Sports Talent Pathways: Are we getting it all wrong?

Talent development is a hot topic in sport and many clubs and coaches dream of discovering the next Serena Williams or Lionel Messi. Google ‘talent pathway’ and you’re presented with a set of precise pyramids and simple flowcharts. Every sport from angling to lacrosse to snowboarding places elite sport at the end of a nice neat arrow:

identify promise → invest time / money / resources → success

Simple, right?

Talent pathways are in place for a number of reasons:

  • They are designed to identify and nurture talent, and to provide a framework for developing athletes in a particular way towards specific performance goals.
  • They can create consistency and continuity in the development of an athlete from junior to senior, or from grassroots to elite level.
  • They can help coaches and selectors to make decisions against a set of objective assessment criteria (and as a side effect of this, to an extent they also provide a means of justifying selections).

But talent development systems can also create problems. For example:

  • They tend to suggest the ‘conventional’ route is the only route.
  • They create misconceptions that sporting accomplishments are achieved via a checklist.
  • They generate a sense of pressure about the importance of being identified early and selected young, which can translate to unrealistic expectations or damaging consequences when things don’t go as planned.
  • They make it more difficult for young athletes to avoid early specialisation.
  • They can infer that every individual’s ultimate performance objectives should look the same.
  • They can assume development is linear and often fail to account for individual differences.

I accept that we need some kind of development pathway and that sometimes, the product of a system will go on to become a great success. I also know there are some amazing people who coach within and administrate these systems. What I don’t accept is that we should heavily endorse the concept of a single method as the perfect or the only way to create brilliant, accomplished and fulfilled athletes.

I believe some young sportspeople – and often more so, their parents – are becoming much too concerned with fitting into a system, being picked young and achieving a particular level of play.

I find it really difficult to see kids and parents invest themselves so completely in the belief that ticking off steps in a talent pathway will be the defining factor in their sporting career. I know several players who didn’t play junior international hockey but who can now call themselves Olympic champions. Equally, I know others who spent their teenage years being touted as the next big thing… and didn’t go on to ‘make it’.

Athletes and parents tend to crave certainty in their quest to reach the top and overemphasis of the pathway concept can mislead them to believe that success is a simple case of moving up a pyramid or through a flowchart.

My fear is that we are attempting to rationalise a process that is fundamentally variable and unpredictable.

 “You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure” (Lazarus Lake)

The beauty of a dream is that the outcome is unknown. Being passionate, hardworking, dedicated and talented improve our chances of the dream becoming a reality – but they don’t guarantee it.

There are different routes to the top and the reality is that sportspeople aren’t all going to the same destination (and that’s okay). This is not a reason to shy away from hard work, or a suggestion that ambition is a bad thing. It’s more concerned with accepting that as in life, sport is neither predictable nor fair.

The truth is the greatest chance you have of ‘succeeding’ and getting the most out of yourself in sport is being motivated by trying your best, working hard and loving what you do. Being the best version of yourself is not the same thing as playing at the Olympics or winning a trophy, and it doesn’t look the same for every athlete.

Don’t misunderstand me: I feel as inspired and emotional as the next person when I learn about a team who has prevailed against the odds or an athlete who fights against adversity. But here’s the thing. For every one person who succeeds in these circumstances and has a book written or a movie made about them, there are hundreds more who have the same attitude, the same work ethic, the same talent… and things just don’t work out.

Sporting fairytales can teach us a lot about the value of resilience and determination, but it’s important we differentiate between the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. Do these people inspire us because they win, or because they keep trying when it looks like they won’t? Is it the happy ending that we have an emotional connection with, or is it because we empathise and relate to the journey itself?

So if you’re a young athlete or a sporting parent, remember that accomplishments should be celebrated, but they are all relative. The same goes for setbacks.

Even the greatest sporting champions are humans who have grown and developed through experiences, not flawless robots built on a conveyor belt.

