No Balls: The Podcast We All Need During Lockdown

There hasn’t been much to smile about over the last few months.

A deadly virus sweeping across the world, quarantines and lockdowns forcing us to stay at home, the lives and livelihoods of many under severe threat. It’s been a rough ride.

Finding something to take our minds off the situation has become a priority and many have managed to find that solace in podcasts.

One that particularly stands out is No Balls: The Cricket Podcast, hosted by England international cricketers Kate Cross and Alex Hartley.

Whether you’re a fan of the sport or not, this is a show that nearly everyone can relate to in some way. Furthermore, you cannot help but have a smile on your face while listening.

In essence, it’s two friends having a chat and a laugh while sharing what’s going on in their lives. The show may be loosely centred around cricket but you don’t have to really understand it in order to enjoy listening.

While it may not be a unique type of podcast, there’s one thing that makes it stand out from so many similar shows; their incredible friendship.

It’s clear, even though they spend most of their time slating each other, just how close Hartley and Cross are. They bounce off each other brilliantly (regaling hilarious story after hilarious story), their laughter is infectious and they are so in sync that you wouldn’t be surprised if they finished each other’s sentences.

Speaking to The 52’s Will Moulton on SportSpiel, the duo said it was because of this friendship that they were encouraged to enter into the podcast world.

“There’s been loads of times where mates have said to us that they really enjoy our company, especially when we are at our liveliest or taking the mick out of each other,” says Cross, a member of the England side that won the 2013/14 Ashes series.

“We both started listening to Chris Ramsey’s podcast which he does with his wife, who is not a comedian. We both said she’s funnier than him and I remember Al saying something along the lines of ‘if she can be funny on a podcast then so can we’.

“I think we just rated ourselves and the next minute we were doing this little trial run and sending it out to our families.”

Nearly 20 episodes later, No Balls grows ever more popular with each new release. This has especially been the case since lockdown started as they now record shows weekly rather than on a more ad hoc basis.

As well as chatting between themselves, the duo also spend a lot of their time responding to messages from listeners. This includes answering cricket-related questions as well as discussing some of the odd life habits their followers admit to in the LBW (Little Bit Weird) section. The theme here often involves food, with examples including one listener soaking their Weetabix for 15 minutes and arguments over whether certain condiments should be kept in the fridge or not.

They also delve into the role of Agony Aunts, handing out relationship advice to those who ask for it. However they do admit that what they say in this regard should also be taken with caution.

“It’s like the blind leading the blind. Someone messages us and we’re absolutely terrible with relationships. I don’t know why people come to us but they do,” admitted Cross.

“I think it’s because we give terrible advice so people just want to see how bad we can get.”

“I’ve found it all really strange,” says 2017 World Cup winner Hartley when talking about the amount of messages they receive.

“We’re used to people coming up to us at cricket games and asking us to have a little chat but the fact that we’re getting 50 or 60 emails a week from people wanting to talk to us or wanting advice on things or wanting questions answered, I think that this could be something really good.”

Not only is No Balls an exceptionally funny experience for the listener, it’s also clear just how much the two Lancashire players enjoy recording it.

“Wednesday, which is our recording day in lockdown, is my favourite day of the week,” Cross states during their interview with SportSpiel.

“Even if we come into the podcast in a bad mood at the beginning, we’ve cried laughing throughout. Even for us two selfishly it’s a really good day for us and I feel loads better afterwards. Then I realise I’ve got to edit it and slump back down again!”

Hartley also adds: “When we recorded with Sophie Ecclestone she texted us afterwards and she said ‘I can understand why you do that, I’ve had an absolute laugh over the last hour’. And that’s the reason why we do it – we really enjoy it.

What makes this podcast even more refreshing is that there are no holds barred when it comes to sharing their personalities and those of their guests.

This isn’t a sanitised media interview; this is what they’re really like and we love them for it.

 

“Primarily there aren’t many female sports people out there doing podcasts, which is one of the reasons we thought it might be a good opportunity,” Cross said.

“Everyone hears and sees a lot of the male cricketers on the TV but no-one really sees the women’s game or who we are as characters so we try to get that across as much as possible.

“My favourite episodes are when people like Sophie are just themselves. She wasn’t in interview mode, she wasn’t worried about saying the wrong thing, she was just the Sophie that we know.

“And that’s we want to get across. We see her in the dressing room and know how much fun she is and when she does go into an interview she does freeze up a little bit.”

In what for many is an extremely bleak time, these two provide us with a beacon of fun and positivity that brightens up our day by quite simply being themselves and sharing that with the rest of us.

We’ll leave Hartley to sum up the show in one sentence…

“If you want to listen to a podcast that is a complete shambles and has no recording equipment but is two mates having a laugh and giving some advice on life, then tune in to No Balls: The Cricket Podcast.”

“Continue to keep proving the t**ts wrong & inspire the masses”

Men are the worst.

Ok so that’s a massive, sweeping generalisation (being a man myself I’d like to say that quite a few of us are ok!) but one Twitter post earlier this week has confirmed that there are still a number of colossal muppets out there.

What was a largely innocent, breaking news tweet on whether the current WSL season could be cancelled due to Covid-19 quickly turned into quite a fierce battleground.

Within minutes the comments section was full of remarks that were, at best, undermining and, at worst, cruel and sexist.

That sparked a number of retorts from the general public and a number of professional footballers calling these people out for what they are – morons.

