AFLW North Melbourne Libby Birch and Richmond player Monique Conti support the idea of bringing breast protection into contact sports

The importance of protective garments in women's sports

The importance of protective garments in sport is well documented, particularly boxes and padding in men’s cricket and helmets to protect the skull. But for women, a little known fact is that breasts need their own special form of protection.

Imagine finding a lump in your breast, with no context, no symptoms, and when checking with the doctor - no cancer?

With advances in breast imaging, and increased awareness around the need to check frequently for asymmetries and lumps, it isn’t just breast cancer that women need to be cognisant of, particularly if they’re playing a sport where their chest can suffer trauma from knocks.

Necrosis in the breast tissue is a hard lump that can develop due to injury. However, if you haven’t had breast surgery or know that a hard knock can cause this, you can imagine the panic that might set in when finding a lump suddenly there.

Melbournian Suzie Betts had this exact experience when she found a lump in her right breast.

“I was in my late forties and when I went to see my breast cancer surgeon, she asked me if I'd ever received a trauma,” she said.

As it turned out, there was a lump in the left breast, too, which triggered Betts to pore over research into impact injuries stemming from contact sports.

“You get hit in the chest growing up and down the track you can develop necrosis … My surgeon said if my boobs had been protected when I was younger playing sport, we wouldn't be having this conversation.”

A 2020 survey and assessment of 207 female AFL and Rugby players, found that 58% of them reported experiencing a contact breast injury, with 48% believing their injury affected their football performance. 

Of the same group, 87% wore a sports bra, but just 31% believed it provided any protection against contact breast injuries.

Betts founded ‘Boob Armour’ off the back of her experience, and has developed mouldable breast guards which sit inside the bra, to assist female athletes in many different contact sports stay protected, as well as women in physical careers such as the police force.

There are multiple groups undertaking research and development of similar products, including former Western Bulldogs Captain Brad Johnson and his wife Donna, who have also worked with AFLW players on the same issue, as well as others who have designed martial arts specific protectors.