It can be good to follow the path. But sometimes it’s better to leave your own trail of footprints.

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Never, Never, Never Give In: Was Churchill Right?

The problem with most fairytale stories that teach us never to give up is that they are told with the benefit of hindsight. They are nearly always the stories with happy endings.

Perseverance and resilience are admirable and important characteristics. Many of the greatest human achievements, most unlikely inventions and against-the-odds heroes would not have emerged without them. But are we too quick to judge when someone gives in? Is quitting always a sign of weakness and cowardice, or can it require strength and bravery too?

Imagine you’re a mountain climber 100m from the summit of Everest, running out of oxygen and watching dangerous storm clouds moving in. So close – yet in mountaineering terms, so very far. Do you give up on your dream of reaching the summit, or do you persevere with your attempt, knowing that you might not make the top but you may also not make it back down the mountain at all?

“Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” Vince Lombardi

On a sports field, we revere athletes and teams who refuse to give up even when the odds are stacked against them.

Man United’s late goals to win the Champions League in 1999 (okay, okay – and Liverpool’s comeback in 2005) will always be etched in my memory, while the German Men’s 2016 Olympic quarter final victory (from 2-0 down with six minutes to go – see the last minute here) is probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve watched play out on a hockey pitch.

Of course, these examples all relate to a simple goal: win the game. Sometimes sport – and life – aren’t just about winning a medal or being the best, they’re simply about giving all you have or sticking your middle finger up at expectations or adversity.

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” Confucius

Let me take you back to Barcelona 1992 and one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history. Having been unable to even take to the start line four years earlier at the 1988 Games, British medal hope Derek Redmond was flying around the final bend of his 400m semi final when he tore his hamstring and fell to the ground. He limped slowly to the finish line (half carried by his father, who had fought his way down to the track) and became a symbol of grit and perseverance.

This story always tugs at the heartstrings for me. The thing I can’t figure out is whether it’s because I identify with that moment where he realises his dream has ended, or because I’m inspired that he refuses to accept it.

Fast forward to the 5000m heats at Rio 2016. Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino both tripped and injured themselves in the middle of the race, but pulled one another up (twice) and made it to the finish. Just as Redmond needed his Dad to get him over the line, sometimes a kind word or a hand from a stranger is enough to keep us going when it feels like our dreams have been crushed.

“How long should you try? Until.” Jim Rohn

We’ve recently been watching the TV show ‘SAS: Who Dares Wins’ (where ex-Special Forces soldiers put recruits through a recreation of the SAS selection process) and there have been a few genuinely inspiring stories. Every recruit’s breaking point is different and there have been some clear examples that you can achieve something personally meaningful and far beyond what you thought was possible – even if you don’t actually reach the finish line.

Think of the phrase, “throwing the towel in”. It originates from boxing, where a combatant’s trainer would literally throw a towel into the ring to indicate his charge was withdrawing in the face of almost certain defeat. Nowadays, we often use this phrase when we think someone is giving up too easily, but the original context was about self-preservation and physical survival.

Of course, often we have more choice than the nearly-defeated boxer. So what is it that stops us from stopping? Is it pride, ambition, will power, concerns about what other people will think, or simply that niggly little question, “What if?”

I think we sometimes need to apply that question in the opposite direction, too: “What if I carry on?”

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we should give up as soon as the going gets tough. Dreams, goals and greatness require resilience and tolerance for a fair amount of pain, criticism and self-doubt, among other things. What I do believe is that if your commitment to perseverance is seriously damaging your sense of self or your chances of long-term happiness, it might be time to ask the question. Walking away or changing your goals can take as much courage as carrying on.

“Never, never, never give in!” But here’s the thing about Churchill’s famous words. What he really said was this:
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

The easy thing, the right thing and the brave thing aren’t always the same. So be courageous, be resilient, be inspired, believe in yourself… but don’t forget to have a little good sense.

