In May 2019, England Lacrosse Attacker and captain, Laura Merrifield found out she was expecting a baby.
Excited to be starting a family, Laura was also apprehensive as to what this might mean for her lacrosse career.
She made the decision to step back immediately from competitive playing and awaited the arrival of her daughter.
In an exclusive interview with Laura, she said: “I wasn’t even sure I was going to come back to lacrosse, with the priority change and being one of the oldest players, would I ever get back ability wise?”
Laura’s pregnancy and recovery experiences
While Laura was positive, she could do it, the process was a lot harder than what she expected, it took determination, grit and a lot of hard work.
“I think in my mind I thought you pop out the baby and then you’ll be able to just get back to it, for me that certainly wasn’t the case,”
“Birth itself is such a trauma to your body, I don’t think I was prepared for how long it would take to get back to feeling myself.” said Laura.
According to Women’s Health Specialist, Levi Moore from Reach Physiotherapy, Brighton “the first six weeks are very hectic for new mothers and this time is usually dedicated to bonding with your baby and allowing tissues to heal,
“Generally we can get people back to running at 12 weeks, however everyone is different and people recover at different rates.” said Moore.
For Laura, her recovery required patience and support from those around her.
It took her around eight to 12 weeks before she was able to do gentle exercise.
“I think the thing that shocked me most was the amount of power I lost, then the hormone changes to my body, my hips, my pelvic floor, all the nitty gritty no one talks about,
“These were all things I really had to work hard on when I was coming back.” explained Laura.
Women’s Health Physiotherapist, Levi Moore says how women need allow themselves adequate time to heal and regain strength, particularly in the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles.
“Once these areas and muscle groups are strengthened, a multidisciplinary approach for the return to sport is needed.”
Support goes a long way
Working closely with her strength and conditioning coach and physiotherapist, Laura was able to tailor a safe and personal recovery for her comeback to lacrosse.
“They really kept me motivated to get back to where I was, but they didn’t rush me, there was no pressure,
“It was more about listening to my body and how I felt, rather than how far we were progressing with the training.” Laura explained.
Thankfully Laura also felt supported by England Lacrosse throughout her pregnancy and was able to step back from the programme and then return once she was ready.
Laura mentioned how she was given the opportunity to coach the Women’s U19s throughout her pregnancy and then into her recovery, “I learnt so much and definitely became a smarter player because of it.”
Luckily Laura’s work situation allowed her to go part-time and the pandemic paused sport globally which meant she could recover fully and train alongside her work commitments.
Her comeback would have looked very different without the support from those around her as, for Laura, time really did prove to be the best healer.
“If I couldn’t go part-time, then I wouldn’t have been able to continue playing after, I just wouldn’t have had the time to be a great mum, a great lax player and great at my job.”
“You need time to get fit and get your body back to cope with the demands of playing at the top level.”
Financial support for female athletes during pregnancy
While lacrosse remains an amateur sport, where players are not paid to play, the transition back into the sport postpartum is noticeably more challenging.
In a recent study exploring the experiences of elite female athletes during pregnancy, it displayed – “the significant decisions athletes must make to navigate pregnancy alongside elite sport participation”.
The study concluded there’s a clear lack of sport policy and practices that are inclusive of and supportive of female athletes.
More sporting governing bodies, such as England Lacrosse, should devise maternity policies to allow more female athletes to return to sport postpartum.
Starting a family and being an elite athlete shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, in support of this UK Sport have stated that: “We’re taking a more overt approach,
“We want new guidance to ensure female athletes and sports have the right resources at their disposal so that mothers and mothers-to-be are confident they’ll be fully supported.
A problem shared is a problem halved
Laura was also the first within the England setup to have a baby and return to playing, this left her wondering what to expect.
“I don’t think there is a stigma around women having children and then returning to sport, I think it’s just a really hard thing to do.”
Like a lot of things, when we share our experiences with one another, we can start to create support networks of shared experiences.
“The more women who share their experiences the more they can get help and advice, some women can suddenly come back and bash out training,
“I am in awe of those people, because I thought that would be me and it was going to be easy.”
Fast forward three years, Laura is back and preparing for the World Cup this July in the US.
What’s more, she’s confident she’s playing her best lacrosse ever.
Laura has also been selected to captain the England team once again and her daughter will also be travelling to support.