Why are women still not be­com­ing team play­ers?

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - Words NIKKI OSMAN pho­tog­ra­phy TOM WATKINS

Team sports have the power to trans­form your health, wealth and hap­pi­ness. So why are women still not play­ing? We sent a WH staffer back to the net­ball court to find out

The juice from an or­ange drib­bling down my chin. A bib bear­ing the musty smell of a life spent in­side the equip­ment cupboard. The sharp, sting­ing pain of a ball con­nect­ing with my cheek. Th­ese are my time-tan­gled mem­o­ries of the net­ball court where I spent most of my hours be­tween the ages of 11 and 16. Ty­ing them all to­gether in a bow is a feel­ing that can be ar­tic­u­lated with a sin­gle word: team. It wasn’t just net­ball. There was gym­nas­tics, swim­ming, ath­let­ics, cricket (cricket!). Sport in­fil­trated my Tues­day evenings and my Sat­ur­day morn­ings; I hung my medals on the door of my wardrobe; I was (whis­per it) a joiner. It was an iden­tity that cul­mi­nated in a GCSE in PE – a qual­i­fi­ca­tion that re­mained on my CV for far longer than I’m proud of. But ‘sporty’ was a la­bel I wore with pride. So, why, 15 years later, is it noth­ing more than a dis­tant mem­ory? In the life­time since I last slipped a bib over my head, I’ve done barre, I’ve boxed and I’ve burpeed. I’ve made time for Sun­day morn­ing sun salu­ta­tions and I’ve pounded pave­ments un­til my legs were strong enough to carry me 26.2 miles. And yet, I’ve never re­turned to the net­ball court – nor any other kind of pitch, ground or track. And I’m not the ex­cep­tion, I’m the rule. While men grow out of PE class and into five-a-side games, lo­cal leagues and just-forthe-hell-of-it kick­abouts, post-ed­u­ca­tion, women shelve their com­pet­i­tive spirit and leave it to gather dust. So says a re­cent Girls in Sports study, which found that by age 17, more than half of girls have quit play­ing sports al­to­gether. And, ac­cord­ing to Sport Eng­land, al­most twice as many men reg­u­larly play team sports com­pared with women. When I re­flect upon my own flak­i­ness, it’s the same old BS. Dur­ing fresh­ers’ week at Not­ting­ham Uni­ver­sity, I marched right on past the sports stands to the pub. Then I moved back to Lon­don, where new trumped old – why play ball games when I could take up box­ing? Fast for­ward to the present day and, de­spite work­ing at the finest health mag­a­zine in the coun­try – a team pop­u­lated by proud join­ers – I brush aside the Face­book ap­peals for ‘a wing at­tack needed for tonight’s game!’ and I cook the din­ner on Thurs­days when my boyfriend plays seven-a-side foot­ball lo­cally. Team sport is for other peo­ple; some­thing I left be­hind with my fringe and my braces. But stud­ies sug­gest that I could be miss­ing out on more than a bit of ban­ter. Re­searchers from LSE found that by play­ing team sports, par­tic­i­pants boosted their long-term hap­pi­ness and over­all life sat­is­fac­tion. The au­thors stud­ied sur­vey data from 459 ath­letes aged 12 to 20 from a di­verse range of sports. They posited that key to the im­prove­ment in sat­is­fac­tion were the per­sonal re­la­tion­ships that de­velop through those group in­ter­ac­tions, as well as feel­ings of be­long­ing. Play­ing sport can even be a pre­dic­tor of fu­ture ca­reer suc­cess. A 2013 study found that 96% of fe­male C-suite ex­ec­u­tives (women with CEO, CFO and COO ti­tles) played sports as teenagers. The the­ory goes that sport gives you a com­pet­i­tive edge and an abil­ity to prob­lem­solve that stay with you. In this sense, it seems that play­ing a team sport can im­prove your health and wellbeing in ways that go­ing for a run or tak­ing a Pi­lates class sim­ply can’t match. So it’s in the spirit of gonzo jour­nal­ism that I agree, aged 30, to join a net­ball team.