Playing the Waiting Game: Why Patience is a Vital Skill in Sport

Patience might be a virtue, but I believe it’s also a skill. In sport, all sorts of psychological skills can be key factors in performance, but over the longer term patience can be a key difference between success, failure and the bit in between. 

When Gary Lineker asked him about Arsene Wenger’s greatest quality as a coach recently, Cesc Fabregas replied very simply, “Patience.” He wasn’t referring to Wenger’s incredible capacity to cope with the weekly ‘Wenger Out’ banners, but his approach in recognising potential and giving it time to develop.

Of course, in modern day football most managers aren’t given the luxury of patience (by fans or club chairmen). If you don’t deliver results, trophies and excitement quickly enough it’s seen as bad for business and you’re unlikely to keep your job for long.

This lack of patience isn’t confined to professional football though. We have become used to living in a world of immediacy – it’s all about fast food, speed dating apps and “I want it now!”. In short, we’re starting to think like Veruca Salt.

In sport, this need for immediate gratification (and sometimes, the sense of entitlement that comes with it) can influence both our emphasis on end results and our attitude towards learning and development.

Going back to Monsieur Wenger, patience is undoubtedly important as a coach. However, our role is also about transmitting the importance of patience to our players and I always feel that one of my challenges as a coach is finding a balance in this. I must help my players to understand that developing technique or decision-making will take time and persistence, while also maintaining their interest and confidence through conveying a gradual sense of mastery.

Patience is also important – and I believe underrated – by many junior players (and their parents) on the elite pathway. Getting selected for an adult first team or a junior rep team doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve ’made it’. Not getting picked might just mean you’re not quite ready yet and there can be a whole array of reasons for this. If you play one game but don’t get selected for the next, that’s not the end of the world either… and it doesn’t mean you’ve been ‘dropped’. It’s called a ‘pathway’ for a reason – and there are different routes to the top.

There are other contexts where impatience is more understandable, but patience is vitally important. The injured athlete often requires as much mental toughness, resilience and tolerance for slow progress as they need physical endurance. Being injured can be the most frustrating and challenging thing a player faces, but a patient and persistent attitude to rehab is what usually makes the difference to coming back stronger (and often sooner!).

In the shorter term, patience can also be a key skill in dealing with difficult or frustrating situations. Whether reacting to a questionable umpiring decision or provocation from an opponent, a bit of patience can help you remain focused on the task and make good decisions under pressure. Having said that, the red mist can sometimes be difficult to control! As long as it doesn’t result in completely losing the plot or getting sent off, I’m very happy to concede that there’s room for some emotional reaction in sport too.

Sustainability and resilience are qualities I seem to refer to a lot when talking about sport. Patience can certainly help develop both, because it’s related to time, persistence and an acceptance that as sportspeople we often have to deal with situations that aren’t perfect. It can also help us to be empathetic and look at something from someone else’s point of view.

The reason I believe that patience is a skill is that it is something you can work on. It might be as simple as counting to ten or taking a few deep breaths. It might mean challenging yourself to consider a situation from a different perspective, or asking yourself a difficult question about why something might have happened.

The tricky thing is that while patience might be a valuable sporting skill, it still doesn’t guarantee long-term success. For every Cesc Fabregas that Arsene Wenger has worked with, there’s a Nicholas Bendtner.

Sport remains unpredictable – that’s part of both the attraction and the challenge as an athlete, coach or fan. Patience can just make all the unpredictability a little bit easier to handle.

Mum or Manager? Getting it Right as a Sporting Parent

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Parents in Sport Week – 2nd – 8th October 2017

For many young sportspeople, their parent(s) are the most significant influence on the early part of their sports career. While I’m a little way from watching any of my own sprogs run around a sports field, my coaching and playing experiences mean that I see and hear behaviour at both ends of the weird and wonderful spectrum when it comes to ‘hockey parents’.

