Changing the game: New protective performance vest supports female athletes

As the seminal first season of AFLW in 2017 unfolded, Donna Johnson had an idea. After 17 seasons of watching husband Brad compete at the top level, she understood the impact footy can have on even the most robust bodies.

She felt strongly that women needed better protection for their breasts and ribs as they competed in a high intensity, quickly improving and increasingly professional competition.

So she ran an idea past friends over coffee and learnt as much as she could about protective sports apparel.

Most importantly though, she researched the types of injuries that were occurring. This gave her the confidence to begin developing a protective performance vest concept alongside the former Western Bulldogs AFL captain to whom she is married.

With safety at the heart of Donna’s original idea, the couple founded Zena Sport and set about refining the concept and ensuring the protection provided by the Zena vest, which weighs just 160g, could be validated and quantified.

Enter Deakin’s Centre for Sport Research (CSR), a multi-disciplinary sport research team that encompasses engineering, exercise science and biomechanics, alongside sport management, sports media and physical education teaching. CSR drives innovation for sports by bringing together researchers, Higher Degree Research (HDR) students and senior undergraduate students into project teams.

A game-changing collaboration

How Zena Sport and CSR are protecting our next generation of female athletes from injury.

Associate Professor Paul Collins, Dr Samantha Hoffmann and Dr Jason Bonacci have been working on advanced apparel concepts with sports brands over a number of years, building a strong reputation in sports technology – from design and prototyping through to evaluation and commercial release.

Based at Deakin Waurn Ponds in Geelong, the team worked with one of Associate Professor Collins’ students to give the Z1 Zena vest the test of its life. Mechatronics engineer Jenny Damcevska, who was entering her final year of engineering when Zena Sport and CSR began discussing this collaboration, immediately saw this as an amazing opportunity for an industry relevant, real world project.

‘Although the team was somewhat hampered by COVID-19 restrictions, we were really impressed by Jenny’s approach – particularly the use of the impact pendulum apparatus, which was inspired by the automotive sector,’ says Donna Johnson.

‘Jenny’s work is really the culmination of a three-year journey for us,’ says Brad.

‘It’s proven the ability of the Z1 Zena vest to significantly reduce impact across the upper torso – a great result for Zena Sport, but most importantly for women and girls around the country. The testing demonstrated that, from an impact event, up to 70% of the force can be absorbed by the vest.’

‘The vest is already being used well beyond footy too, with soccer goalkeepers, boxers and gridiron players among those recognising the value of this innovative new garment,’ says the six-time All-Australian.

Assoc. Prof. Collins is delighted to be working with Zena Sport: ‘Women’s sport is an under-represented area of research, and we’re committed to changing that. To have the chance to work with an innovative startup in the Geelong region and see the product improving on-field player experiences is amazing.’

‘This project is part of a significant body of work by Deakin focused on sports apparel, which is changing the game for female athletes – from recreation and comfort to personalisation and high performance – the weekend warrior all the way to the Olympics,’ says Assoc. Prof. Collins.