I find out the pub­lish­ing com­pany that pro­duces this very mag­a­zine has a team – they play in a league on Wednes­day evenings. A quick glance at the squad list and I see the name of a woman I used to work with. I’m re­as­sured by the prom­ise of a friendly face and, a few emails later, I’m in. Re­vis­ing the rules and prac­tis­ing my piv­ots,

it all starts com­ing back to me and I won­der why I was so quick to quit a sport I used to love. To get some in­sight, I speak to Kate Dale, the woman at the helm of Sport Eng­land’s This Girl Can cam­paign. Since it launched in 2015, it’s made a big im­pact on the is­sue of women shy­ing away from sport and fit­ness – al­most four mil­lion of you have done more sport or phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity as a di­rect re­sult of the cam­paign. Kate ex­plains that my re­la­tion­ship with team sport harks back to my school days. ‘One of the most com­mon themes we see is that women hold on to neg­a­tive as­so­ci­a­tions with sport that were formed when they first played it – more of­ten than not, at school,’ she says. ‘That might be be­cause sport wasn’t de­liv­ered in a pos­i­tive way; maybe you just weren’t very good at it and you were al­ways picked last; or it could be the sim­ple fact that you were asked to do it at a time when you were at your most body-con­scious. You can know on an in­tel­lec­tual level that it won’t be like that now you’re a grown-up and can do things on your own terms. But that fear of be­ing judged can en­dure for years.’ Quizzing my friends un­cov­ers count­less sto­ries I hope they’ll for­give me for com­mit­ting to print – be­ing picked last for hockey ev­ery week, spec­tac­u­larly stack­ing it on the ath­let­ics track and a toe-curl­ing tale of a pe­riod stain on a white ten­nis skirt in a mixed-dou­bles tour­na­ment. The shar­ing brings to mind a mem­ory I’ve buried so deep I need a fig­u­ra­tive fork­lift to bring it to the sur­face. It turns out I have a story of my own, and I need to tell it quickly be­fore I chicken out. I was 13 when I forgot my gym kit one day. I turned up on the sports field all the same, as­sum­ing that be­ing kit-less would count me out. There isn’t a name for the spe­cific shade of scar­let my face turns as the teacher de­mands I strip down to my knick­ers. The field goes quiet. She can’t be se­ri­ous. Ex­cept she is. And she isn’t the kind of teacher you pick a fight with. I can still feel the hot tears on my wind-raw cheeks as I spend an hour run­ning, jump­ing and throw­ing in a pair of three-for-a-fiver pants.


A Wednes­day night sees me walk the mile from my of­fice to a cen­tral Lon­don school, wind my way through cor­ri­dors that smell like bleach and nos­tal­gia and find the net­ball court. The ban­ter is flow­ing, but it flows right over my head. The girl I thought I knew turns out to be some­one else with the same name and I re­alise she was my com­fort blan­ket. I make my in­tros, learn some names and make a net­ball joke (it doesn’t land). But it isn’t just the small talk that’s un­set­tling me. I’m ner­vous – ridicu­lously, ir­ra­tionally so. From mess­ing up my foot­work to throw­ing the ball the wrong way, I’m con­vinced I’m a whis­tle blow away from hu­mil­i­a­tion. Why is some­thing that’s sup­posed to be fun, with no le­git­i­mate con­se­quences, mak­ing me feel this way? Is this about the knick­ers? It could be, ac­cord­ing to sport and ex­er­cise psy­chol­o­gist Dr Jill Owen. ‘An ex­pe­ri­ence that has neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions is far more likely to stick in your mind than a pos­i­tive or neu­tral ex­pe­ri­ence – and can resur­face from your sub­con­scious years later,’ she says. ‘You’ve formed an as­so­ci­a­tion, at some level, be­tween play­ing sport and feel­ing hu­mil­i­ated, so there’s a fear of it hap­pen­ing again. Be­cause of the age at which most peo­ple start play­ing sport and the spe­cific as­so­ci­a­tions around it – courts, fields and pitches – it’s a com­mon thing to form emo­tional mem­o­ries around.’ But as­so­ci­a­tions can be bro­ken. With enough pos­i­tive mem­o­ries and an at­ti­tude shift, you re­ally can chalk up PE in your pants, get­ting picked last for a team or a pe­riod-re­lated wardrobe mal­func­tion to ex­pe­ri­ence. ‘This is based on the the­ory of


