Along with grass-stained shin guards, thigh-high compression socks, and 2000s-era prewrap headbands, some US Women’s National Team players are sporting a particularly sticky accessory at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup: kinesiology tape.
At a training camp, defender Kelley O’Hara — who has been on a whopping four women’s World Cup teams — was spotted dashing across the turf with strips of black tape strategically placed around her left kneecap. Midfielder Lindsey Horan, who suffered a knee injury last season, evened the score during a match against the Netherlands with her right knee and thigh covered in beige bands. And 22-year-old forward Sophia Smith wore two small pieces of tape on her right knee throughout the team’s first game of the tournament, during which she scored two goals and helped the USWNT beat Vietnam 3-0.
While the elite athletes haven’t commented on why they’re rocking kinesiology tape on the field, experts have a few ideas. Kinesiology tape is a breathable, stretchy tape that’s meant to improve circulation and muscle activation, says Rebecca Pudvah, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic specialist at Athletico Physical Therapy. In theory, the tape will lift your skin and encourage better circulation of the lymph system, helping to boost blood flow, reduce swelling, or remove byproducts of exercise such as lactic acid, Pudvah says.
The sensation of the tape could also help players manage pain. Your brain can only receive one stimulus from a particular part of your body at a time, Pudvah says. A pain stimulus travels to your brain much slower than a sensory stimulus, such as the pressure of a piece of kinesiology tape, she explains. In turn, your brain will likely focus on the feeling of the tape gripping your skin on, for example, your knee and ignore the aches you’re feeling in the joint, she adds.
As the World Cup progresses, Pudvah expects to see athletes wearing kinesiology tape on their knees or hamstrings, which are stressed from running and kicking. For example, a player with hamstring tendonitis (inflammation in the tendons at the back of the thigh) may experience soreness or irritation while extending their knee, Pudvah says.
“If you applied some tape to that muscle to [improve] blood flow, you could see relief,” she explains. “Even the tactile feedback of just having something on you can distract you from the pain. [Kinesiology tape] would be a really good mechanism to use, especially if someone’s moving around — you’re not going to put a big, bulky brace on them.”
Researchers haven’t found much scientific evidence to support kinesiology tape’s sports-performance or pain-relief benefits, and the placebo effect may be at play. But there’s also not much risk to using it, Pudvah says. And for the athletes competing during the month-long World Cup — who may not be getting enough recovery time between games or need to play through an injury — a safe, low-stakes tool that makes them feel better, at least temporarily, can be worth a shot.