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/

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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.

Playing in Pain: Courageous or Crazy?

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Pain and sport go hand in hand. To a degree, pain is an inevitable consequence of pushing our bodies to their limits and to actively engaging in activities that place our physical wellbeing at risk. Pain is accepted, managed and even embraced by sportspeople from amateur to elite level – that’s why we refer proudly to our achievements taking ‘blood, sweat and tears,’ and when something hurts we pop a paracetemol, hold ourselves together with tape and take to the field anyway.

“There is a difference between the brave that will be there at any cost and the ones that a little pain can make a difference”

The not-so-subtle message behind these words from Jose Mourinho yesterday: toughen up. Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw aren’t the first footballers to be confronted with this type of accusation. Daniel Sturridge is praised for his talent but criticized for how often – and apparently how easily – he is on the injury list. Is it fair to expect sportspeople to suck up the pain and get on with it, or are we being too hard on them? Does playing through pain indicate courage and selflessness or shortsightedness and stupidity?

In recent months, back page headlines have been dominated by accusations of systematic doping in Russian sport and the release of information about TUEs (Therapeutic Use Exemptions) granted to athletes to allow them to take certain prohibited drugs for medical reasons. The debate about doping in sport asks many varied ethical questions, but perhaps the one most relevant to this issue is why we punish athletes for masking pain chemically, but allow, encourage and expect them to handle it psychologically. If you have an illness or injury bad enough to require restricted medication, should you be competing at all?

This leads me on to what pain really means. Firstly, let’s consider what the impact of pain on an individual level. It’s important that we distinguish between pain thresholds and pain tolerance because playing in pain isn’t just about what hurts and how much, but also about what an individual person’s ‘ceiling’ is: what we can manage or where our physical and mental limits to cope lie. Pain threshold will affect how bad it feels when a boxer is punched in the face or a rugby player is smashed in a huge tackle. Pain tolerance is what determines whether or not they can carry on playing, and how much it does or doesn’t affect their future performance.

The second aspect of this is how important being at your physical optimum actually is. In sports where performance is primarily determined by peak fitness – whether in speed, endurance or power – a relatively minor injury can be hugely significant. In sports where a more complex blend of physical capacity, strategic awareness and technical execution are required, an injury may have an impact, but doesn’t necessarily make it impossible to compete. Typically, this is why a sprinter doesn’t compete with a tight hamstring, but a hockey/football/rugby player might call it a niggle and crack on.

In some situations, these decisions are taken out of a sportsperson’s hands. Recently updated rules on concussion in many sports are a good example of the wider health of an athlete being prioritized over getting back onto the field of play. A blanket ruling reduces the potential effects of commercial interests and external pressure on sports doctors on duty of care towards athletes, but it is unrealistic to expect every case of pain and injury in sport to be assessed and managed in this way.

“Pain is temporary, glory lasts forever”

There are numerous examples of sportspeople playing on despite bad injuries or severe pain. What is it that made Terry Butcher keep heading the ball despite bleeding profusely out of his stitched-up forehead? Why was Kate Richardson-Walsh prepared to endure extreme pain and risk further damage when she played on after having her jaw broken by a hockey stick during London 2012? Perhaps the craziest of all was Terry Sawchuk – an ice hockey goalkeeper who played before helmets were mandatory and had more than 600 stitches to his face during his career.

Maybe the decisions of these sportspeople are made simpler by what their sports mean to them; perhaps playing in pain is about more than toughness or tolerance. Perhaps it’s a symbol of what you’re prepared to endure for a lifelong goal or giving everything for your team. Having said that, bravery comes in many forms. Sometimes, asking for help or admitting you don’t think you can handle pain might be just as brave as soldiering on. If you can’t do your job properly, you might be letting your team down by putting on a brave face. Is winning a medal or being the tough guy (or girl) enough to risk your long-term health or a ‘normal’ life beyond sport?

There’s often a fine line between brave and stupid, and perhaps in the end it comes down to hindsight. Playing in pain is a bit like attempting an audacious goal – if you go for it and it works out, you’re a hero. If it turns out to be a bad choice, you’re an idiot. It just depends whether you can handle the situation and whether you think the risk is worth it.