 

It was fantastic to see so many from both genders sticking up for women’s sport but, at the same time, it is worrying that they needed to in the first place.

What makes it worse is that comments like this are still a regular occurrence whenever a major outlet posts about female athletes, especially footballers.

References to looks and weight, pointless insults and sexist remarks consistently prevail.

And what’s worse is that, as women’s sports gains more coverage, the more this type of crap gets written.

It’s interesting that it was on this post that people have decided to take a stand and put the bullies firmly in their place. Perhaps it’s because lockdown means we are spending more time on social media and have more time to fight back; perhaps it’s because we’ve finally had enough of seeing such rubbish.

The most fascinating aspect however was seeing the number of current footballers and fellow female sporting stars prepared to tackle the idiots.

As someone who works with professional athletes, this is not what we would normally advise. These individuals are looking for people to bite and most of the time it really isn’t worth getting drawn into an argument as it may not end well.

But on this occasion those who did speak up did so brilliantly. It was refreshing, honest and powerful.

The 52 writer and Reading midfielder Remi Allen, Liverpool’s Kirsty Linnett and Lewes FC forward Katie Rood were just three who responded to the taunts. GB Hockey’s Olympic gold medallist Hollie Pearne-Webb also expressed her dismay.

Furthermore professional boxer (and former footballer) Stacey Copeland provided her own fantastic take on the situation, outlining how female athletes ‘are not looking for negative folks on twitter to validate us. Instead we have an inner drive they wouldn’t understand, and a whole generation of girls to inspire’.

Tottenham goalkeeper Chloe Morgan made perhaps the most interesting argument, which you can read below.

This is a very similar point to one made by Yorkshire cricketer Katie Levick earlier this month, when she wrote a strongly worded piece criticising those cheering the postponement of The Hundred.

Were people celebrating when British Steel collapsed last summer? Are people partying as a result of the potential loss of thousands of jobs due to the current global pandemic?

Of course not. So why do people feel it’s ok to celebrate the fact that hundreds – if not thousands – of women’s livelihoods could be under threat?

Women who have worked exceptionally hard to get to where they are, possess sporting talent most can only dream of and inspire millions of people.

Not everyone is going to like women’s football. That’s a fact of life – you can’t please all the people all the time.

People also have the right to express that opinion. But to insult, demean and belittle is not on, especially when more than just football could be at stake.

Unfortunately however it’s likely to continue for the foreseeable though thanks to the relative anonymity of posting on social media.

So many of these comments come from men who hide their real identity but either not sharing their full name or having a profile picture or something other than their face.

In addition, often their bio says something that simply doesn’t make sense or clearly signals that they are a prat.

We certainly would like to see if they said the same things when placed face-to-face with these women.

But how do we get over this problem?

Quite simply, female athletes have to keep doing what they are doing and eventually the positivity will drown out the crass.

It’s been so awesome to see the acceleration in the acceptance and following of women’s sport in recent years. Of course it should never have had to happen in the first place but, after so many years of oppression, it’s fantastic to see the recognition start to appear.

There are always going to be those who try to undermine it; it’s the same with everything.

Yet instead of let them rile us, let’s use this drivel as ammunition to keep promoting women’s sport, keep showcasing the brilliant individuals and one day achieve the ultimate goal – sporting gender equality.

And finally, a message to all female athletes out there at any level…

Please continue to keep proving the t**ts wrong & inspire the masses.

Find those Raes of sunshine to help you through tough times

Coronavirus has altered our lives beyond recognition.

Almost overnight we changed from being a socially mobile nation, one where millions of people travelled many miles and saw multitudes of people over the course of a single day, to one confined to our homes.

For many, the transition has been difficult. Having to shut ourselves away and isolate from the rest of the world – at least physically – is a very strange experience.

Cricketer Olivia Rae summed up the situation perfectly when she spoke to The 52 writer Alasdair Hooper on the SportSpiel podcast last week.

“I felt a sense of loss when it happened,” she explained.

“We’d lost the cricket season, lost our training sessions, our ability to go to the gym and the ability to do anything you were before as a team.”

When you think about it, lockdown is like a grieving process. We are mourning the loss of our privileges, our freedom, to an invisible foe, one that could strike anywhere and at any time.

Fortunately for Rae, she was ready for this.

The Middlesex cricketer has openly talked about her struggles with her mental health in recent years and has subsequently spent a lot of time coming up with strategies to ensure she is in the best place to cope with anything thrown at her.

“I’m just trying so hard to stay positive and keep perspective” the Scotland international said.

“I did a lot of preparation mentally before this all happened. One of the things I was working on before this was mentally preparing so that I could cope with the demands of not just cricket but life.

“So as much as it was annoying timing (as I’d got prepared for the season) it was also the best because I’d prepared myself mentally as well I’ve got the skills to cope with this situation.”

Not that the opening batter hasn’t had difficult times throughout this period though.

She told SportSpiel that she initially struggled when the government first introduced isolation measures on 23 March but has since found ways of being able to stay positive and make the most of the situation.

One of these is being able to interact with her support network, the people she’s included in her life that she can speak to if she needs. The people that understand her and know what sort of support to give her if things aren’t going so well.

This isn’t a group of people that she has formed in a matter of days though. It has taken Rae a long time to build a network that she trusts and it is constantly evolving.

Over the years, Rae has grown more confident in talking to people about her struggles but she knows better than anyone that it can take a long time to find those who properly understand you.

