Why are women still not becoming team players?
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.
GYM CLASS ZEROS
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.
ALL THE GEAR
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
‘YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH TEAM SPORTS HARKS BACK TO SCHOOL DAYS’
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.
‘IF YOU HATE IT, YOU CAN LEAVE –REMEMBER, IT SHOULD BE FUN’