Locker-Room Talk and the Biggest Challenge for Women’s Sport

After a big week for women’s sport, a good friend, fantastic ambassador for equal opportunities in sport and Olympic hockey gold medalist Alex Danson tweeted something a few days ago that very much resonated with me.

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I couldn’t agree more. Any campaign that makes a positive difference to people’s experiences of sport and physical activity is a good thing. Women’s Sport Week and other similar initiatives are inspiring and exciting tools for women’s sport in particular, and wider sport in general. Unfortunately, they’re also a powerful indicator of how much progress is still required.

I suppose I should also add my reluctant thanks to Donald Trump for providing me with some other ammunition for this blog over the weekend. For anyone who has managed to avoid the circus of the US presidential race, a recently released video of Trump has added to his already outrageous collection of sexist, racist and offensive soundbites. Luckily, all can be forgiven now he has issued a half-hearted apology and explained that it was just, “locker-room talk”. Let’s be clear, Mr Trump: this does not make it okay and what I’m about to say next doesn’t get you off the hook either. History and society create an environment where such justifications exist. I think Trump is a first class idiot, I have a big problem with his rhetoric in general and it’s not exactly an accurate representation of what sportspeople talk about… but I’m just as concerned about the fact that he can cite ‘locker-room talk’ as an excuse at all.

This is something I’ve touched on before. The current reality is we do need campaigns like Women’s Sport Week and This Girl Can, and we must continue to pressurize the media into valuing female sport properly and covering it accordingly. However, the real challenge runs much deeper than this. Measurable statistics on gender representation – increasing participation levels and column inches and the number of active female coaches/commentators/referees – are all very important. True gender equality, though, is about more than what sport and wider society look like. We can only get close to it when our subconscious biases and thought patterns change too.

I’m talking about the deep-rooted, often unnoticed prejudices that pervade our perceptions about sport. This is usually framed through our language, both internal (in thoughts) and external (in speech) – for example in the subtle differences in words used in men’s and women’s sports commentary. I see myself as a supporter of women’s sport, but if I‘m honest, I know I’m affected by these underlying prejudices too. I try to add another little whisper to the growing voice of women’s sport, but the majority of examples I use in most of my blog posts are probably from men’s sport – either because the media has pushed more of them into my brain, or because I have a subconscious awareness that these examples might be more readily known or interpreted by you as a reader. I have a feeling it’s all more ingrained than we realise. As well as saying and doing some powerful things, even the most ardent of feminists might somehow have to learn how to evolve socially, mentally and emotionally too.

Of course, it’s a fine line. Some fundamental aspects of sport are framed in terms of gender and this isn’t always a bad thing. The best example of this is probably that most competitions have separate men’s and women’s events. I accept that perceptions of what is or isn’t acceptable to label, analyse or categorise according to gender will probably differ from person to person. What I don’t accept are the barriers to opportunity and fairness that are created not just by what sport looks like but also by deep down, how we actually see it.

I hope there will be a day when an Andy Murray of the future hires a female coach and it isn’t newsworthy, it’s normal. It took 272 years for Britain to have its first female Prime Minister. On that basis, the first female coach of the England Men’s football team may have to wait another couple of centuries to get an appointment. A female coach for the men’s national football team!… Imagine the uproar in the press and the ‘light-hearted’ jokes in the pub. Or better still, imagine she just gets the job because she is the best candidate, and the fact she is a she… well, it would be irrelevant really, wouldn’t it?

 

 

@inkingfeeling

Magic, Gods and the Baying Mob

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I can’t quite make my mind up about golf. I’m sure it’s partly because I’m not very good… not too shabby with a 7-iron or a putter, absolutely abysmal with a driver. I’m vaguely hoping that once I’m at a stage of my life where breaking into a run is less appealing, I might get really good at it. I enjoy going to the driving range, but I think golf clubs tend to be pretty snooty. I quite like watching the majors on TV when they’ve reached the exciting stages, but other than that… meh. But the Ryder Cup. That’s different. The Ryder Cup has a bit of magic.