growth mind­set – the idea that your brain and your abil­i­ties are much less fixed than pre­vi­ously thought,’ adds Dr Owen. ‘You might have an ex­pe­ri­ence that leads to a con­clu­sion and, in your mind, that’s fixed. But neu­ral path­ways can change, and so too can the con­clu­sions you’ve formed. But you need to be open to it. It has to come from you.’ In search of a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, I grab a bib. The whis­tle blows. I run for the ball. No­body looks for me. It gets passed the other way. It skips down the court like a peb­ble on a pond. Th­ese girls know what they’re do­ing and they have their group dy­namic down. Why would they look for me? I take a throwin and pass it straight to the other team. They shoot. They score. This does not feel pos­i­tive. But I’ve got Kate in my ear. ‘What’s the worst that can hap­pen? This isn’t school any more. You won’t get picked last. You won’t get de­ten­tion. And if you hate it, you can leave. Re­mem­ber, it’s sup­posed to be fun.’ I need to write that word on my hand. She’s right, of course. By the fourth quar­ter, the en­dor­phins are flow­ing – net­ball is ba­si­cally Ta­bata – and de­spite my touches on the ball be­ing few and far be­tween, I’m start­ing to en­joy my­self. We lose 24-12. Shit hap­pens. No­body seems to mind. On the walk back to the Tube, some­one prom­ises to bring me a team T-shirt for next week’s game. I’ve never had one be­fore.


The email drops into my in­box while I’m drink­ing my morn­ing cof­fee. It’s the team sheet for the next game and, though I ex­pect to be on the bench, I’m down to play wing at­tack. This must be a mis­take. I’m the but­terfin­gers who cost us the game last week. Slip­ping into my bib that evening, I feel the way I sus­pect a cer­tain mop-haired politi­cian must have felt the day he was named for­eign sec­re­tary. I can hold my own in a race and I know my way round the weights room, but put me in a bib I don’t feel like I de­serve and I feel my­self shrink. It shouldn’t sur­prise me that the im­poster syn­drome I’m ex­pe­ri­enc­ing isn’t just play­ing out in my mind, but on the court, too. ‘Go into a game telling your­self that you don’t be­long, that you’re not bring­ing any­thing to the party, and it will be­come a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy,’ ex­plains Dr Owens. ‘But go into it know­ing your role and the cog that you are in the ma­chine of the game and it will be re­flected in your per­for­mance.’ Per­haps it’s the rea­son my team­mates are killing it out here. Watch­ing them work to­gether, I re­alise how much I envy them

– not their passes or their piv­ots, but the way they take up space. It’s about con­fi­dence; it’s the body lan­guage that says, ‘I be­long here’ – and it’s a thing. ‘If I can get women to change one thing about their be­lief sys­tem around sport, it’s this,’ says Kate. ‘You do be­long here. When I go to the park on a Sun­day, I don’t want to see women run­ning around the edges; I want to see them on the fields and the pitches. Some­times, it’s as if we push our­selves out to the fringes – and when you think about it, this can be a metaphor for life, too. It’s em­pow­er­ing to take up space. The park, the pitch, the field – it be­longs to you, too. You pay your coun­cil tax!’


It’s the fi­nal game of the sea­son. And, with the words of a pro­fes­sional ring­ing in my ears, I’m ready. I put on my favourite Lu­l­ule­mons – re­search sug­gests that, just as ill-fit­ting, ugly kit can put you off, don­ning the Ly­cra you love can em­power you to per­form bet­ter – and I change into my team T-shirt. I put on my bib – I’ve earned it – and I stand up straight. ‘Nice one, Becks!’ shouts some­one. ‘Yes, Yaz!’ yells an­other. You know you’ve made it in net­ball when your name gets ab­brev’d. I run. I jump. I mark. I in­ter­cept a pass. ‘Yes, Nikki!’ shout three sep­a­rate voices. It’s not ‘Nik’ – not yet – but I can’t fight the smile creep­ing across my lips. That’s the thing about team sport – it isn’t just about the en­dor­phins. ‘A dif­fer­ent kind of con­fi­dence comes from en­gag­ing in a phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity as part of a group. You’re work­ing to­gether to achieve a shared goal and there’s a real sense of ca­ma­raderie and be­long­ing that comes with that,’ ex­plains Dr Owens. But she doesn’t have to. Amid the bad knick­ers and blushes are a thou­sand happy mem­o­ries. De­briefs over or­ange seg­ments and ap­ple juice; bumpy bus rides back from tour­na­ments feel­ing drunk on a hard-earned vic­tory; the all-in-this-to-get-her­ness of be­ing beaten 10-0. We lose (again). But I’m buzzing. Af­ter the match, we cram to­gether in a busy beer gar­den. Split­ting a bot­tle of house white with th­ese women I can’t have spent more than a cou­ple of hours with in re­cent weeks, I know for sure that some­thing has shifted. I’m new to this team, but I’m part of it. I might have swapped the ap­ple juice for some­thing stronger and I’m wear­ing marginally nicer knick­ers, but some things don’t change.


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