Furthermore she is also adamant that people should not put pressure on themselves to find individuals they click with; they should work at their own pace and find their own way.

“We hear and read a lot about how it’s really important to talk and open up about your mental health but it’s not as simple as that. Where do you go, who do you talk to? It’s such a scary prospect.” the 32-year-old explained.

“I only moved to London two-and-a-half years ago from Scotland. I didn’t grow up in London, I didn’t have friends and only a very small amount of people who knew me for me.

“It wasn’t like I could phone a few people up or meet people in the new teams at work and ask ‘do you want to be part of my support network?’ It doesn’t work like that. It was a long process.

“I just started to be myself completely and not just in person with people but also on social media. Using my platform on social media to open up and talk about my struggles, I was starting to really create an authentic version of myself which helped me create that in person as well.

“I was struggling so much but I also had this newfound energy of wanting to grab life and make the most of it.

“I wanted to put myself out there because what’s the worst that could happen? I’m already feeling the worst I could possible feel but I might get some support. Or it’s going to make it so much easier to walk into a training session or meet a group of people when they know what I’m going through.

“On the back of that I got some people who would reach out to me and it just went on to the next thing and the next thing.”

After initially meeting Alasdair back in February, he then introduced Rae to the Mintridge Foundation and very soon after she became a mentor for young cricketers.

Now she has gone from the one being listened to to the listener; she is now part of the support network for these aspiring athletes and is able to help them through the current situation.

But she also knows that people shouldn’t rely on their support network to do everything for them; they’re just there to help and facilitate. The onus should still be on the individual themselves.

 

“The whole point of that support network is that they support you to go and put yourself out there, go into the arena and do your thing but that they’re there whatever happens,” she explained.

“You know that whether you fail or succeed you’ve got that support.

“It’s a lot more powerful to know that it’s you out there doing it, it’s not anyone else telling you what to do. They’re just supporting you to do it.”

But how do you go about working with your support network to overcome your difficulties, especially in a time when what we can do is currently very limited?

While Rae acknowledges that everyone is different and has their own ways of dealing with things, she also believes that if we break our goals into small, achievable increments then that will start us on the right path.

“The steps that feel right, that’s what’s important,” she said.

“Think about what you can do now. It’s amazing how something as little as drawing a picture can kickstart your day.

“It doesn’t matter how small it is, it doesn’t matter if it’s the online class you were supposed to do, even if it’s just drawing a picture then that’s just brilliant.”

Totally Runable KickStart Poster Project To Reduce Sport Gender Gap

With the current global coronavirus pandemic shutting down the world, it is feared that all the progress that has been made with the acceptance and growth of women’s sport could be undone.

With many leagues, governing bodies and teams facing significant financial difficulties, the worry is that women’s sport will suffer hugely and face severe difficulties when we are able to get back to some form of normality.

But Totally Runable have decided to use the opportunity to launch their brand new project aimed at reducing the gender sport gap on fundraising website KickStarter.

Over the next few weeks, the charity is hoping to raise £6,000 to create sets of posters to be sent to 2,500 primary schools across the UK. These posters will feature images of several young girls taking part in a variety of sports and the aim is for them to be stuck up around the school to normalise the idea that girls and women can take part in sport.

This is an extension of the company’s #SeeSportyBeSporty project, which we wrote about in late 2018, and is based on extensive research they have undertaken over the last few years.

Speaking exclusively to SportSpiel, Olympic middle-distance runner Jenny Meadows – who has joined the company as a director alongside founders Natalie Jackson and former GB sprinter Emily Freeman – explained how this is something that she would have loved to see when she was at school.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH SPORTSPIEL

“The real difference is that these posters are actually going to feature young girls aged 10-15 playing the sport that they love,” the two-time World Championship bronze medallist said.

“It’s amazing to have role models – myself and Emily were both Olympians, which is great – but it’s really important that the girls actually see people their own age or a couple of years older who they can look up to – their peer group playing sport – and actually realise this is a really cool thing to do. Realise that being sporty is completely normal and is something they actually want to aspire to do.

“I started athletics aged seven and was hooked really, really quickly but I remember when I was in primary school and going into secondary school, if I ever had to go up in assembly to get recognition or a reward etc. I’d be absolutely mortified about having to go up to get this award.

“I’d almost feel like I wasn’t normal – ‘oh, you’re the runner aren’t you?’ I actually downplayed how much I loved it and how good I was at it because I didn’t want to stand out from everybody else.”

Their aim is broadly the same as many other schemes – to increase the coverage afforded to girls and women in sport and make their presence as accepted as men.

But their methodology is different. They aren’t focusing on the elite, where it is still difficult to make women’s sport cut through to everyone and is easy for it to be ignored by the media and consumers.

They are implementing this strategy in an environment where children are required to be; where they know they are going to learn; a place where lifelong attitudes, opinions and understandings of the world are developed.

Furthermore they’re not just trying to change the attitudes of young girls. They also want to make young boys realise that sport is for everyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity and so on.

“Boys need to be educated as well,” Meadows – who competed at the 2008 Olympics – told SportSpiel.

“A lot of the boys say ‘I let the girls play football’. It’s not your game, what do you mean you let them? I think it’s educating the boys as well and if they can see posters of girls as well from an early age they will think ‘girls and boys both play sport’ and there is an equal opportunity.

“We need to really change the mindsets of boys, really work on the gender-related language. Things like ‘oh you kick that like a girl’ or ‘I let the girls play’. We just really need to make sure everything is gender neutral, there’s real equality for both genders.

