“The support showed that people are ready for more women’s sport, more women’s rugby”

Women’s sport is unquestionably on the rise, both in terms of its acceptance and popularity.

But with this also comes an increased awareness of how unequally male and female athletes are still often treated.

No better was this shown that just a few weeks ago when kit manufacturer Canterbury launched the new Irish rugby strip. The three individuals wearing the men’s version were current international stars, grins ablaze and all rippling biceps and pecs.

The women’s kit however was depicted by three models who, quite frankly, couldn’t have looked more disinterested in the product they were trying to sell.

While it was a positive step that the new kits were advertised in the same tweet (this doesn’t happen often at all), it was also a real slap in the face for the women’s team. It was like it was being suggested that their current stars were not appealing or attractive enough to promote the kit, that sex appeal is greater than international status.

The company on Twitter were quickly called out by Perception Agency founder and Wasps player Florence Williams, sparking a huge backlash that saw the formation of the #IAmEnough campaign.

Over the next few days social media was awash with players, supporters, parents, photographers, men and women all throwing their support behind women’s rugby; it was incredibly empowering.

This was especially the case for current Scotland international players Rhona Lloyd and Sarah Bonar, who also host the Women Who Sport podcast.

Speaking on the SportSpiel podcast, Lloyd said: “It was absolutely amazing to see the support. For Canterbury to see the mistake they’ve made and own up to it is amazing. It’s opened up some fantastic conversations.

“What I loved about it is that it wasn’t just female rugby players speaking up and saying this isn’t ok. It was parents, photographers, male rugby players and people outside of our community who could recognise that this isn’t ok.

“It was a really cool couple of days and it also shows how quick change can happen. On Saturday the kit was announced and within a week Canterbury had changed their policy and a really positive movement has come off the back of it.”

For Bonar, the Twitter storm stirred up by the #IAmEnough movement also clarified in her mind just how far women’s sport has come in recent times.

The Gloucester Hartpury second row said: “The support that it’s got shows that people are ready for more women’s sport, more women’s rugby. The acknowledgement and the backing is quite a positive thing to take away from it.

“A lot of people are recognising that we are enough, let’s get more backing and see if we can close that equality gap.”

But how exactly do we go about that?

Despite the positives that came out of the situation, it is still frustrating to many that the ridiculous stereotypes surrounding women who play sport – that they are all butch and manly and therefore unattractive – are still being banded about.

While many female athletes now just brush these comments off, it is still a worry to Bonar and Lloyd about the effect it may have on young girls looking to enter the world of sport for the first time.

However rugby does offer one quality that many other sports don’t; anyone can play and excel, no matter what your body type.

That’s something the duo believe the sport should focus on more to promote itself, especially when it comes to encouraging young girls to take up a game that is still perceived to be a male-only environment.

“The overarching thing was that it’s not about looks; it’s about how much effort it takes to wear an international jersey and it’s about showing girls that they can play for their country and in these top teams,” explained Loughborough Lightning winger Lloyd.

“It does not matter how you look; there will be a rugby team you will be an asset too. That’s so unique in our sport and we probably don’t appreciate it enough. In rugby there’s no limitations on what you can look like to do the job on the pitch.”

This was a statement echoed by Bonar, who said: “I’ve turned up to job interviews and things and they’ve said ‘I didn’t expect you to look like that as a rugby player’. Again it doesn’t bother me but it’s enough to make me think ‘what did you expect?’

“It’s the only team sport that I’ve come across where all shapes and sizes are welcome. Actually you need different abilities, different speeds, strengths in a team to make it a good team. We need to draw upon that and make people active that way, especially young girls within school.

“The game’s moved on. I guess back in the day people used to think male rugby players would be huge but the game’s moved on and the women’s game has too.”

Women’s cricket buoyant through coronavirus storm

With England’s women set to take on West Indies in their first matches of the summer starting today, Ollie Godden reflects on how the game has found solace after a difficult few months.

It was supposed to be the start of an era; £20million pledged to the women and girls’ pillar of a new England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) strategy. From that pot, 40 full-time domestic contracts would be created, spread across eight newly created regions. Not only career changing, but life changing for those players who were working full-time jobs while they pursued lucrative central contracts with their national side. A watershed moment for women’s cricket. Then, coronavirus came along. 

