Portrait

She Speaks with Elsa Arapi

Born and raised in Athens, Greece, Elsa Arapi studied philosophy, theatre and scriptwriting and saw her future in the arts, having worked for a film festival and film production company upon graduation.  She thought it would be great to be involved in the Athens 2004 Olympic Summer Games and worked for the host broadcaster for two years, before roles at the Turin 2006 Olympic Winter Games and many events after that, mainly FIFA World Cups and UEFA Euros. Since 2019 she has focused on promoting gender equality in sports broadcasting on- and off-screen through the EBU Women’s Sport Initiative.

It looks like you have two roles at EBU, can you tell us a bit about how this came to be? 

I was hired to do sports rights for football in 2016 and two years later I got involved with the staff gender equality focus group. It’s something I am very passionate about so when we decided to launch the initiative on women’s sport, I think our management felt that I was a natural fit for the role.

What are the goals of the Women in Sport project and from where did the push for this originate? 

The initiative aims to drive increased coverage of women’s sport, a bias-free portrayal of women athletes as well as promote gender equality in the sports units of our members across roles and hierarchies.

It’s part of an overarching effort at the EBU to promote gender equality coupled with a strong belief in the business case for women’s sport. We see immense potential in women’s sport and we want to make sure our members reap the benefits of its growth.

What’s been the biggest change that you’ve seen for women in this industry since you started?

When it comes to sports broadcasting, the change is noticeable. In the beginning we were speaking mostly to deaf ears. A couple of years into the project people were paying attention, asking questions and engaging more with our programs. In this past year, the third since our launch, I’ve seen members volunteer information about how they are developing women’s sport in their programming, others have started setting targets and measuring and a couple even asked for tailor-made workshops for their editorial and production teams. It’s not perfect but the progress is visible and this is very gratifying for us.

And conversely, what are the challenges that still need to be addressed?

Culture is a big obstacle in what we are trying to achieve with women’s sport. Gender bias is very hard to break and there are territories where, for example, women’s football is not something that will be shown on TV.

We have also seen that we cannot have one-size-fits-all solutions for the EBU territory, which is so large and so diverse. To address these specificities we are setting up regional working groups, with mentors who represent similar organisations in terms of cultural background, size, capabilities etc. so that the solutions we propose are more impactful and more transformative.

What does a typical day/week/event look like for you?

On a typical week work fluctuates between 40 to 45 hours, and I spend about 15 hours studying or attending lectures for my master’s programme. My most precious time is the time I spend with my daughter, even if it’s driving her to football, classes and all those things kids do that make their lives as busy as ours.

What’s your favourite part of your job?

The women’s sport initiative.

What advice would you give your younger self, that you wish you’d known when starting out? 

Those things that are going to come your way that you’ll think you can’t do, you can.

Who has been influential in your career, a guiding light, if you will? 

I’ve never had a mentor or role model as such but I am lucky to be surrounded by brilliant, accomplished women who are both an inspiration and a source of confidence for me. Female camaraderie can be a powerful thing.

Is there any other job or industry that you’d like to explore or that fascinates you? 

A couple of years ago I decided to pursue a graduate degree in International Relations (out of intellectual curiosity) and I have become fascinated with it. I don’t see it as a distinct career path but there are linkages between my studies and what I do when it comes to policy, advocacy and sports diplomacy and that’s worth exploring.

What are the key skills (hard or soft) required to work in your role/industry? 

Eye for detail, internal and external stakeholder management, ability to work in a multicultural community. After two long years of covid, humour, patience and empathy are also more important than ever. 

How has Covid affected your job and the way you work? 

There’s been the good and the bad, as with everything else. Working from home has given me a lot of flexibility in organising my day and it’s been easier to engage with people due to the absence of travel and commutes which took up so much of their time. Attending events has become much more complicated and cumbersome with the different medical protocols, continuous testing and all the logistical challenges that come with each event’s/country’s restrictions.  

What do you do to stay motivated and inspired? 

I am inspired by sharp minds and brave hearts and motivated by instances of sexism, because it reminds me that we shouldn’t be complacent — there is still a long way to go for women in the industry. 