“Eventually this will really help narrow and really close that gender sport gap within schools.”

This project is not about producing the next generation of Olympians. It’s about empowering girls and normalising the fact that sport can be played by anyone.

Totally Runable’s research has shown that girls start to lose confidence in their sporting ability at the age of seven, a shocking statistic given that this is a time where children should be experimenting as much as possible to develop core life skills.

But Meadows knows that, should they reach their fundraising target, the company’s new project can start to make these changes and finally start to change attitudes that have been around for far too long.

“We’re living in an age where young people are so used to labelling themselves – they’re either sporty or not sporty, I don’t like this or that – and a lot of the time people put themselves in brackets from a very young age,” she explained.

“So I think a big part of this is to visually show girls of all different shapes and sizes playing a variety of different sports. It might just be that first instinct where somebody thinks ‘she looks a little bit like me’ or ‘I thought you had to be super slim to do this sport’ or ‘I thought you had to look a certain way’ or ‘I didn’t know girls could play that sport’.

“Hopefully it will give girls the confidence and the motivation to actually think ‘I want a go, I want to try some of these sports’ and that it is completely normal to do that. We are really, really excited about this and obviously hoping we can reach our target.”

Totally Runable needs to have raised £6,000 by 18 May in order to fund their project – let’s make sure we help them get there! Find out more about the project or donate here.

Former England international MacLeod hoping to inspire new generation

Ollie Godden spoke to former England cricketer Laura MacLeod about her new role as Director of West Midlands Cricket Limited & how she hopes to inspire more girls and women than ever before to pick up a bat or a ball.

Stories of early sporting experiences often have a familiar theme. Taken down to a local club by a willing parent and shown the ropes of a new activity for which the rules, tactics and techniques seem far beyond comprehension. If the beady eyed child is persistent enough, a relationship will begin to build – a slow and sometimes painstaking connection that may last a lifetime. 

Former England cricket all-rounder Laura MacLeod knows that tale all too well. Cladded in her father’s pads, she made the journey to Crewe Rolls Royce, the club at which her father plied his cricketing trade, and began a long-lasting love affair with the sport.

Aged just 11, she made her debut for the U18 boys team due to a lack of segregation or age appropriate opportunities for girls. It didn’t seem to matter though; the boys were respectful and slowed down for her. That was until she honed her skills with the bat and ball and, four short years later (incidentally around the same time that she discovered women did play cricket after seeing England lift the 1993 Women’s Cricket World Cup), she found herself captaining the same side and the boys would be doing everything in their power to dismiss her.

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Laura MacLeod played 89 times for England across all formats, including here in the first ever T20 International played by men or women back in 2004

“As I went through my teenage years getting better and beginning to hold my own, the boys probably gave me the best test that would prepare me for an England career – they tried to knock my head off at times!”, Macleod recalls.

“They just took me as one of them. There were good lads around me who valued my input and respected me as a player.”

It’s a fond memory for MacLeod, who was influenced by wider sporting engagement as a youngster. Hockey and swimming came naturally and helped to shape the young girl who would go on to play 72 One Day Internationals, 13 Tests and 3 T20 Internationals for her country. 

Her involvement in the game now comes administratively, as the Director of the newly formed West Midlands Women’s Cricket Limited, after a plethora of roles across the Midlands.

The role follows the restructuring of elite domestic cricket for women in this country, a reflection of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) five-year “Inspiring Generations” strategy released last year. For the first time, the framework for development included women’s and girls’ cricket as a specific growth area, citing the potential to harness enthusiasm to increase representation of women in cricket at every level. 

£20million was pledged to the restructuring, which has seen eight new regional hubs established, each of which will award five full-time contracts to players within their region, resulting in 40 new professionals across the country to supplement the 20-or-so Central Contracts given out by England each year. The regions, each encompassing a varying number of constituent counties, will play against each other with teams supplemented by regional talent on a pay-as-they-play basis. 

England has taken a leaf out of the Australian system’s book, which has been continually producing talent for some time, indicative of the work done to increase the impact of the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL). If rolled out successfully, the new structure should raise the standard of the domestic game here, whilst providing depth to the national squad.

MacLeod admits: “The Aussies have just got real foresight. They have some really clever, strategic people. We do have to learn from them but be mindful of bringing people along with us on the journey.

“The ECB have really done their homework on this as to how a girl gets from that first feel of the bat and ball right through to being an England player. We recognise that we need girls to fall in love with the game and then we can start working on the fundamentals and bringing in things that they need in order to develop, ideally to a higher level. 

“If we start at the top, the hope is that there are more girls knocking at the door for England places. There needs to be an oversupply so if Katherine Brunt and Anya Shrubsole were to retire tomorrow, we have quality players that could step into their shoes that have had not just potential, but good experiences. They have played high quality, under-pressure, cricket so they are ready to get into that environment and not just survive but thrive.”

The five contracted players in each region will receive tactical, technical and physiological conditioning training as part of the package lined up for athletes. It’s a far cry from the amateur era MacLeod played in, where she had to coach and work in schools alongside her England career to fuel international representation.

The regional hubs will also provide a platform for increased exposure to the younger audience, though MacLeod is acutely aware of the challenges facing anybody trying to engage new clientele. Previously tasked with increasing participation at the ECB across communities, and now Chair of the MCC Women’s Subcommittee, it is a challenge she is used to, but well versed in dealing with. 