The prospect of women’s domestic contracts seemed unlikely following a squeeze on the national governing bodies’ funding (ECB Chief Executive Tom Harrison told Parliament that the pandemic could cost the organisation £380m) and ECB Director of Women’s Cricket Clare Connor revealed we may see a summer with no women’s cricket at all, following the postponement of the inaugural The Hundred competition.

It seemed as though women’s cricket was back to square one. Particularly disheartening considering the swell of interest created by the hugely successful Women’s T20 World Cup in Australia earlier in the year, a tournament which showcased the platform given to women’s sports down under. The move to professionalise the women’s game in England and Wales marked an effort to catch up with the Aussies, who for some time have led the international pack when it came to producing a deep pool of talent and providing the game with exposure. 

Yet, out of the embers of the coronavirus pandemic, there was good news.

On June 25th, the ECB announced that 25 players, who would otherwise have been given a full-time domestic contract, would be given monthly retainers. 

Invariably, it would be some pay cut from what they would have received, but it was a sign of intent from the governing body, that they were not merely paying lip service to the development of the women’s game.

Lancashire spinner Alex Hartley was included in the list of players set to receive a retainer. For Hartley, who won the World Cup with England in 2017 before being told her central contract would not be renewed, the prospect of a domestic contract provided a lifeline, and Connor knew it. 

“As the effects of Covid-19 on the rest of the summer and beyond become more apparent, we will continue to support our players to the best of our ability” Connor said.

“We promise them that our drive for a more gender-balanced sport remains vitally important.”

“We know that in order for the women’s game to continue to grow, we need a strong and thriving domestic set-up and girls need to see visible role models. It is another significant step forward for our sport.”

Though the initial contract plans had been derailed, it was an important signal of intent. 

Then came the news that the eight regional hubs, who had expected not to play any cricket through the summer, would be competing in the one off 50-over Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, culminating in a final broadcast live on Sky Sports on September 27th. 

Heyhoe Flint captained England to the first ever World Cup title in 1973 and fought tirelessly for equality off the field. The Women’s Cricketer of the Year award was created and named after Heyhoe Flint in 2017 as a tribute to her following her death, aged 77, that year. Appropriately, the tournament has re-energised the growth of the women’s game, a process Hayhoe Flint began more than 35 years ago.

Beyond those who are domestically or centrally contracted, players are paid to play. What’s more, with an increased number of teams compared to the previous domestic competition, the Kia Super League, more opportunities have been created for aspiring female cricketers, and there has been exposure for many who would have missed out had the tournament not taken place.

Uncapped Southern Vipers’ captain Georgia Adams has grabbed the chance with both hands, scoring 379 in the first five group stage matches to send her side through to the Edgbaston final with a game to spare, while 22-year-old Scotland captain Kathryn Bryce has taken 11 wickets at an average shy of 15. 

This had all been music to the ears of those championing and following the women’s game, yet further good news came when West Indies, whose men’s team agreed to travel to England for a bio-secure pilot Test series, announced they would be touring England for a five-match IT20 series later this month. 

Director of West Indies Cricket Jimmy Adams said: “CWI is pleased to be restarting its international women’s program with a tour to England, where the standard of women’s cricket has grown tremendously.

“We thank the ECB for their invitation and the added opportunity to travel with a larger squad affords us the chance to introduce a few younger players to this level of the game and fast track their development.

“With so much uncertainty surrounding cricket scheduling currently, this is a timely opportunity for our women to resume competitive cricket at the highest level.”

The series will be played behind closed doors in a bio-secure environment at the Incora County Ground, Derby and is a major coup for women’s cricket after India and South Africa were unable to fulfil scheduled series due to the virus.

Despite the challenges, Harrison made it clear England women needed a platform this summer given their last appearance came at a rain abandoned World Cup semi-final.

“Protecting the momentum of the women’s game was one of our four stated aims at the beginning of the pandemic and I’m delighted that, despite the enormous difficulties that Covid-19 has created, we’ll see England Women in action this summer”, the CEO said. 

Importantly, the third IT20 will be simulcast on the BBC and Sky Sports, the first time women’s cricket has been shown free-to-air since 1993, providing important exposure particularly ahead of The Hundred next year. 

With a domestic pay-out and tournament, and international cricket back on the scene, women’s cricket has reemerged well placed to avoid a stunting of progress which appeared likely at the outset of the pandemic. The ECB have delivered on their promise to grow the game, and are investing money, energy and time, to make sure it happens.