There’s a fine line between being supportive and being ‘pushy’. When integrated in a healthy and positive way, sport can create a powerful bond, a weekly routine, a topic of conversation and a sense of purpose in the wider fabric of family life. However, when a parent projects expectations or ambitions for sporting success onto a child in the wrong way, this can be detrimental or even damaging.

My immediate family has always been very supportive of my hockey career, but I feel fortunate that this never transmitted itself as a pressure to play or achieve something. My parents watched games, provided a taxi service and took an interest, but never made decisions for me, and didn’t make me feel bad or externalise blame when something didn’t go my way.

I think of this approach as being interested rather than involved. For me, interested means creating an environment where a child has the space and (where possible) the means to develop and prosper in their own time and way. Involved is the overbearing, highly opinionated adult who seems to ‘want it’ more than their child does.

Talented juniors usually have a packed schedule, but self-sufficiency is a learned skill. A little help is allowable, but if Mum or Dad is constantly making decisions or communicating with coaches, teachers or mentors on their child’s behalf, this doesn’t encourage them to develop into a responsible and accountable individual on the field (or in life).

There’s obviously nothing wrong with having dreams and working extremely hard to achieve them, but the pushy parent often forgets (or even actively ignores) the importance of having a balanced life outside sport alongside this work ethic. Study, spending time with friends, making mistakes and learning from them… just being a kid every now and then is vital.

Incidentally, the pushy parent rarely goes unnoticed. As a coach, it can take considerable time and patience to manage the demands and expectations of this type of parent and ultimately this only reduces the intellectual and emotional energy we can invest in developing our players and teams.

Of course, this requires a bit of trust on the part of a parent. Most of us coach for the right reasons – we are passionate about helping every single one of our players reach their potential… **including your child! A friend of mine recently attended a Q&A session with ten-time Paralympic medalist David Weir. When asked the biggest piece of advice he would give the parents of a promising 14-year old sportsperson, his answer was, “Just let the coach do his/her job”…

In hockey, there now appears to be a sense that a player’s ultimate success will hinge on doing as many 1-to-1 training sessions as possible and being fast-tracked or playing 1X1/adult hockey as a teenager. These may play a role in the performance pathway, but I don’t believe there is such thing as a perfect route to the top and every player has their own story.

To illustrate this point, I didn’t play National League Hockey until I went to university and I know several GB Olympians, including Rio hockey gold medalists, who didn’t represent England at junior level or play Premier League hockey until they were in their 20s. If a player isn’t involved in first team hockey aged 15 or misses out on a selection, it doesn’t always mean drastic action is needed. With a supportive and nurturing background response, it might actually be the best thing that ever happens to them in terms of development.

Setbacks – whether an injury, disappointing result or missed selection – are an inevitable part of sport at any level. This might sound a bit weird, but I believe resilience is part grit and part love. Grit is what you do (crack on when it would be easier to stop) and love – of what you do, your team and yourself – is the reason why you manage to keep going. If you don’t love or at least value these things, it’s a hell of a lot harder to keep doing it when the going gets tough.

Ultimately, pushing kids might be a factor in propelling them to a certain level of success, but it doesn’t tend to make them mentally tough or self-sufficient, and most importantly it might mean they aren’t fostering a love of the sport for their own reasons.

Why is this important? I believe that loving the game has motivated, protected and strengthened me during my hockey career. Some of the setbacks I’ve had have hit me pretty hard mentally and emotionally, but I am convinced that I was able to play under some tough circumstances (and even enjoyed playing during these times) because the drive came from within me.

Clearly some players with pushy parents will “make it”, but is this what it’s really about? Wearing an England shirt doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve actually reached your potential and standing on a podium doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be happy beyond that moment. Grit and love can be just as powerful and important as ambition and hard work in the grand scheme of things on and off the field.

Perhaps the hardest part of being a sporting parent is figuring out whether your hopes and dreams for your child are the same as their own. Maybe one day I’ll learn that this isn’t as easy as it looks, but I hope I’ll remember to try and be more like a mum than a manager.