 

“I will be working hard with the county board to flood the bottom and make sure that we are giving girls, no matter who they are, opportunities. They must then have a really clear line of sight and they know what they are aiming for at the end of years and years of hard work.

“I know from having two kids myself, they rarely watch TV these days. They spend a lot of time watching other people play a game! We need to understand what kids do in their leisure time, what they are like online, what they like to do, and how we can connect with them in a safe and appropriate way. We have got the right things in place. It is only a matter of time before this will gain traction and it will start to snowball.

“The beauty of the women’s game is that there are not too many steps or rungs of the ladder between grassroots and the international stage. You’ll see the girls signing at the end of the game and chatting away. We have to do more of that to make it a great experience to come and watch.”

Katherine Legge & Christina Nielsen: The two women silently leading a motorsport revolution

Photo credit: Brian Cleary, Brian Cleary/BCPix.com

While gender equality has grown exponentially across many sports in recent years, motorsport has often been criticised for failing to follow suit.

And when it did try to address the issue with the creation of the W Series, it came under intense scrutiny for taking the perceived wrong approach.

As a result, the stereotype that woman cannot keep up with men in this field still pervades.

But across the water, two individuals have been proving that very wrong.

Not only have Christina Nielsen and Katherine Legge been matching their male counterparts in America; they’ve been beating them.

In 2016, Nielsen became the first woman to win a major full-season professional sports car championship in North America, finishing top of the GT Daytona division in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The Dane did so alongside co-driver Alessandro Balzan, the duo taking two wins across the 11-race season after finishing runners-up the year before.

Proving this wasn’t a one-off, they then claimed the title again the following year with a series of impressive performances, while Legge also made her first mark on the championship with two wins alongside Andy Lally after switching from the Prototype category.

Guildford-born Legge then nearly claimed the crown herself in 2018, finishing second in the championship by just four points after winning two races and featuring on the podium another five times.

So why have their accolades barely been recognised in Europe, where they hail from?

Firstly because they took place so far away. It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind – if you’re not excelling on home soil then your achievements very rarely get picked up by the media, almost as though they don’t matter.

Football manager Graham Potter is a great example of this. He took Ostersund from the fourth division to the Allsvenskan – Sweden’s top tier – in just five years. At a time where this country was crying out for young English managerial talent, here was one performing wonders yet barely anyone knew who he was.

Indeed it took his team coming up against Arsenal in the Europa League for the media to only begin to recognise his achievements.

The same could certainly be argued for Legge. Recently more and more people have been arguing that women should be given opportunities in motorsport and yet was one showing just how good they can be if treated correctly. But because her racing was taking place in America and not on our shores, it seemed to pass everyone by.

It was interesting to note the media coverage afforded to Legge earlier this year was when it was announced that she would be part of an all-female team participating in the 2020 European Le Mans Series and the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race in June.

While this is newsworthy, it’s not novel for Legge as she and Nielsen have competed in teams featuring only female drivers in both the 2019 and 2020 GT Daytona WeatherTech SportsCar Championships. Yet where was the press coverage surrounding this?

Furthermore, the main line being peddled by the British media around the Le Mans story was not that Legge was being offered a chance to show European fans what they’ve been missing all these years. Instead they focussed on the fact that she’ll be linking up with Sophia Floersch, the young German driver who hit international headlines following her horrendous crash at the 2018 Macau GP. It actually felt as though Floersch was the main talking point and Legge’s return to Europe was just a side note.

The second potential reason behind the lack of attention for Nielsen and Legge is that they have been successful in a category of racing barely understood over here. In the UK, the only motorsport we’re really exposed to is F1. Of course there are so many more types of racing that take place but it’s the only one that you ever hear anyone speaking about.

Unless you’re a real purist, sports car racing just isn’t appreciated or even respected.

Ok yeah, these women won some events but they did so with the help of a man in races that last far too long (between six and 24 hours, with drivers sharing the workload in stints) and in cars that, if you have enough money, you can buy yourself – who cares?

Just because these women aren’t winning in a category of racing we necessarily understand, it doesn’t make their achievements any less noteworthy.

These are two women competing with and beating men in a sport where many still perceive it can’t be done. That’s not just something we should be recognising; it’s something we should be celebrating.

Women will only get more opportunities at the very top end of motorsport when it becomes the norm right the way through the system.

And that’s why we need to highlight the brilliant work these two women are doing.

 

While their accolades may not yet be recognised by the wider world, there will be young female racers out there who already look up to them, who see them as proof that they do have a future in motorsport.

And if we want to see more exciting talent such as Floersch, Jamie Chadwick, Alice Powell and Bitske Visser emerging, we need to give the best female racers as much media coverage as possible, no matter what series they’re racing in.

We’re not waiting for a revolution to begin in motorsport. It’s already begun, with Legge and Nielsen leading the charge.

Now it’s up to us to recognise and champion them.

Thank You Alex Danson-Bennett

It’s always sad when one of sport’s greats decides it’s time to step away.

But Alex Danson-Bennett doesn’t want us to be down. She wants us to celebrate what she achieved across 18 incredible years.

However we don’t want to just applaud her career, one that yielded at least 17 international medals, 115 international goals (the joint-highest for an England and GB international) and created countless special memories for thousands.

We want to thank her for it too.

On the pitch, her tremendous ability helped England and Great Britain rise from a mid-table outfit to Olympic champions in the space of just a few years.

Off it, she played such a crucial role in transforming views of the sport across the country.