“I’ve never felt more confident than this summer about the growing importance of the women’s game and its standing to be treated equally,” says Connor. “The standards of delivery, medical protocols, even the fact we’ll be chartering flights for any opposition teams who come over to play – that’s a multimillion-pound investment.”

Poppy Wilson: “I didn’t know there was a pathway to become a professional footballer. I was just doing it because I loved it”

In her first piece for The 52, Cassie Coombes spoke to up-and-coming footballing star Poppy Wilson about overcoming setbacks right at the start of her journey.

At first, football was simply a passion for Poppy Wilson. Years later, and having overcome her fair share of adversity, the 20-year-old is looking ahead to her future ambitions as a professional footballer with London City Lionesses.

In the same week her beloved Liverpool lifted the Premier League title for the first time, Wilson also undertook a significant moment in her own life as she moved to London. Indeed, her new home and move to the London City Lionesses last year have been synonymous with a fresh start – both personally and professionally.

Her decision to move away from Bristol City ahead of the 2019/20 season in search of game time certainly paid off. Joining the newly formed team, the midfielder made 13 appearances in their debut season in FA Women’s Championship.

Had she not made the change, Wilson may have packed in playing the game completely.

“Before I moved to London, I was very close to giving up and stopping football. I was very fortunate to get as many games as I did and I feel I’ve definitely got the love of the game back,” she remarked.

“It’s a great club to be at and, considering they’re only just one-year-old, they have such great aspirations and want to achieve.”

Wilson’s love of the game stems back to when she was just three, with her introduction to football following a similar pattern to many of her female counterparts – the influence of an older sibling.

After joining a girls’ team, she was soon scouted and asked to trial for Somerset Centre of Excellence, a series of events that she recognises as instrumental in initiating her footballing journey.

When asked at what moment she realised football could be a viable profession for her, she quickly confessed that she was not aware of the possibility until later in her career.

“At the time I didn’t really know that there was a pathway to become a professional footballer, I was just doing it because I loved it,” she recalled.

This love of the game in its purest form has undoubtedly helped Wilson during moments of adversity.

Despite being right at the start of her career, the young midfielder talked with remarkable openness about the challenges she has already faced.

Having moved to Bristol in 2014, Wilson combined her passion for football with her studies and graduated from the Bristol City Development Squad to make her senior debut in 2016.

This success was soon followed by a two-year professional contract with Bristol City in 2018.

However her breakthrough into the senior side was not a simple one. Rather, she worked through a period of highs and lows to achieve professional status, the memories of which have noticeably ingrained in the youngster a steely determination to succeed.

“It was the end of 2018 and I was flying high from everything I had done at college and I decided to take a year out to focus on football,” she recalled.

“That year was football, football, football and I was trying to achieve as much as I could. I was probably playing at my best level, playing with so much confidence and I was involved in all the U18 and U19 England camps.

“We were preparing for the Euro 2019 qualifiers in Kazakhstan. A week before I tore my Medial Collateral Ligament against Tottenham and could not play in the tournament.

“I was out for around six months and that knocked my confidence quite a lot. I didn’t really get my confidence back probably until I came to London.”

It was a cruel blow for a player whose career had really started to blossom – Wilson captained Bristol City to victory in the Development FA Cup, beating Arsenal 4-0 in a final she described as a ‘massive highlight’.

When first-team manager Willie Kirk left the club, she came to the eventual realisation that she ‘couldn’t stay there any longer’.

While trying to find a new club can be a challenge, London City Lionesses was the perfect fit for Wilson. After the team then known as Millwall Lionesses somewhat acrimoniously separated from the men’s set-up, this new club was formed determined to prove the doubters wrong and that a women’s club could survive without being affiliated with a men’s side.

After difficult times, both the club and Wilson were determined to forge new identities for themselves.

If playing for a team who are determined to showcase themselves as a pioneering force both on and off the pitch brings pressure, Wilson certainly does not show it.

“At the end of the day, I don’t feel that we have that pressure and we can go into every game almost as the underdogs. It’s exciting to be the only women’s team, alongside Durham Wildcats, in our league without men’s backing,” she said with a grin.

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So, what next for Poppy? When questioned about her own ambitions she was reluctant to place too much expectation on herself.

Instead, she talked with refreshing honesty about how she wants to recapture the same freedom she played with at the beginning of her footballing journey.