 

@inkingfeeling

 

If you’re interested in finding out more about this topic, I’d highly recommend the following:

‘Parent Power: In Support of Parents in Sport Week’
http://www.ukcoaching.org/blog/parent-power-support-parents-sport-week

‘How to Raise Successful Kids – Without Over Parenting’ [TED Talk]
https://www.ted.com/talks/julie_lythcott_haims_how_to_raise_successful_kids_without_over_parenting

Parents in Sport Week 2017
http://thecpsu.org.uk/parentsinsport/

Why What We Say Affects Equal Play

Firstly, hello again. A few weeks off writing my blog turned into a few months… and before I knew it, I’d taken a full blown sabbatical. I’m back. I’ll try not to leave it so long next time.

I wrote this with half an eye on the England versus Scotland match in the Women’s European Football Championships. Gary Lineker’s twitter feed would suggest he was pretty busy last night fending off criticism about how much he is paid by the BBC, but if he was watching he would have seen Jodie Taylor score the first hat trick for any England football player in a major tournament since he popped up with three goals against Poland in the 1986 World Cup. The Men’s World Cup, that is – if we describe female competitions as “Women’s,” shouldn’t we start clarifying when tournaments are played by their male counterparts too?

Striker Toni Duggan recently became the first English player since Lineker to join FC Barcelona. I wonder if Duggan will outdo his 42 goals for the Catalans – and if she does, I wonder how widely it will be acknowledged.

While I’m on the subjects of women’s football and sports presenters, we watched Clare Balding’s excellent Channel 4 documentary, “When Football Banned Women” the other night. If you didn’t see it (and if so, I’d highly recommend tracking it down on catch up TV), it told the story of the little-known heyday of English women’s football, of Lily Parr and her Dick Kerr Ladies’ team mates playing in front of crowds of 25,000. The glory days were cut cruelly and unjustifiably short by the FA in 1921 and the women’s side of the game has been playing catch up ever since.

So why does this matter? It matters because despite the best efforts of Women’s Sport Week and This Girl Can, despite increasing female participation in netball, football and hockey, despite the baby steps we are taking towards a level playing field… we are still fighting against deeply rooted social prejudice. 

This was illustrated by both the decisions about and reaction to the show court allocation at Wimbledon this year. Among other things, a breakdown of the Centre and Court One allocations shows that:

“The top five seeded women played on court two and court three more times than on Centre Court this year. For men, not a single match was held on court two or court three, or the outside courts.” [BBC – http://m.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/40630043]

There’s no getting away from the fact that sport is about business and entertainment, but if administrative decisions are based on how good it is assumed a match might be and on a supposed current level of popularity, we create a situation which will always support the status quo. Fundamentally, it doesn’t enable change and it doesn’t provide female players the same opportunities to achieve their potential and push the boundaries of their performances.

Andy Murray received well-deserved praise at SW19 for correcting a journalist who described Sam Querrey as the first American Grand Slam semi finalist since 2009. However, for me it wasn’t so much what he said (“First male semi finalist”) as how he said it. The beauty of Murray’s response – low key, matter-of-fact, immediate – was that it shows his respect for and interest in women’s tennis is innate. He’s prepared to speak up about gender equality, but he just makes it a normal part of conversation. And guess what? Men are equally as important as women in this process. 

That’s why I was pleased that it was my husband who saw the advert for Clare Balding’s documentary and wanted to see it. And that he chose to switch on the England versus Scotland game (and probably watched it more closely than I did). Creating change is about the big things, but mostly it’s about the little things… having access to high level women’s sport in the media, valuing it in its own right (which is why comments about where Serena would be ranked in men’s tennis don’t even warrant a discussion),  choosing to watch it and talking about it afterwards.

Breaking down social barriers does need grand gestures and big examples to be made at times, but genuine social change is about challenging our conscious and subconscious biases. We need more column inches on Laura Kenny and photos of Serena Williams and young footballers who aspire to be like the England Lionesses just as much as Harry Kane and Dele Alli, but we also have to keep pulling ourselves up on our ingrained attitudes and the words we typically express them with.