Following the announcement on Thursday, countless accounts were shared of people who have taken up or returned to the sport after watching her. One woman even named her daughter after Danson-Bennett when she was born shortly after that incredible evening at Rio 2016, where GB won their first ever women’s hockey Olympic gold.

Personally, I was lucky enough to witness just how much of an affect Danson-Bennett had in both areas throughout my time working with her.

I was there when she scored her 100th international goal against the Dutch in 2017 and her record-equalling goal against the USA a year later, in front of 10,000 people at a home World Cup (and on her 200th England appearance).

On both occasions the crowd roared louder and for longer than on any other occasion I have experienced at a home event.

She had a galvanising effect on the team and supporters; you just knew that even when things weren’t going for England/GB, she had the ability to produce something out of nowhere and turn a game on its head.

It made perfect sense when Danson-Bennett was appointed captain on a full-time basis in late 2017; she was a natural leader. Not necessarily in terms of being the loudest or biggest character in the dressing room but the way she carried herself and the respect her team-mates gave her.

In interviews as well she had that knack of knowing exactly the right thing to say without being dull and always tried to sign as many autographs as she could after a game, even when the support staff were dragging her away!

For me, that’s what makes GB’s hockey players stand out from everyone else; they are so willing to give their time to others at every opportunity and Danson-Bennett was the perfect example.

She always ensured she spent time with the fans after a game, interacted with her supporters on social media and gave her all in any appearance she made. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone not have a beaming smile on their face after spending time with the 34-year-old.

It’s all well and good being fantastic on the pitch but many athletes will only truly capture the hearts of the public if they show them how much their support means. Danson-Bennett did that and then some.

 

I remember one particular occasion in the build up to the 2018 World Cup where we had arranged an appearance with the Hampshire-born athlete and Maddie Hinch. The agreement was that they would be doing some filming for Newsround, giving a training session to some youngsters from a local club and answering their questions.

A mix up in communication had meant that the date of the appearance hadn’t been made clear to either so when we approached them both, tired and slightly frazzled after a tough training session, they weren’t immediately forthcoming.

But there was no drama, no fuss. They just got themselves ready and then put their full energy into ensuring each child left with memories that they will never forget.

In addition to all of this, the mark of a true great is just how much respect they are given by their opponents. Never before have I seen so much outpouring of love and affection for one athlete from so many of the players they’ve come up against.

Argentinean, Dutch, Irish, Australian, Spanish, New Zealander – greats from all of these nations joined together in sharing their own memories of playing against Danson-Bennett.

This wasn’t a player who just touched British hearts; this was one who was held in the very highest regard across the world.

I had the opportunities to say a few words to Danson-Bennett in the office this week but could never find the right words.

What can you say to one of the greatest sporting stars this country will ever know?

But I know now:

Thank you Alex. Thank you for being one of the athletes who inspired me to get into hockey. Thank you for being such a pleasure to work with and treating us all with so much respect. Thank you for everything you have given this country.

Heat, storms & goals – McCallin reflects on first tour of 2020

Shona McCallin looks back on an exciting tour for GB Hockey to Australia and New Zealand and how it felt to make her FIH Hockey Pro League debut, score her first GB goal and make her 50th appearance.

It’s crunch time for a lot of athletes at the moment. 2020 is here and for many of us that means only one thing… It’s Olympic year!

Time to dot the i’s, cross the t’s and make sure you, and your team, is the best prepared you can be. Everything just becomes that little bit more important.

Within the GB Hockey squad, the above certainly applies. Competition for places is at its highest for the first time in a long time – players are fit, performing well, pushing each other forward and, ultimately, giving the team the best shot at medalling in Tokyo this summer.

The year certainly started as it means to go on – fast and furious! The first week back saw us undertaking plenty of fitness testing which produced a solid set of results – just reward for the time and effort we put in over Christmas.

The second week involved getting back on the pitch and pushing for selection for the FIH Hockey Pro League trip to Australia and New Zealand, for which we jetted off on 19 January.

We arrived in Brisbane for a few days of acclimatisation (it was 33C or more every day, vastly different to what we’d left behind at home!) and training before heading to Sydney for our opening games of this year’s tournament.

It was my first experience of the league with GB and one I thoroughly enjoyed. One victory, one late defeat defeat, one shoot-out win and one match cancelled [GB were 1-0 ahead in their second game against Australia before storms curtailed the match and, because they’d won the game before, the hosts were awarded double points]. It was a good start for us and personally for me too as I played my 50th game for GB and scored my first goal.

 

Our coach Mark Hager gave the trip an 8/10 overall and that’s definitely something I would agree with. Our performances were good and the players coped well in the heat. Of course there are still areas in which to improve but we also have plenty of time to do so.

We’re now looking forward to a couple weeks back at Bisham training before heading away to South Africa on a training camp at the end of March, which should also be quite warm.

After a trip to The Netherlands in late April, the FIH Hockey Pro League will then return to London as we welcome Argentina, China, USA and Germany across various weekends in May and June.

It’s already been an exciting start to the year and I can’t wait for what’s to follow!

Forget the Nike controversy, can we just accept Jemma Reekie for the exceptional talent she is?

Photo credit: British Athletics

Jemma Reekie is a track and field superstar in the making.

The middle distance runner has shot to prominence this indoor season, smashing three records in the last month. She also took 1500m victory in the Glasgow Indoor Grand Prix on Saturday and is a strong candidate to repeat the feat at the Indoor British Championships next weekend.