We talk about fans worshipping sporting gods, but without trying to draw a comparison that’s too sweeping, maybe there’s another parallel between sport and religion: there seems to be an extraordinary power created by the feeling of being part of something much greater than yourself. I’m not in the least bit religious, but I can appreciate the significance of the sense of community and a shared value system that religion creates for many people.
In a sports context, anyone who plays in a team sport can probably already identify with similar feelings to an extent, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sportspeople who often compete on an individual basis can often bring out the best in themselves when they are representing a team, country or continent. Andy Murray is Britain’s Davis Cup saviour, Team GB’s Olympic athletes are driven to success as part of something bigger, and the cycling domestique commits repeated acts of self-sacrifice in order to help a team mate to glory.

Of course, an athlete has to truly buy into it if it is to make a difference to their performance. During Rio 2016, former GB sprinter Jeanette Kwakye wrote an interesting article about the changing mindset of the British Athletics relay teams, noting that in order to succeed, the GB women had recognized the need to, “Park their egos [and] personal ambitions and come together with one objective only.” I believe quite strongly that you can’t fake this: you might be part of the team, but is the team truly a part of you?

As example of this, and to bring us back to golf, some have criticized Tiger Woods for failing to truly commit to Team USA and subsequently never really performing at the Ryder Cup. Conversely, Justin Rose was one of only a few golfers openly passionate about being part of the Olympic Games (and in his case, Team GB), and his charge to a Rio 2016 gold medal subsequently seemed to have a feeling of slightly magical inevitability about it.
So is it possible to define the ingredient that makes an atmosphere become particularly special? Sometimes the size, importance or long-standing tradition of an event alone can create a special atmosphere, such as the final of a Grand Slam, the Ashes, the FA Cup final or the Super Bowl. I’d also argue that there are examples in lower level sport, because emotional meaning isn’t just created by the scale of an event. Having said that, more often than not, a crowd creates an atmosphere – and that’s why although there may be a gulf between the relative performance levels of competitors, the atmosphere at the Olympic 100m final and the London Marathon isn’t so very different.

Crowds use many kinds of marker as powerful indicators of allegiance. Patriotism and a sense of identity are indicated by coloured clothing, chanting, cheering, jeering and applause. Crowds vary across sports and between events – and it’s pretty easy to identify the differences between the polite applause of snooker, football stadium chanting and the pub-like atmosphere of darts. The traditions of a sport or competition tend to dictate the expected crowd behaviours, and this is where the Ryder Cup becomes an interesting example of an accepted – but disputed – challenge to the norm.

Many Ryder Cup commentators declare themselves to be opposed to overly vocal crowds and some of the players getting involved in (or in some cases, fuelling) the atmosphere. There are undoubtedly conversations to be had about the lengths spectators should be allowed to go – because there is of a course a fine but distinct line between ‘banter’ and abuse. However, my overriding feeling is that golf might just be on the verge of a big decision about the direction it wants to take as a sport. The Ryder Cup – and arguably the Olympics – have drawn some great performances from players who have already established themselves as great golfers, but there seems to be something extra in these atmospheres that has the power to create the special or spectacular. As well as considering different formats and how it can broaden its appeal from a sport-specific perspective, maybe top-level golf would do well to consider the emotional experience and attachment of the crowd too.

 

Challenging tradition can be dangerous ground, even when it seems obvious logically or even ethically that change is needed – just look at how difficult it can be to implement technology in football or contest antiquated rules about women’s golf club membership. Rightly or wrongly, there is also almost always opposition to change. Maybe it wouldn’t be sustainable for the Hazeltine atmosphere to be reproduced at every event across the golf calendar – for the players or the crowds. Tradition and etiquette can’t just be thrown out of the window either, because they are part of any sport’s identity. And most of all, perhaps the magic of the Ryder Cup lies partly in the fact that it’s unusual… because can something be as special if it becomes the norm?

 

N.B. It’s Women’s Sports Week. Please don’t think I’m writing about the Davis Cup and the Ryder Cup without due consideration to their equally worthy women’s equivalents. I have no doubt that the Fed Cup and Solheim Cup hold just as much meaning to the incredible sportswomen who play in them and supporters who watch them compete, and I hope that in the not too distant future the media and the world of sport itself makes it a bit easier to use them as widely known examples when I’m discussing topics like this one…