How do you manage your time and competing priorities? 

Pursuing a very demanding academic programme with a full-time job and a family makes insane demands on my time. My day starts very early and finishes very late, with a strict schedule of what I do when. Most of the time that works,  but other times it doesn’t, and that’s OK. I am moving away from the ‘do all, be all’ mindset that is failing so many women. Lately, I am making a conscious effort to schedule things for myself during the day, things I enjoy doing, even if it’s something small or something I do for a short amount of time. 

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She Speaks With Ana-Marija Garcevic

Ana-Marija Garcevic, 45, is a Croatian living in Switzerland for the last 15 years.

She started rowing during the 1990s in Zagreb, at the same time as the war in Croatia was starting. She didn’t know it then, but rowing became a welcome distraction from the gloom of early 90s Croatia, and was a ‘cheap’ way to travel and learn about other cultures.     

She reached the national team level and competed at the World Championships U23 (Milan, Italy) in double sculls where she and her partner came in 4th.  

After working at the International Canoe Federation from 2005, she started work at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2008. She is the Head of Activities – Olympic Games Engagement since 2020.

It looks like you’ve gone from being an athlete to wearing a few hats at the IOC, can you tell us a bit about how this came to be? 

It’s been a journey for sure! I was a rower in Zagreb (Croatia) during the 90s (yes, during the war), and as my sport career was clearly coming to an end towards 2000, I started to work part-time at the Zagreb Rowing Association, which led me to a job at the Croatian Rowing Federation, and two years later the Croatian Canoe-Kayak Federation, where I worked on a number of events. 

In 2005, I was offered a position at the International Canoe Federation, which was based in Madrid at the time, on the condition that I move to Switzerland in 2006. After moving to Lausanne, and answering a job ad in 2008, I started working at the IOC, and since then it’s been an incredible Olympic ride. Since 2008 I mostly worked in the Olympic Games Knowledge Transfer and a multitude of its practical programmes, and then a couple of years ago I switched to Olympic Games Engagement areas. 

Today I am responsible for the IOC Young Leaders programme, which is part of IOC’s broader vision to strengthen the role of sport in society as an important enabler for the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What are the goals of the IOC Young Leaders programme and from where did the push for this originate?

The programme was launched in 2016, with the key objective to empower young talents to leverage the power of sport in making a positive difference in their communities.

With the support of seed funding from the IOC and a network of mentors, these inspiring young people have delivered over 100 initiatives, reaching over 30,000 individual participants.

As agents of Olympism they have also spoken at many international events, spreading the message of sport for good. Eighteen IOC Young Leaders are currently serving as IOC Commission Members, which reflects the IOC’s commitment to include young voices in its decision-making process.

What’s been the biggest change that you’ve seen for women in this industry since you started?

Things have certainly changed. Mainly, I changed. Fifteen years ago, my younger self was much less confident and much less aware of the gender-related issues that women face in the business environment.

This is also what I think changed the most in the sports industry: the level of awareness that gender equality and equity is something we need to proactively work on, individually and collectively.

The subject is no longer an unknown topic or a taboo. It’s openly discussed and actively addressed. As a result of these efforts, and since I started at the IOC, the results are pretty obvious. Female participation at the Games is up, the number of women in the IOC Commissions is up, the ratio between male and female senior managers within the IOC has improved. All these numbers are progressively increasing and driving us towards gender balance.

And conversely, what are the challenges/frustrations that still need to be addressed?

Obviously, there will be different challenges in different environments. In Switzerland, but also in Croatia, where I’m from, the policy and the law have arrived, but now the culture needs to shift. The way we speak about women, the way we judge them, the way we pay them.

Unconscious bias is one of the challenges we all face, because we are all biased, whether we are aware of it or not. Our biases are influenced by our upbringing, education and exposure to various groups of people.

I’ll let you in on a secret: after years of considering myself a feminist, I am still slightly (unconsciously) biased when comparing women/men and career/family. I know this because I took a test: Select a Test (harvard.edu), and my responses suggest “a slight automatic association for Male with Career and Female with Family”. This is very likely influenced by the environment in which I grew up, my education and exposure to society, which is culturally quite “masculine” (according to Hofstede, 2001).  But now that I know this, I can act on it and be extra careful when making decisions that could be influenced by my bias.

