Dawn Scott: the sports scientist shaking up women’s football performance

Megan Rapinoe cried when she heard sports scientist Dawn Scott was leaving the US women’s national team. For almost a decade Scott led sports science innovation for the USWNT, as they won trophy after trophy. The Englishwoman departed the world champions in late 2019, with another American player describing her as “the secret to everything”.

In a strange way, it is testament to the growth of women’s football that Scott is not at the 2023 Women’s World Cup. When the tournament began last week, she was halfway around the world, working as the vice-president of performance, medical and innovation at National Women’s Soccer League club Washington Spirit. The demand for Scott and her absence from the World Cup speak to the incredible advancement of the women’s game over the past decade, with increased sophistication at club level and new figures driving innovation within national teams.

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“I’m probably a little bit envious, not being there,” Scott says, speaking to Guardian Australia earlier this month. “You see the growth – the number of teams, the venues, the matches selling out, the tickets sold, the broadcasting. And then where the game is at – the intensity of the games is increasing, the athleticism of the players, just the visual of the women’s game is unbelievable.”

With her focus on the American club scene, Scott is remaining in Washington DC until the last week of the tournament, when she will head to Sydney for a number of events and the final (she also consults to Fifa). That mean some late-night and early-morning watching from home in the coming weeks. “It’s not as bad as I thought,” she says. “There’s one match at 1am or 2am, but then there are a few at 5am or 6am. I’m an early bird anyway.”

But Scott, who was part of the USWNT setup when they won Olympic gold in 2012 and lifted the Women’s World Cup in 2015 and 2019, admits that part of her wishes she was in Australia or New Zealand helping a team to tournament glory. “There’s just that whole buzz,” she says. “You miss that.”

Megan Rapinoe lifts up the trophy surrounded by her USA teammates after winning the Women’s World Cup final in 2019

USA are chasing a third consecutive World Cup trophy, although this time without Dawn Scott. Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Following Scott’s immensely successful stint in the US, she was poached by England to help the Lionesses at the Tokyo Olympics. It didn’t work out. “I probably didn’t enjoy it as much as the first time I’d been there,” she says.

So, when England’s coach at the time, Phil Neville, moved to Major League Soccer club Inter Miami, Scott joined him as performance director – her first major role in men’s football. It was going well, but she received an intriguing offer from elsewhere.

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“Partway through the year Michele Kang, the owner of the Washington Spirit, and [the club’s general manger] Mark Krikorian, who I’d always crossed paths with, reached out and spoke about their vision of wanting to raise the bar in terms of supporting female teams, female athletes,” she says.

Scott pitched her own vision to Kang: taking performance innovation to the next level. “It’s a very expensive department, we have 13 full-time staff and three PhD students,” she says. But Kang was all in.

“I went backwards and forwards [about whether to accept the job],” Scott says. But in November 2022 she joined the Spirit and now runs one of the most advanced sports science and performance departments in women’s football.

“We now have the opportunity to prepare and support the players around nutrition, individual training, medical screening,” she says. “And then the whole female health element – let’s be bespoke and support the individual athlete in terms of exactly what they need.”

Dawn Scott and Hannah Hampton of England’s women’s team during a gym session in 2020

Scott joined the Lionesses in 2019 but returned to the US after just a couple of years. Photograph: Lynne Cameron for The FA/REX/Shutterstock

Scott has long been a trailblazer, since her early days at the FA when she was one of the few women in the performance department. She has popularised weight training and GPS trackers embedded in sports bras to capture individualised match data.

But perhaps Scott’s most significant contribution has been a focus on managing the performance impact of the menstrual cycle. The coach has consistently spoken out about periods and performance to break down stigma around the subject – including after the USA won the 2019 Women’s World Cup, having deployed period monitoring and interventions during the tournament. “I’m proud of having had an input across the years, and seeing where the game is now,” she says.

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Despite increasing awareness and some teams adopting a specific focus on women’s health, Scott says there is still some way to go. “When I came into the club here, the first thing I did was bring in [specialised experts] to start education with the players [on the menstrual cycle],” she says. “Probably 90% of the players had never received education and knew very little – if I’m honest that surprised me, I was hoping off the back of the 2019 wave that actually the players would have had that support.”

This, perhaps, is the takeaway message: the sport has come a long way, but so much more growth remains possible.

“I think it’s important to have female health leads in clubs, someone with an education and awareness of female physiology and can support the players on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “And then I think the biggest scale piece is how can we support the grassroots. Because in female football and girls football at the grassroots level a lot of the coaches or support are volunteers, which is great, but then do they have the expertise on female physiology to support and educate the players?”

Scott points to the increasing physical demands on players as women’s football has evolved, and the need for a corresponding increase in support. That, as she watches the 2023 Women’s World Cup from afar, in a sport she has given so much to over the decades, is her major wish.

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