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.

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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.

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.

danson-tweet

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

The Story of a Not-Quite Olympian

The story of a not-quite Olympian

As I write this, it’s 114 days until Rio 2016 gets underway. However, despite loving sport in general and the Olympics in particular, on August 5th this year I will probably be hiding under a rock somewhere.

I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time. Lots of things have stopped me – shyness, embarrassment, not wanting to say something I’ll regret, wanting to be honest but not knowing how much of the truth to tell. I know I’ll never be able to convey in a few hundred words how and why my experiences and near misses have been so significant, so tough, so defining. I’m not looking for sympathy and I’m not fishing for compliments. It’s not about blame or assessing why I didn’t get picked. So why am I writing this? I guess I just want to let the unlucky few who share similar experiences know you aren’t alone and that you will find a way to handle it. And for everyone else – those who play, those who watch – maybe in the coming months it will help you remember to spare a thought for those whose Olympic dreams aren’t made, but broken.

I know this sounds like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but I need to acknowledge that it hasn’t all been doom and gloom – I know I’ve been fortunate to experience some pretty incredible things during my hockey career. I made my senior international debut aged 17, I’m a Commonwealth and triple European medalist, I’ve played at a World Cup, I’ve been national champion multiple times with two clubs. I’ve travelled the world thanks to a bit of ability and a lot of hard work with a hockey stick. I still play for a brilliant, successful club with a great bunch of mates. I’ve got a lot of good stuff to look back on. But ultimately, I won’t be able to look back and say I’ve achieved my dreams in hockey.

The problem with dreams is that if they were easy to reach, they wouldn’t be dreams. They’d just be plans. Intentions. Actions. When I was 22, I had my first experience of not being selected for something. Unfortunately for me, that something was Beijing 2008. As reserve, I trained at the preparation camp in Macau with the girls then had to stay there on my own for a week (as a bit of an emotional train wreck) when the team travelled to Beijing. Four years later, I was involved in everything until selection, but missed the cut for 2012. The London Olympics was brilliant, devastating and totally inescapable.

I’m aware that people suffer far worse things in life than not getting selected for the Olympics, but this is where words fail me a bit. I can’t really describe how it feels to miss the tournament you’ve given everything for and dreamed about since you were a kid. I could tell you about things that have happened to me. Randomly bursting into tears at Tesco a few weeks after selection when a cashier asked me how my day had been. Surviving four months on three hours sleep a night. Being a bookworm, but unable to read a whole page for six months when all I wanted was to be able to escape into another world. Sitting with a teammate on the bus home from training at the Olympic Park and admitting to an irrational sense of extreme guilt at letting my family down. I’ve never felt as alone as I did in a stadium of 16,000 people in London – I was inconsolable when the GB women lost their semi final and inconsolable when the GB women won a bronze medal two days later. I could tell you about those and a hundred other things but in the end none of them really get to the nub of what you actually feel like inside.

There’s all this stuff going round in your own head and heart, but of course the world goes on, and thankfully I’ve always been lucky enough to have some pretty special people around to help get me through. It’s simultaneously the best and worst thing when people say they can’t believe you haven’t been picked (it still is). Selection, the big pink elephant in the room, has made me feel like an awkward friend/housemate more times than I care to think about (it still does), but the mates I know have really got my back never make me feel bad about it. Sharing a look with one of my best friends when she was on her bronze medal victory lap, and her taking a second to share my pain instead of revel in her elation, was something so powerful to me I don’t think she even realises.

It’s been over two years since my last cap, I’m not even in the GB squad any more and I still find it impossible to get my head around Rio being so soon. It kills me feeling like the odd one out in large parts of my friendship group, not having that same daily routine and camaraderie and sense that I’m part of something. I still believe I should be an Olympian and I still believe I should be in with a shot at Rio, but I’ve had to accept the fact that I’m not. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it exactly, but I guess I’ve learnt to look at things in a different way.

Some time, some perspective and some travel have reminded me of a few things. If I’m going to define myself as a hockey player – and maybe even as a person – based on whether I’ve played in the Olympics, I’ve realised I’m devaluing myself. And as for anyone else who judges me on that? I probably don’t need to worry about their opinion that much. Instead, I try to focus on enjoying myself and pushing myself to be better, on and off a hockey field. In that end, that’s what I want to define me.