Female protective vest developed to reduce breast injuries

The sports vest was developed over three years to help protect female athletes Zena Sports

As women's sport continues to grow significantly across Australia, sporting brands have started to hear the calls and enter the world of women's sporting gear, with the launch of female specific performance gear hitting the market with greater frequency.

The latest innovation comes in the form of a protective vest for women in contact sports. According to research undertaken by the University of Wollongong, 58 percent of players in women's AFL, rugby league and union reported suffering a breast injury during training or a match but only 10 percent ever reported the injury to medical staff or coaches and instead chose to play through the pain. Half of those players stated the injury had impacted their performance, and some said they didn't report the issue because they feared not being 'tough' enough.

Now Victorian sportswear manufacturer Zena Sport have released the first female focused garment for contact sports. Zena Sport Founders Donna and former Western Bulldogs AFL captain Brad Johnson, began developing the vest four years ago when Donna discovered along with the rise of female participation was the rise of breast and rib injuries, but there was no form of protection for females in development.

"It's something I'd never even thought of previously before I came up with the idea" Donna told ESPN. "I was talking to a friend about her young daughters playing football, and I just flippantly made a remark that they had no chest protection. They were going through a period of development and just an incidental knock could really hurt or potentially cause some kind of injury.

"I began researching to see if there was actually anything out there and there wasn't. I started looking up if there was any research into breast injury, there wasn't anything really, but I found one paper from America, which showed a significant percentage of women had sustained a breast injury when questioned."

Talking with AFLW players during development, Donna discovered some were bandaging padding to themselves or wearing two sports bras to protect themselves, while some community players told her of rupturing breast implants, or sustaining large bruises and lumps.

"The first athlete who reached out to me was Ebony Antonio [Fremantle forward]," Donna said. "She had a really personal scare with breast injury. She found two lumps not long after her grandmother had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

"She had to go through the process of getting tested, having scans and ultimately it came back that those lumps had formed from hard knocks to the breast. She was the very first person to reach out and I suppose that's what gave me the validation, that this is something these girls need and want. She's worn it during every training session and game from then on."

A long list of AFLW players now rely on the vest during training and games, with Kirsty Lamb of the Western Bulldogs a convert of the Zena garment. For her it's essential part of performance and recovery, similar to post match massages.

"One one day I want to have my own children and I want to look after my body as much as possible now," Lamb told ESPN. "It's one of those things like you go and get a massage or you wear 2XU skins to protect your legs and recovery and the Zena garment is just like that, it's there to protect us. They've all got their place in the recovery world."

The Zena garment alongside the ASICS football boot and cricket shoe designed specifically for female athletes and their feet, are just the latest sporting labels to discover the underrepresented female sporting apparel market and use research to fill the void.

"As female sports continue to grow these things are going to continue to take off," Donna said. "But I think it's just so important that any product that you decide to go for is validated and it has been researched and tested. Ultimately you're going out there with the confidence with what you're wearing is doing its job."