Another one of my personal pet peeves: also, in the future I would love to see women not being judged on the basis of being “feminine” or “not feminine enough”, whether it’s in the workplace or other areas of life. Even today, I still face comments such as “she is pushy/opinionated” when a man would be characterized as “assertive / confident” for the exact same actions.  It would be fairly beneficial if all of us would ask ourselves why we as a society continue to rely on these double standards and particularly for women who are taking on and excelling in leadership positions? 

What does a typical day/week/event look like for you?

Working from home changed my working dynamic, as it did for most people. Typically, I get up early and do emails (in my pajamas) for the first hour and a half. Then I take the dog for a walk and often take a couple of operational calls during this time. Luckily, I work in an industry that promotes movement, and the people I work with are used to a bit of street noise, although I am aware that this can be annoying.

COVID has certainly influenced the way we work, and the biggest impact on me is missing my colleagues. I miss the laughs and coffee break chats. I feel COVID has done a number on collegial relations and, in some ways, it’s probably slowed down getting things done. You used to be able to solve a smaller issue with a 5-minute conversation, now everything needs scheduling. I especially feel bad for the newcomers who’ve joined us in the last two years, as they are still to build their social capital within the company.   

What’s your favourite part of your job or the best thing you’ve done, and why?

My favorite part is when I get to interact with the IOC Young Leaders. Talking to them, hearing about their successes and challenges, gives me a special boost and inspires me to continue doing what I’m doing. It reminds me that there is a very tangible impact of these efforts. Hearing how proud they are to take part in this programme makes me proud to be a part of it too.   

What advice would you give your younger self, that you wish you’d known when starting out?

You know, that’s so interesting, I think about it a lot, because I have a younger sister to whom I try to give advice (which is not always solicited). There are things I would’ve done differently, and also things that have been very hard, but which I don’t regret.

I would tell a younger me: “Integrity and honesty count, but most of all – it’s about the kindness and how people feel when you leave the room. So, be kinder to yourself and be kinder to others.”

I was very hard on myself throughout my life, and I think part of it morphed into putting high expectations on others, which was not always fair. The other thing I would tell myself: stop losing sleep over something that won’t matter in a year or even a week. I still stress over details too much.

Who has been influential in your career, a guiding light, if you will?

Many people. Probably my mom, who passed away when I was 15. She was the “pushy, opinionated” type and I think I got this from her. She was in politics and she spoke her mind. However, these days I actually look up to people around me and especially friends who are 10 years or more younger than me. It seems to me they figured it out. The way they handle life and themselves inspires me. I feel they are less hung up on the old ways and more forward-looking than my generation. For example, a couple of younger friends decided to do an MBA, so this inspired me to go back to study and do a master’s degree programme, once I saw them doing it in parallel with full-time jobs.

Others inspire me with how they don’t really care about what people think and how they don’t put all their eggs in one basket. It’s an attitude where failure is not a tragedy, but a part of life.

What are the key skills (hard or soft) required to work in your role/industry?

Besides the usual capabilities of managing projects, programmes and people, it is probably a lot about personality traits and relational abilities, which include emotional intelligence, maturity, tolerance of ambiguity, flexibility and respect, and connecting the dots in complex relational and cultural situations.

What do you do to stay motivated and inspired?

Dog, walking, fresh air, coffee breaks in local coffee shops, occasional weekend away. And watching reruns of The Office.

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She Speaks with Amy McCann

Amy McCann, who describes baseball as ‘pretty much my life’, enjoyed a wildly successful career playing that very sport for Australia for 12 years. While representing her country, she also worked full-time in Comms,  Media Operations and as a Media Liaison Officer, at numerous Olympic and Commonwealth Games and international sporting events. Amy grew up in Sydney and studied Sports Media Management in Canberra. She is currently the National Media Manager for AusCycling. In 2021, Amy was selected as one of only 15 women to take part in the landmark Change Our Game broadcasting program, which is aimed at building a new generation of women in broadcasting, on screen and behind the mic.

