‘Get your pre-baby body back? We just want mums to enjoy sport again’
Ex-England netball coach Tracey Neville wants to help mothers to overcome fears, she tells Fiona Tomas
Scrolling through her inbox, Sorcha Mac Laimhin clicked on the email sent to her by a well-known pregnancy and parenting company.
Having given birth three months earlier, the subject header piqued her curiosity: ‘The ultimate guide to shaping up post-baby’.
Opening it, her eyes wandered on to a photo of bronzed, bikini-clad women with flat tummies, accompanied with the caption, “seven easy ways to get your pre-baby body back!”
“I was absolutely horrified,” recalls Mac Laimhin. “Why was a company which was meant to be supporting mums putting pressure on them like that?’ I just thought it was completely wrong.”
The negative messaging immediately struck a chord with Mac Laimhin, a competitive rugby player with 25 appearances for Irish provincial side Ulster under her belt.
Before the pandemic, she returned to the pitch and played a few games for her local club, Cooke RFC, and was relishing the familiar feeling of exercising with friends, even if it meant pumping her sore breasts before training on several cold November evenings last year.
When lockdown hit, Mac Laimhin felt uneasy about the sudden societal pressure to buy into the online home workout craze while trying to navigate the tricky path of motherhood in almost complete isolation.
Eager to champion mothers who juggle sport and family life, she launched Mama Loves Sport, a platform celebrating ordinary mums who play sport at community level.
“When we talk about mums getting active again – that’s just it – getting mums moving again after having a baby,” says Mac Laimhin.
“It’s so negative and damaging. Why are we focusing on an aesthetic when we should be encouraging mums to play sports because it’s fun, it’s a mental break and it’s great for you physically?
“We so rarely celebrate mums who play sport and the focus tends to be on getting back to an active lifestyle and the dreaded ‘snappingback’ – getting your pre-pregnancy jeans back on and losing the ‘mum tum’.”
That is something which former national netball coach Tracey Neville, who guided England to a historic Commonwealth gold medal two years ago, can relate to.
For Neville, who gave birth to baby
Nev two days before the
UK went into lockdown, learning the ropes of motherhood in the middle of a pandemic took away her feeling of self-worth and heightened body image and exercise concerns.
This even extended to the most menial of tasks like wearing leggings for the online launch of the Baby to Baller series on social media – a free, six-week video series incorporating netball skills into gentle home workouts designed to suit post-partum bodies and help new mums get active. “I was actually scared to do exercise,” Neville tells Telegraph
Sport. “Sometimes when I did a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) session and Nev was crying, I had to stop and it felt like I failed. Then I thought there was no point doing 20 minutes, because I was never going to get it done.”
Baby to Baller was unveiled alongside research from health insurer Vitality, which surveyed 1,000 women about how the lockdown had impacted their relationship with exercise.
It found nearly two thirds of mothers felt isolated, while a similar proportion said they would like to exercise more but did not know how to with a new baby.
At 43, Neville’s pregnancy was classed as high-risk which meant she limited her exercise and one of her greatest challenges was the uncertainty of bouncing back from having a caesarean.
“I had a midwife and health visitor, the NHS were unbelievable, but I didn’t leave with a plan, I just got told I couldn’t do anything for six weeks,” she said. “We never say to our athletes: ‘You don’t do anything for six weeks.’ There’s always something light they can do. [With a C-section] there’s no individualisation with what you’re doing.”
Earlier this month Nike launched its first maternity sport clothing range – including a sports bra that allows wearers to breastfeed – with elite-level mums gaining a higher profile. Serena Williams, Tsvetana Pironkova, and Victoria Azarenka all advanced to the quarter-finals of the US Open – the first time three mums had reached that stage.
Iconic US footballer Alex Morgan, who gave birth in May, is planning a speedy return to the game by signing for Tottenham Hotspur in England’s Women’s Super League, and Britain’s cycling mum Lizzie Deignan triumphed at La Course last month.
Despite openly admitting her ‘mum tum’ is now one of her biggest insecurities, Neville was adamant Baby to Baller did not morph into another “lose weight thing” at a time when, in addition to managing their pregnancy weight, women are being told to shift their ‘lockdown lard’.
“I’m six months out from having a baby, I’ve not got the perfect body, but I just want to be active. It’s not just about getting back into shape as quick as you can – it’s about everything that comes with that.”
Mac Laimhin agrees: “I’ve been involved in sport far too long to worry about what my body looks like. I’m far more worried about what my body can do.”
Two mums, one with a grassroots past, the other a former elite athlete, united in their aim to harness the mental and physical benefits of sport at a time when it is needed more than ever.
‘I was scared to exercise after having my baby. I thought there was no point’