From seemingly nowhere – at least for those who aren’t regular athletics followers – this 21-year-old has fast become one of the nation’s most exciting sporting talents and looks set for a hugely successful career.

Yet the first story I saw following her win on Saturday was not one lauding her performance; instead it was one in which she’d had to deny that her recent upturn in form was down to her shoes.

It’s a sad indictment of the society we currently live in – and the history surrounding athletics – that we can’t simply celebrate an athlete’s achievements.

Instead it feels as though there is a constant need to find some form of scandal to discredit a performance, as though we no longer believe that a human is capable of pushing their body to the absolute maximum, running times faster than anyone else before, without cheating.

Fortunately, a broader search of Reekie’s name turned up a plethora of positive articles, ones that rightly applaud her success and talk about the European U23 double world champion in very positive terms.

Indeed this piece I saw is one of a small minority pedalling this angle. It’s just a shame that it comes from such a major source that will be seen by millions of people.

The implication was that this ‘upturn in form’ from the Kilbarchan AAC runner could be attributed to the fact that she is wearing Nike’s Vaporfly shoes, which have been the topic of many debates in recent weeks.

A study by the New York Times, who analysed results from more than one million amateur races, suggested that runners who used the shoes set times 4-5% faster than they would in generic running shoes.

Both Eliud Kipchoege – who became the first athlete to run a sub-two hour marathon – and Brigid Kosgei, who broke the women’s marathon record in October, were wearing variations of the shoes when they achieved their extraordinary feats.

All of this has encouraged World Athletics (formerly the IAAF) to tighten their regulations surrounding the shoes, which will come into force in April.

And while Reekie is one of the athletes who wear the Vaporfly, there are two clear factors that explain just as easily – and more plausibly – her rapid improvement.

The first one is her age. At 21, she’s still getting better as a runner. She is continuing to develop physically and still has a number of years left before she reaches the ‘prime age’ for middle distance athletes.

It’s therefore no surprise that she’s getting quicker. In fact, it would be worrying if she wasn’t.

Not only will she improve physically but Reekie and her coaches will also continue to learn about how to best prepare her for competition the more time they spend together. Already they have worked hard to optimise her diet and rectify sinus issues she was having last year and the results are immediately clear to see.

The second factor is that if you look into her history, these results are no surprise at all.

She won the 1500m title at the European U20 Championships back in 2017 before finishing third in the same event at the 2018 Athletics World Cup, less than two seconds behind winner Sofia Ennaoui of Poland who would claim European silver the following year.

Reekie then won the 800m and 1500m U23 European titles in Sweden last summer and represented GB at her first World Championships in Doha back in October.

While perhaps few would have predicted such an explosive start to the decade – breaking Laura Muir’s British 1500m and mile records while also running the world’s fastest indoor 800m time since 2006 – there can be no doubting the talent has always been there.

 

Muir’s comments at the weekend about her fellow Scot and training partner were indicative of how much she respects Reekie but also showed how important it is to her that her training partner is treated properly at such an early stage in her career.

Speaking to The Guardian, Muir said that she believes Reekie is ‘capable of doing very, very special things’ but also made it clear she wants to ensure that she is able to enjoy her running and not have too much undue pressure put on her too early.

That should include not having to answer questions about whether or not her improvements are solely down to her trainers.

At the end of the day, she is doing nothing wrong. The trainers are currently legal, she is allowed to run in them. End of.

And, as we have stated, there are far more logical reasons.

We are just months away from Tokyo 2020 and, given her current form, Reekie could well find herself on the plane come July. Muir even believes they could win medals alongside each other.

For once, let’s not get bogged down in controversy.

We have one of the most exciting British athletes in decades emerging in front of our eyes. We should be relishing what is to come from Reekie, not looking for reasons to put her down before she’s even begun.

Georgina Roberts: Cancer and transforming a ‘neglected’ sport

Photo credit: Georgina Roberts

Georgina Roberts talks to Alasdair Hooper about a difficult 2019 for her and her family, learning to accept who she is and why she wants to ensure shooting becomes more accepted as a sport.

I am Georgina Roberts; I shoot Olympic Trap and I am going to take over the world.”

It’s taken a lot for Georgina Roberts to get to this point.

This is a woman who knows what she wants – to change the state of play for the better and take her sport to new levels.

This is an athlete who wants to rewrite age-old gender-based stereotypes. Shooting is not just an activity for men smoking cigars and pulling a trigger. It’s far more than that.

Having these ambitions, however, is one thing. Having the confidence and belief in yourself is something else.

Following a rollercoaster of a 2019 this is where Roberts is now. After taking time away from her sport she’s been able to focus on herself and concentrate on the reasons why she fell in love with shooting in the first place.

It all comes down to her dad and his ongoing fight with cancer.

“My dad was diagnosed with cancer – he had cancer for a few years so that was nothing new – but his cancer had spread,” explained the 22-year-old in an exclusive interview with SportSpiel.

“I got myself a full-time job, which is a real eye-opener for anyone.

“But in terms of trying to fund my own shooting, I wanted to take that weight off my parents because I’m an only child and shooting is still a very expensive sport.

“My mum’s a headteacher, so she’s got a big full-time job that is very stressful. She’s doing an amazing job and doing the best she can.

“But there’s still only so much that you can do.

“Hopefully she sees it anyway, but I’ve been trying my best to ease the stress a little bit. I moved back home, got a full-time job and tried to help support my dad.