If we don’t do these things, it’s too easy to hide behind statistics about positive change, whether in terms of participation, coverage or opportunity. Gender equality will only become a genuine social norm once our thoughts and values, and the way we express them all become reprogrammed.

Hockey WAGs on Tour 3.0: The Spicy Edition

 

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It’s been a while since my last “WAGs abroad” post, but I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in India, where the husband (I’m now a ‘W’ rather than a ‘G’!) is playing for Ranchi Rays in the Hockey India League so here goes with edition 3.0…

After a slightly cramped overnight flight from Heathrow, I arrived at Mumbai Airport. My first task was to find my driver, who I’d been told would be waiting for me. ‘Should be easy enough,’ I thought. Rookie error. I emerged from the arrivals hall to see approximately 150 taxi drivers holding identical-looking signs with tiny writing. Twenty minutes and several text messages later, we figured out my driver was actually waiting in the car park (and his sign didn’t have the right name on anyway…)

Anyone who has been to India will know the rules of the road take some getting used to. In reality, ‘rules’ is a loose term. Pedestrian survival requires bravery, confidence and a bit of luck. You become used to the constant sound of car horns, four lines of cars squeezed across two lanes, drivers weaving through impossibly small spaces (sometimes literally impossible – every vehicle has bumps and bashes), and the random appearance of handcarts and cows on what seem like major highways.

I began to almost enjoy the craziness of the Mumbai roads, but even rush hour on the M25 seemed quite tranquil when I arrived home, and I felt unexpectedly warm and fuzzy at hearing the gentle, reassuring bleep of a pelican crossing.

So other than three fascinating paragraphs on the road system, what else can I say about Mumbai? It is noisy, colourful, vibrant, smoggy, cricket-obsessed, warm, dirty, intriguing… and for a weedy westerner like me, it requires fastidious use of hand sanitiser gel. While I could appreciate the grandeur of the Gate of India and the Taj Hotel (built during the Colonial era), when you look beyond the architecture and the chaos, it is the people that make Mumbai a beautiful place.

I only had three full days in Mumbai, and having already spent much of my life at hockey pitches and in hotels, I wanted to try to see “the real India”. Relatively intrepid traveler that I am, I still had to make sure I did this safely and authentically, and I was lucky enough to stumble across a brilliant company on TripAdvisor (details below). My first guide, Salman, picked me up from our hotel and my adventure began.

Our first stop was Sassoon Docks. When we arrived at around 9am, circles of women in colourful saris were crouched picking prawns and had already been hard at work for hours alongside the fishermen, truck drivers and crushed ice traders since before first light. We wandered past big piles of squid, surmai and ‘Bombay duck’ (a local seafood delicacy that bears no resemblance to the bird) being squabbled over loudly in Hindi and Marathi.

Next up was the Cuffe Parade Laundry – a large outdoor laundry where specialist washermen soap, scrub and rinse everything from trousers and shirts to saris and bedsheets. Thousands of items are washed every day and the work looked surprisingly physical – going here would certainly be an eye-opener for anyone who grumbles about having to hang up a few socks and pants after pressing a couple of buttons on an electric washing machine. (As a bit of a Monica, I fully appreciated their awesome laundry skills.)

A short drive later and we found ourselves at the Arthur Crawford Market, a famous open bazaar selling a huge variety of fruits, vegetables, spices and (live) animals. I spent five minutes having a variety of spices shoved under my nose to smell, but I finally managed to convince the persistent vendor that I was sorry, but I really wasn’t going to take a 3kg pot of vindaloo powder home with me.

We explored the famous Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (this is the train station in Slumdog Millionaire) before going to watch Dabbawalas deliver lunchboxes. This is an amazing hundred-year-old system where wives cook their husbands’ lunches and send them out for delivery via a complex four-part chain of ‘Dabbawalas’. (I can’t really describe it properly other than to say it makes Amazon Prime look a bit amateur… but this article explains how it works if you want to know more.)

