Suffering in silence: Female footballers, injury and social support practices

Author: Catherine Litchfield

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 21 Feb 2027.

Litchfield, Catherine, 2024 Suffering in silence: Female footballers, injury and social support practices, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Australian rules football is a popular sporting preference for females across the nation. While growing participation rates suggest that Australian football is an engaging social and physical pursuit, there is also a salient risk of serious injury which can contribute to females dropping out of sport. To assist female athletes to return to sport following serious injury, social support is vital. However, little is known about female athletes’ social support experiences when injured, especially in contemporary, traditionally male-dominated sports such as Australian football. This study aimed to provide a better understanding of the social support environment surrounding injury in female Australian football. Within a multiple case study design, 30 semi-structured interviews were conducted with club administrators, medical staff, coaches, and female athletes, from three Australian football clubs across SAWFL (case one), SANFLW (case two), and AFLW (case three) and analysed using reflexive thematic analysis. Relevant documents were also collected from the clubs and a document analysis was conducted.

The results of this study provide an in-depth understanding of current social support practices and experiences in Australian football. The findings from case one suggest dominant support practices did not necessarily align with players’ preferences or needs, the timing of injuries within the playing season could affect the experience of social support, club culture and lack of education could influence players’ responses to injury, and self-placed limitations on the club restricted opportunities to improve the support provided to female players. In case two, the findings suggested an intuitive nature to social support provision, in which club members provided support to each other without being prompted, positional and relational shifts within the club can occur following injury, which can affect the ways in which female footballers experience support, and social support practices are developed in a reactive manner. The case three results describe the attitudes surrounding community and connectedness built within the team and club, the many difficulties and challenges associated with the return to elite-level sport, how player support needs change over the recovery journey, and the many extra challenges that female footballers face. The case three results also identified that the emerging support culture of the club was born from early mistakes that left players under-supported and that, despite the appreciation and gratitude the elite female players had for the recent opportunities and resources made available to them, the AFLW players were still cognisant of areas that needed improvement and wished for more in the future.

Overall, this study recommends SAWFL-level clubs tailor social support provision to the preferences of female footballers, explore ways to provide support beyond the confines of a normal season, and improve the ‘injury literacy’ of players and club staff. It is recommended that SANFLW-level clubs work toward an equitable, fairer and more transparent system of social support, and clearly communicate the available social supports to all players. At the AFLW level it is recommended that clubs establish and reinforce clarity about injury risk and build on existing communication channels to receive feedback about social support provision.

Keywords: social support, significant injury, sports Injury, Australian football, multiple case study, women's sport, female sport

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2024
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Sam Elliott