On what baseball means to her:

It sounds really corny and obvious, but there is basically hardly an element of my life that doesn’t revolve around baseball or is an effect of baseball. One day my dad recorded a Major League Baseball game on television. I went, ‘Oh my goodness, this is like the best thing I’ve ever seen!’ and I went ‘Find me a club Dad, I’ve got to play in a club’. Back in the early 90s, no girls played baseball in Australia and all the clubs said ‘No, you’ve got to go play softball’. And my dad kept saying ‘No, she wants to play baseball’. And then finally I found a club and played quite a bit in high school and absolutely loved it. I found a sport where I could hit something really hard, and was really challenging, and that’s pretty much it.

On her determination to find a team:

I really was, and I think I’ve always been, and still am to this day, a very determined person in anything that I do, whether it’s work, life, or renovating my house. So I think I decided I wanted to play it and I was like, I’m not taking no for an answer.

I always think about all the girls that might have just gone off to play baseball and when they’re told no, that’s it. So I feel sorry for the girls that went to another sport because they didn’t find a baseball club. It took me, I think, about a dozen clubs before I found one. I was the only girl in my league entirely playing with men my dad’s age. I was terrible. I couldn’t hit the ball very well. I was just awful. I just didn’t care. I just wanted to play.

After studying, I moved to Melbourne and didn’t really know anyone and found a club and started playing. About six months later, I was told ‘You’re really good, you should try out for the state team’. And within six months, I was in the Australian team! I didn’t even know women’s baseball existed on this scale. Women’s baseball really took off around the country about 20 years ago and I got really lucky. I’m not too old that I missed it!

On being a driving force and still playing baseball in her 40s:

I’ve played over 300 games in 20 years at my club and honestly, I’ve retired from the Australian team, but I decided to come back this year and I had training last night, so my body is a bit sore. I’ve been doing a lot of yoga during Covid, so I think I’m fit to get back into baseball.

One of things I love about baseball is it doesn’t discriminate based on body type or ability in strength. If you’re slow or you’re fast or you’re tall or you’re short or strong. I just think that anyone can play baseball. I just really love how different every single player on the field is, and we all make one team. And I just think that’s an amazing feeling when you make this awesome team together.

On navigating the demands of a full-time job with her representative baseball career and whether it was difficult to do so:

 During my Australian career, yes. I represented Australia for 12 years, and I was working full-time. So my life was nine-to-five work and at lunch time I was either in the gym or going for a run. In the mornings I was in the gym and most nights I was at baseball training. Pretty much all weekends were baseball training. Every holiday off work was a baseball camp. Every bit of money and savings were spent on baseball. I loved every second of it, but right now I really like having a life. It’s nice actually having money and spare time.

On the financial sacrifices made to pursue her passion:

I’m very, very lucky. I worked with Cycling Australia for a good while, and every single holiday I needed for my Nationals, my World Cups, they gave it to me. When I had to leave work early, start work early, they were just amazing. They understood that we didn’t have a choice. We all had to work because when we played baseball for Australia, we paid for everything. The World Cups were every two years, and so every few years, the World Cup would cost about $5000, two Nationals would cost about another $5000. Then you have your league fees, so there’s another $2000 and then you’ve got physios, equipment, travel. You’re looking at about, it’s up to nearly $20,000 every time you want to do that two-year cycle. I did that two-year cycle six times.

I would have easily spent 100 grand. But I wouldn’t trade a cent of it. I seriously wouldn’t trade a cent of it because I travelled the world, I lived in Japan, I won silver medals, I met my wife in baseball, that alone is worth everything. I wouldn’t trade a cent.

On the dearth of women sports commentators in Australia and other parts of the world:

I think the best way to change it is by commentating, and it’s really hard because I’ve obviously just started commentating women’s baseball and it’s very, very hard because the best way to change it is that there just needs to be more opportunities given to the women, because historically men just get all the roles. And that’s because so often, in particular sports like mine, the men’s sport has such a high profile. A lot of people don’t know that the women’s teams exist. And that is changing. I think, if women get more opportunities in those high-profile games where you have commentating opportunities, you’ll get more women commentating. We will get more practice, and I think from that, we will get more opportunities to commentate male sports.