Salman hesitantly asked whether I’d like to experience the famous Mumbai local train. I agreed straight away and he looked happy, if a bit surprised. The safety record on these trains is pretty horrific, but it wasn’t as if I was going to sit on the roof and I backed myself not to fall out of one of the always-open doors (which provide air conditioning far more effective than that on the Central Line).

We got on at Churchgate Station and rode north. Two stations before alighting an outrageous number of people simultaneously decided they could all fit into our carriage and I experienced what Salman described as a “free body massage” (don’t worry, it just means being squashed in the crowd – nothing sinister) before jumping out of the moving train and heading to a local restaurant for a traditional Thali.

After lunch, Salman introduced me to Oves, who was to take me on part two of my tour – a walk around the Dharavi slum. This is the third biggest slum in the world, and the second largest in Asia: approximately one square mile in size, home to one million people (including both Salman and Oves), and it generates an incredible US$1 billion per year.

The industrial quarter is busy and efficient – plastic, scrap metal, aluminium and cardboard recycling occurs to an unbelievable degree. Textiles, soap, leather and pottery are the other main areas of commerce. I was lucky enough to see many of these industries in action and the people waste nothing, work hard and fast, but still find time for a quick smile or a hello.

Oves had asked me to avoid pulling a face if I saw or smelt anything bad, but to be honest I was so busy trying to take everything in that this wasn’t difficult. However, as we walked past the open sewer that divides the industrial quarter from the main residential area and flows directly into the sea, I did make a mental note that a cooling dip at Chowpatty Beach wouldn’t be a good option.

We walked around the residential area through a series of narrow passageways. It was dark, the stone floor was unstable and even at my limited height (Oves actually mentioned this and I’d only just met him?!) I had to duck under low-hanging metal sheets and loose wires. The air was thick with heat and spices and cooking, and the occasional waft of sewage. Children playing hide and seek wriggled past me as we walked through the maze, sometimes hesitating to say, “Hey lady,” and give me a wave or a high five.

Large extended families cram into tiny huts to eat and sleep. Different religions live alongside one another in harmony. Each house has its own electricity meter and slum postmen somehow know their way around to deliver the monthly bills. The water is only switched on for three hours in the morning and three in the evening. There is a tiny cinema, an Internet shop and a school. It’s another world – not a sad place, not a dangerous place, just a very different one.

I can’t do this experience justice in this post, but going to Dharavi was genuinely amazing. The lives of the people there contrast so greatly to my own (and to those of most people who will read this), but the community is vibrant, resourceful and friendly. I didn’t really ever feel unsafe in Mumbai – except while trying not to get run over – but in many ways I felt safest of all in the slum.

On the last night of my trip, I finally fulfilled my WAG duties and watched Ranchi Rays take on local boys Dabang Mumbai. I was ushered into the VIP section, which basically meant a seat rather than a wooden bench and waiters constantly offering me “fish balls” during penalty corners and at other particularly inopportune moments in the match.

The game itself was pretty cool to watch. The atmosphere ebbed and flowed, but the fans danced, cheered and waved flags throughout. Ranchi were 3-1 up, but conceded a double-points goal with 30 seconds to go, so it finished 3-3. Perhaps not the highest quality game I’ve ever seen, but a fun experience to be adopted by the Ranchi fans next to me – and better than the other draws the team have had since – both 0-0! I’d have been pretty upset to go all the way to India and not see a single goal.

In summary, this was not your average WAG trip. If I get another chance to go, I’ll waggle my head Indian-style, pack my dodgy Aladdin-trousers/comfy shoes combo and take on the complex Visa process without a moment’s hesitation. Incredible India: beautiful chaos.

 

Big thanks to the Ranchi Rays management/sponsors for arranging my flights and accommodation, and for making me feel like part of the team!