“He’s had brachytherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy and now he’s on chemotherapy so he’s doing an amazing job.

“He sees it more as an inconvenience but watching someone go through that whole process is really quite hard.”

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO ROBERTS’ EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH SPORTSPIEL

Roberts is in the fortunate position where she has received endless support from her work and also from British Shooting throughout a tough year.

Ultimately it has meant that, while she’s been supporting her dad through everything, she’s also been able to look at herself.

“Not that many people know what’s actually been going on behind closed doors, so it’s been an eye-opener,” she said.

“It’s also been really good for me because I took some time out to focus on me.

“Seeing someone go through that makes you more aware of, you know, there might not be a tomorrow.

“Just do it now. There might not be a next year.

“I focussed on myself and my fitness – obviously I signed up for a half marathon – which has been really good for me.

“Running has actually completely changed my mindset. It’s working on little goals that add up to a bigger picture.

“Then, all of a sudden, you’re there at your end goal and you need to set another one. As cringey as it sounds it has changed my life actually.

“Having some time away from shooting has made me fall more in love with shooting because now when I go shooting it’s ‘I’m having such a good time’.

“’I am so happy to be here, this is not a really hard training day, I am so excited to be here’.

“This is more than just shooting. This is me in my happy place.”

The Mintridge Foundation ambassador may have represented Wales and Great Britain in Olympic Trap since the age of 17 but there’s much more in her armoury these days.

As well as being a competitor, Roberts is also a board member of the Welsh Clay Target Shooting Association, a columnist in Clay Shooting Magazine and is a blogger for BASC news and British Shooting.

But what she takes a huge sense of pride in is her coaching of the younger generation and her role as a development coach on the Talent Pathway.

“That’s definitely built my mindset for my own shooting and it’s kept me busy, which is definitely something I needed at this point of my life,” she said.

“It’s kept me going and it has really helped.

“Earlier this year, the end of January 2020, I went to my first international competition – the Malaga Grand Prix.

“I made my first international final and I won gold.

“For the first time I’ve been in an international senior final, it was a bit twitchy bum if I’m honest and I was very nervous, but to come out with a gold medal was something really special and it meant a lot for my dad as well.

“He feels like an inconvenience to a lot of people. He doesn’t want people feeling sorry for him and he doesn’t want to feel like ‘you don’t need to take me to chemo’.

“Now he’s like ‘it’s ok because looking after me hasn’t stopped her from doing what she wants to do’.

“He would never ever want my shooting to suffer as a result of helping with his cancer.”

One of the keys factors in helping the sport-mad 22-year-old be who she is now is accepting herself.

It has taken time, but it’s been well worth it.

“In terms of sport I remember reading a quote – I can’t remember who said it – but if you’re not truly happy with yourself you’re already on the backfoot,” she explained.

“If you stand on the peg next to someone who is truly happy within themselves, they’re always going to have that edge and that advantage.

“There’s going to be no second-guessing. Am I good enough to be here? Do I deserve to be here?

“It’s going to be I deserve to be here. I am happy. I have put in the work. I am ready for this. This gold is mine.

“It’s always going to be that battle so until you’re like ‘I am Georgina Roberts, I shoot Olympic Trap and I am going to take over the world’ there’s always going to be that difference.

“It’s the same within business. You need to know who you are and you need to be happy with who you are.

“I cannot scream and shout enough about taking care of yourself.

“It’s not just drinking enough water and getting enough sleep at night. It’s ‘I am Georgina and I like sport’.

“I don’t need to pretend to be someone I’m not. This is who I am. People need to accept me for who I am and if they don’t then I don’t care.

“It’s a battle but it’s a battle worth having.”

 

Roberts’ passion for her sport is evident from the very start, something that saw her win the sport category at the Women of the Future awards 2019.

At the forefront of her aims and ambitions lie two key objectives – pushing more women into shooting but also changing the public’s perception of her ‘neglected’ sport.

“It [shooting] is really popular with hen dos at the minute because people are starting to understand that there’s so much more to it than just men smoking cigars and pulling a trigger,” she said.

“We need up-and-coming women or else, the level of women that we have at the minute, we’re going to get to a point where we don’t compete anymore and there’s going to be no one to replace us, which is a really scary prospect.

“One area we need to target the most is female juniors. They have so much to offer us in terms of – obviously they’re still juniors – but they’re going to have access to the world stage at a junior level.

“Then they can work up into senior level and hopefully one day become Olympic champions.”

She continued: “I think shooting is a very neglected sport.

“I know a lot of people think guns are dangerous, and shooting is dangerous, and they don’t see it as a sport.

“If you left a shotgun standing in the corner of the room it wouldn’t jump up and shoot itself.

“It wouldn’t go off – someone needs to pull the trigger.

“Shooting isn’t dangerous as long as the people who are safe, capable and responsible are the people that are competing and shooting.

“As long as people understand that, they’ll know it’s not a dangerous sport and they’ll be more willing and interested in taking part in it.

“I think it’s just how we convey that to people.

“But it’s stopping them from introducing their children, or their wives, to the sport potentially.

“Actually, shooting is a sport that is under threat because double trap was taken out of the Olympics because of equality – there was no women’s event.

“The women’s event was taken out of the Olympics because there wasn’t enough participation.

“We didn’t just lose a women’s discipline; we lost the men’s discipline.

“We can’t let that happen again otherwise we’re going to have no sport.”