“To be honest when people ask me, they expect: play for England and in the Women’s Super League, but for me I don’t want to put that pressure on myself,” she said.

“I just want to be the best I can be and play at the highest level I can, and that way I can enjoy it along the way. I have put too much pressure on myself over the years.

“Obviously, I want to play for England and in the Super League but at the moment my goal is to be the best I can be. I’m in a really good place and Lisa the new manager has just come in. It just looks really exciting.”

Cricket’s female commentators shining bright despite gloomy start to British summer

The return of Test match cricket last week brought back a sense of familiarity long sought by so many.

Rain delays, English batting collapses and the result going down to the wire – it was as though nothing had changed, despite the lack of crowd.

As always, the tense and exciting game between England’s men and the West Indies was brought into our homes thanks to the fantastic coverage from Sky Sports and the BBC’s Test Match Special (TMS).

Alongside depicting the on pitch action, their coverage also reminded us that cricket is at the forefront of normalising the presence of female commentators.

The sound of Alison Mitchell, Isa Guha and Ebony Rainford-Brent behind the microphone has become as regular as England’s middle order throwing their wickets away over the last few years.

Many sports have seemingly been reluctant to include women in their broadcast teams until recently. And even when they have, they’re often very quickly criticised – who remembers the furore that followed Alex Scott, Eni Aluko and Vicki Sparks during the 2018 men’s football World Cup?

But when it comes to cricket not only have women become a regular feature; they’re deeply respected members of the cricketing family.

There’s no sense of a box ticking exercise here; all three are highly regarded and it feels as though they are rewarded with so many illustrious gigs purely on merit. And that’s how it should be.

A regular across the BBC since the early 2000s, Mitchell became the first regular female commentator on TMS in 2007 and is recognised as one of the best in the business. This was reflected by her peers when she was voted the SJA Sports Broadcaster of the Year in 2013.

A former world number one ranked bowler and World Cup winner, Guha made the seamless transition into the media during the early 2010s and has quickly become one of the most respected commentators around. Having worked for ITV, Sky Sports and Fox Cricket in Australia, she was named as the lead presenter for the BBC’s highlights shows this summer, the first time the broadcaster has shown any form of home Test cricket since 1999.

Rainford-Brent followed a similar path to Guha, who she won the 2009 ODI and T20 World Cup with, after retiring in 2010. She made her first TMS appearance in 2012 and became one of the first female expert summarisers to commentate on the men’s game. Having been a regular on TMS, she recently made the switch to Sky’s coverage and has already proved her worth. She also delivered an extraordinarily powerful speech on racism in cricket that you must watch.

Alongside these three regulars, our airwaves have also been graced by a host of other fine female commentators in recent years. Mel Jones and Natalie Germanos were a joy to listen to during last summer’s men’s World Cup and England internationals Charlotte Edwards and Alex Hartley have provided plenty of laughs and interesting points whenever they’ve appeared.

That’s not to say everything is perfect. There are still significantly more male commentators and pundits around and it has only been in the last five years that the presence of women has become a regular occurrence.

But what cricket is proving is that women most definitely have a place when it comes to talking about sport, especially ‘men’s sport’. Not that anyone should have ever doubted that would be the case.

Unfortunately that is exactly what many ignorant individuals do believe; women shouldn’t be allowed to commentate on men’s sport because they don’t understand it.

Really? Really?

While we believe that men’s and women’s sport should never be directly compared (and instead celebrated in their own individual ways), only a moron would be of the mindset that a woman should not be talking about men. It’s the same game!

Cricket should not rest on its laurels though. Yes they are leading the way at the moment but there is still a lot more work to be done.

How many female print journalists can you name? Alongside Mitchell, Lizzy Ammon is one of a relatively small collection of women writing about the sport in this country while Australian Melinda Farrell is another well respected reporter.

It’s well known that the proportion of women in the sports media is significantly smaller than it should be. Statistics in the USA last year suggested that 90% of male sports reporters, journalists, broadcasters etc. were men. It’s just not acceptable.

But what Mitchell, Guha and Rainford-Brent are doing is proving that it is now possible for women to not only enter what is still a male-dominated industry; they can thrive in it too.

There are so many talented female sports journalists out there – let’s just hope they get the chance they deserve.

Cricket is back and with it is the hope that things can change, although perhaps not England’s fortunes with the bat just yet…

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.