There are arguments sometimes that people don’t think that men should call sports played by women. But then that same argument, they don’t want to say that women shouldn’t call sports played by men. I think you should just be calling sports if you’re good enough to call sports. In Australia, there’s not a lot of opportunities because baseball isn’t regularly on television. And when it’s on television a few times, the first stories always go to the men to commentate.

I think when there’s more women on TV, there’s more women in the news. There’ll be more people writing about it, talking about it, commentating. So I think, people just have to bite the bullet, the TV networks have to bite the bullet. I’ve seen that when women get an opportunity, women can be such experts in their field, like, I didn’t realise how much I actually knew about baseball until they stuck a microphone in my face.

I remember once when I commentated, I had so many people messaging me, and saying that ‘You’re telling the stories of all these players that no one knows’, because I know all of the girls in the Australian baseball team and I knew who came back from an injury, who was a softballer, so I was able to tell all of these stories.

It was really nice to hear people saying ‘Oh, you’re really explaining the whole story!’ And it was nice that I made more people enjoy women’s baseball. That’s what I wanted. Hopefully by commentating, there’s someone who’s 12 or 15, who then goes, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve heard a woman’s voice!’ Because there’s very few women commentating baseball in the world, that’s for sure.

I didn’t even think it was an option. I didn’t even think about it until someone told me a year ago and I just said yes to the opportunity without thinking and then realised, ‘Oh my goodness, I have to commentate on live TV, I don’t know what I’m talking about!’ But it turns out I did.

On first-time commentating nerves:

I was so nervous! When we were commentating the games that were on television it was live to an international audience, to the U.S, to Japan and Australia, and I just got there and they gave me a headset and said, ‘Here are the buttons, we’ll have some hand signals and we want you to talk. I had to understand all that.

On the biggest changes for women that she’s seen since she started working in sports:

Some of the things I think I’ve seen improve is the number of women in major roles. At the moment, Australia has a lot of women CEOs in national sporting organisations. 

I think there are a lot of females in media roles and in high-level media/marketing/comms roles. I think that’s great, but I still feel in certain sports that there are predominantly men in coaching and sport science roles. One thing I think hasn’t improved, and while we’re seeing some sports get more television time in Australia, most women’s sports are getting a lack of this exposure in the newspapers. 

If you open the newspaper, it’s just football, cricket, horse racing, and that’s it. So that’s disappointing. I think media coverage hasn’t got any better, apart from a few sports. There needs to be more women in coaching roles. I think that’s probably the role I’d like to see more women in.

It’s hard because you shouldn’t just give the women coaching jobs because they’re female, but I just think that men automatically get a head start higher up the ladder than women. I just want to be coached by the best person at the end of the day. I’m a coach, my wife’s a coach, and I think that if there’s very few opportunities to begin with, and then there’s already that layer of men getting more roles, women have to prove their merit far more than men in a coaching role.

I’ve seen a lot of women not get coaching roles in women’s baseball just because there’s so many great male baseballers in this country. I think women get overlooked and it’s hard when you’re a minority sport, you’ve got fewer opportunities to begin with. It’s just even harder to break that barrier.

On whether her role as Comms Manager has an impact on leveling the playing field when it comes to women’s opportunities in the sports industry:

I’ve never thought of myself as championing women by doing this role. I have thought a couple of times if a guy was doing my job. would they do it differently? I think where women can be really great in media/comms roles is the empathy that we have, and particularly if you’re an athlete.

During an Olympic Games, I have athletes coming off the side of the cycling velodrome who’ve either lost the biggest race of their life or won the biggest race of their life. I’ve got to immediately try and Imagine what they are feeling and then get them ready for a live TV interview. I think that by being an athlete, and by being a female, that actually plays in my favour. I’m not saying that men can’t do that, but there’s a lot of women in this role, and I think there’s a reason for it.

