Women in Sport: Natalia F.N. Bittencourt, member of the Scientific Committee of the IOC World Conference on Sports Injury Prevention

17th April 2020

Natalia Bittencourt comes with a very impressive resume. The fact that it spans four career paths – researcher, clinician, manager, and entrepreneur – makes her somewhat of a rarity in Brazil, and one that provides inspiration for the younger generation of sports physical therapists. 

To quote just one of her achievements, Natalia is the first female sports physical therapist from Brazil to be part of the Scientific Committee of the IOC World Conference on Sports Injury Prevention. 

Natalia’s motivation for working in sport comes from personal injury experience; after suffering an ACL injury as a 16-year-old volleyball player, she “did not want other athletes to have the same problem as her”. She went on to study physical therapy at university, where she concentrated on sports injuries. 

Her first job was a sports physical therapist at Minas Tennis Club in Brazil, a multisport club with a thousand athletes from eight sports. Specialising in volleyball, Natalia became responsible for the women’s team, participating in five national championships. In the same period, Natalia was invited to work as the physical therapist for the U20 Brazilian Women’s Volleyball team. 

With her main motivation being to advance the sports PT assessment process, Natalia assessed more than 6000 athletes and developed the process that has been used as a reference in Brazil for other clubs and sports. The preventive program she developed as Head of Sports Physical Therapy Department at Minas reduced 20% of injuries and 40% of time lost in both youth and elite athletes. 

When asked about the current gender inequality in the sports industry, Natalia offers solutions, rather than dwelling on the problem itself. “Open debates in the sports field, where we gather board members from sports clubs, health professionals and coaches, to discuss myths and problems, could help clear the old, outdated ideas related to women in sport.”

Natalia also fights against the ‘it’s who you know and not what you know’ mentality that so often crops up, and highlights how the industry should “implement a job process that hires people based on competency, not only through a suggestion from known people.”

When we segway into career challenges, Natalia indicates dealing with the competitive nature between different sports professionals, such as S&C, coaches, sports physical therapists, and doctors. Collaborating with all these different careers “can sometimes be challenging – we should pursue solutions instead of struggling to find guilt.

However, when teamwork is successful, it has a huge impact on the athletes. One of Natalia’s most memorable moments was working with the women’s volleyball team at Minas Tenis Clube last season. They won the championship, which was a significant challenge as the three most valuable athletes had severe patellar tendinopathy. 

“Working with two other sports PT’s and doctors, we completed an evidence-based monitoring process, and improved the functionality of those athletes in such a way that at the beginning of the season, they were jumping only 10 times in a game, but finished the season performing 90 per game.”

As CEO of PHAST app (Physiotherapy Assessment Tool), Ph.D Researcher at VU Medical Centre, Amsterdam, and Associate Editor of the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, her respect within the sports industry is wide-reaching. 

Natalia believes that in the next 10 years, the development of technology such as AI and machine learning will be of huge benefit to the sports industry. “Being able to use this technology as a practical tool to combine information related to the musculoskeletal system, load, psychological and physiological variables, will be invaluable.” This collective gathered information could allow practitioners to form an even more effective risk assessment process, “aiming to prevent sports injuries tailored for each individual athlete, not only for groups.”

Leaving us with that note, it’s clear that everything Natalia does has a future focus, and the variety in her career is an achievement in itself; “research makes me a better clinician and practice helps me to create useful research questions.”