within their own selection policies that enable athletes to start a family and remain an elite athlete. But, what we learnt through the consultation, is that this message hasn’t necessarily been seen, read or resonated as much as we’d like. It is important that we make it clear and continue to talk about how we support elite athletes that are starting a family. We have to make it easy and clear.

UK Sport has an ambition to grow our thriving sporting system. We are committed to powering a diverse and inclusive Olympic and Paralympic family. However, this guidance has been published with the desire that it is not just used by Olympic and Paralympic sports but that other sports also feel able to make use of the guidance.

Time will tell how that looks and develops but this is an important marker in ensuring that not a single athlete feels they should be forced to make a choice between elite sport and starting a family.

You can read the guidance for athletes and sports in full here