If you ever go to Mumbai, please check out ‘Be The Local Tours and Travel’. They offer several different tours and you’ll be guided by a friendly, insightful local from Dharavi who knows the city inside out. This is their website.

BBC Sports Personality / Performance / Popularity Awards: What is it really about?

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As always, the BBC Sports Personality Awards show has thrown up some serious debate. A quick look through social media, digital or print news and you’ll see hundreds of opinions on last night’s show expressed with varying degrees of class, open-mindedness and decency.

The purpose of this article isn’t to add my two pennies’ worth to the ‘Leicester City vs GB Women’s Hockey’ argument (although I will refer to it), but to examine why awards like this always seem to elicit so much discussion.

The obvious answer is that the nature of the award gives everyone a reason to have an opinion. It’s fundamentally difficult to challenge why someone has won a league trophy or a ‘Golden Boot’. This silverware is given out on the basis of statistics, so our opinions don’t come into play. However, when we try to answer subjective questions about who is ‘the best,’ our own biases – and perhaps more importantly, our emotions – start to affect the answer.

This is largely why it’s basically impossible to find a definitive answer to single-sport debates like who should win the Ballon D’Or or ‘Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic vs Murray’. The team or individual we support, the qualities we particularly value or admire in a player, our age, nationality and gender may also impact (consciously or subconsciously) on our preferences, and indeed on the strength of our feelings.

We also love to try and decide who is the greatest of all time, but how can we truly compare Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams while also trying to account for changes in technology, equipment, professionalism, social attitudes and different contemporary competitors? These variables also make it trickier to compare the achievements of Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt if we look beyond the simple statistics.

The Telegraph recently published the results of a project titled, ‘The UK’s Greatest Ever Sportsperson’. This throws another factor into the mix: how do we compare performers from different sports?

Our feelings about the Sports Personality Awards are complicated further by the fact that (despite its name) I’m not sure anyone really knows exactly what many of the SPOTY trophies are based on anymore. Is it about personality? Performance? Popularity?

So let’s have a quick look at the debate about the 2016 SPOTY Team of the Year Award. It’s difficult to directly compare the achievements of Leicester City across the course of a 38-game season against the GB Hockey Women’s 100% win record and gold medal in Rio. Leicester were 5000/1 to win the Premier League before the season started; GB women were around 9/1 to win Olympic gold. Their journeys and their challenges were very different, but both of these teams have achieved amazing things in the last 12 months. Incidentally, so has every other team that was nominated for this SPOTY award.

The thing I haven’t read anywhere in the debate this morning is that both Leicester and GB Hockey have achieved their success based on similar qualities: Trust in one another, commitment to and belief in a shared goal, and a few outstanding individual performances set against the backdrop of teamwork. Rather than comparing the differences between their achievements, wouldn’t it be great if a few more people could identify the similarities?

Both teams will also face challenges in their quests to match the heights they have done in 2016. Leicester have struggled to get close to their performances last season in this year’s Premier League, but have done well in the Champions League so far. The GB Hockey women will have to manage retirements, new players and the challenge of replicating their success in upcoming tournaments with the unfamiliar tag of ‘favourites’.

The slightly muted reaction of Leicester City’s players on winning the award seems to have contributed to some of the negative reactions. This may be contentious, but to be completely honest, I don’t regard their reaction as being particularly important. You’d like to think the award means something to the recipient, but it isn’t given out based on who wants it the most.

Meanwhile, I’m sure a few criticisms about the result are based on the fact this might have been an opportunity to buck the trend and celebrate a female sports team. However, I think SPOTY is one of the few mass-broadcast sports ‘events’ that is gender-balanced and I’d argue social change isn’t the role of this particular award.

Ultimately, both teams have been extremely inspiring and exciting examples in their sports and beyond, and I have no doubt that not a single player would trade the Premier League trophy or an Olympic gold medal for the title of SPOTY Team of the Year.