Back on Target

31st August 2018

Team games are for the young, surely? Not so. Heather Harris discovers that more women are going back to the sports they used to play.

Never mind ‘Me Too’… when it comes to impressive campaigns This Girl Can has arguably had just as important an impact – and without the Hollywood backing.

Featuring women of all shapes, sizes, race and religion, This Girl Can was aimed at encouraging women to take up exercise, and prompted by 2015 figures showing that 1.73 million fewer women than men played sport once they hit the teenage years.

Developed by Sport England and funded by the National Lottery, the campaign’s ‘warts and all’ posters and TV adverts showed real women sweating, red faced and struggling through a variety of sports from Archery to Zumba – and everything in between.

“Any woman will tell you about the internal dialogue that goes on in her head, particularly when she thinks about sport, exercise and getting fit”, said Sport England CEO Jennie Price. “It’s stuff like ‘I’m too fat to do this’ or ‘I’m not fit enough to go to that class’, or ‘If I get on that treadmill and press that button and fall off, I’m going to look really stupid and everybody is going to stare at me, and I’m certainly not going to wear those clothes to do it’.”

The campaign is designed to overcome the secret dissuading voices in women’s heads. “We are trying to say it’s perfectly normal to feel like that, don’t beat yourself up about it.”

And the result is that 2.8 million 14-40-year-old women registered on their website to dip their toe in the water or put their best foot forward… often for the first time since their schooldays.

In fact, whereas traditionally it would be the male partners pulling on their Lycra or golfing gear after work, now more and more women are just as likely to be heading for their local sports centre than to book club, the theatre, choir practice or their favourite cocktail bar.

This is certainly true for 70-year-old Denise Barraclough. Struggling to cope with evenings on her own after the loss of her husband, she saw an advert for her local Rounders Club. “I’d played rounders at school and loved it! I’d kept myself fit through walking and the gym and suddenly thought: this club is perhaps just what I need!”

After speaking to the organiser (who checked she was over 14…), Denise tentatively went to her first training session.

“I was so nervous, but the ladies couldn’t be more welcoming and straight away I loved the whole atmosphere – even though I was the oldest!”

A year on and Denise cannot speak passionately enough about how her two-hour weekly training sessions, including fitness and matches, have got her through a very tough time in her life.

“There’s something about exercising – especially in the fresh air – that is so good for the mind as well as the body. I’m still not brilliant but I’m getting better every week,” she told me, adding that her grown-up son and daughter are seriously impressed by her new-found activity – which 89,300 adults are now regularly playing around the UK.

As Alison Howard, CEO of Rounders England, was keen to point out, “Rounders is an all-inclusive game, suitable for all ages with mass appeal and Denise’s experience exemplifies that statement.”

She went on to explain how many women – including Denise – are also surprised by how much they enjoy the competitive side when they return to playing sport. They enjoy the challenge it brings.

That view is shared by 47-year-old part-time teacher, Donna Marie Swift from Amersham, who realised that she spent far too much time watching her four children play sport while being totally inactive herself, “except for the odd home fitness DVD”.

After giving up her teaching job and settling her youngest child into full-time school she sat down in January and started googling.

“I saw an advert for Back to Netball. I hadn’t played for 20 years but had always enjoyed it so I rang Chesham Stags, my local club,”

Secretary Laura Dent picked up the phone and the rest is history. Laura still remembers the first time she met Donna: “I persuaded her to come along to a training session and she looked so shy and nervous, I wondered if she’d ever come back!”

In fact, Donna compared the buzz she got as being like a puppy dog unable to calm down. “I was shaking as I was so exhausted, but everyone was so friendly, I loved it!”

Like Denise with rounders, though, she quickly got the bug and now plays regularly in a team, and is even off on their annual netball tour to Bournemouth – something she seems endearingly shocked by.

“As women we can always make excuses not to exercise, and often blame guilt at leaving the children and putting ourselves first. But I genuinely believe I am now a great role model. They see how much I love my sport and it encourages them to keep active,” she told me, adding that she also enjoys the fact there’s no other school parents there, “so I can be Donna the netball player, not someone’s mum!”

Joining her on the netball court is Margery Youngs, who drew up a ‘to do’ list for her 50th birthday, which included ‘going back to playing netball’. After her first training session, her husband was so impressed he posted it on his Facebook page and she received masses of supportive comments from friends and family, including an old friend in Australia.

“I’m now playing three times a week and have had all sorts of injuries but I keep coming back as the endorphins I get from the fresh air is fantastic. I also enjoy the fact it’s all women and everyone is so supportive and non-judgemental,” she told me, admitting she plans never to give up.

I was surprised to hear from Helen Wynn from England Netball that the Back to Netball scheme is actually ten years old. “But every year it has risen in popularity, particularly in the 30-60 years bracket with 60% of the 10,000 players now fitting this demographic,” she explained.

The England Hockey Association run a similar scheme, and agrees that the This Girl Can Campaign has really helped encourage more ‘mature’ women back into their shin pads and mouth guards.

For 47-year-old Roz Martin, returning to the hockey of her schooldays was a family affair, as her 24-year-old niece Jess also plays. “There’s also an increasing number of mums and daughters and dads and daughters playing, which is great, even when the youngsters quickly overtake us older players.” Initially Roz went along to the Hockey Club in Rickmansworth as a way to meet people after moving here from South Africa…

“And it worked: at the very first training session I met a lady from Scotland and she’s now one of my closest friends.”

Like rounders and netball, hockey is seeing an increase in adult players and clubs such as Rickmansworth regularly field teams where players can range in age from 13 to 50.

As Roz explained, “We are a very sociable club and are not as competitive as some of the others, as we want to encourage everyone to have a go no matter what their ability.”

Despite still bearing the mental and physical scars of my time as school team hockey goalie, when frostbite was a real possibility, I did find Roz’s enthusiasm was certainly infectious.

In fact, listening to all these women – and watching again the This Girl Can TV advert – had me heading for the loft in search of potential sports equipment.

Sadly, woodworm had made a meal out of my old hockey stick and I still can’t throw or catch (I blame it on being that child in the class with the permanent eye patch on my specs). But there’s nothing to stop me taking the plunge at something else – so I’ve just signed up for adult swimming lessons. Sport England have convinced me that This Girl Can finally learn to do front crawl at the age of 54…

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