There’s also some times where, not saying I wish I was a guy, but there are tough times in my job and it’s tough, there’s times where you wish you had a thicker skin or a shorter memory, or you I didn’t take things so personally because it’s hard. When you’re working with people who are either media on deadlines or athletes during an Olympic Games, people can get on edge. You have to learn that nothing is personal. It is all professional. You just have to put yourself in each other’s shoes.

On the attributes she thinks are important for working in the sports industry:

I think you’ve got to be committed and you’ve got to understand that it’s simply not a nine to five job. You’ve got to understand that. 

I think the main thing is you’ve got to be a Jack of All Trades. I get to go to the Olympics, and I get to stand on the sideline and my head might be on the TV on the highest stage and I get to work with the best athletes. But two weeks later, I might be writing media releases stuck in an office all day. 

A lot of people think I just sat and watched athletes around a velodrome every day and I’m like, I don’t actually do just that. I think you need to realise, you have to be able to do a lot of things. There’s no one dimension anymore. You can’t just be a media or comms or marketing person, or to just do video. You’ve got to be multi-skilled and you’ve just got to be thick-skinned. 

The other thing is, you have to understand how to work long hours on little food, little water and basically do that for 16 hours, then wake up four hours later and do it again and do it for four weeks in 40-degree-Celsius heat.

Things like the Olympic Games are harder, they’re just hard in general, and they’re always usually in places that are hot in summer. You just can’t be precious. But honestly, the one thing that you have to realise in media comms is that it’s just not about you. My first boss, who’s my mentor, told me, ‘If you get on TV, you’ve done your job wrong.’ Your job is not about you. If the athlete speaks really well or you get lots of your sport on television, well, that’s part of what I’ve delivered for the sport.

On whether she is aiming to inspire young women:

Yeah, I hope so. Sometimes I get impostor syndrome. I think every woman does. I’m terrible at imposter syndrome, and I think Covid hasn’t helped. Sometimes I stop, I go, hang on, you’ve worked at all these Olympic Games, you’ve played baseball for Australia, you’ve coached all these girls that now play for Australia, now you’re commentating.

Sometimes I sit down and I realise I’ve done a lot. I know there are girls that are still playing baseball or girls that were playing baseball that had tough times in life, that we made a difference to in their life just because we taught them how to swing a bat or throw a ball. Sometimes you don’t realise that. 

Like some of the girls we’ve been coaching for 15 years and now they still stay in touch. Every so often you get this really nice message. Sometimes you don’t realise how much of an impact you have. Just last night, we were training and there was a girl down for her second training session. She wasn’t holding the bat properly and I helped her to hold it properly, and then she swung and she hit a ball. And for her, it was such a great hit and the smile on her face was huge.

On the advice that she would give her younger self:

It’s hard because you don’t want to change anything you’ve done in your life. I don’t believe in having regrets because everything you did got you here. I probably had a bit too much white wine fever. And while I have all these amazing memories, it just seems like it went so fast. I probably could have stopped and taken it in a little bit more at the time. I played 12 years for Australia but it seems like it was 12 minutes. Maybe just to take it all in a bit more, but I wouldn’t change anything else because I don’t regret where I am in my life, I love where I am in my life.

On getting on board, literally:

I recently joined my first board; I’m part of the board of directors now of Baseball Victoria here in Melbourne. It’s been a really exciting six months working on that, and I’m really excited to see where I can take the organisation, and also see where I can take myself in a board role. It’s a really interesting skill and I should’ve done it earlier.

I would really recommend it to women to get on to boards because I think when we talk about opportunities for women in management roles, there’s a lot of opportunity for women to get on to boards. I think that is a way we can make an impact and that can also lead to other jobs. In just six months of being on a board, the networks I’ve expanded, my skill set, my confidence have all grown. I’ve realised I should have done it earlier. I think I’d be so far further in my career, mentally, physically, emotionally, everything if I’d joined the board earlier.
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She Speaks with Sigrid Lelièvre

French sports broadcast director Sigrid Lelièvre was born and raised in Normandy.  She went on to study Audio-Visual media in northern France and then worked as a consultant in digital post-production.  Today, she works as director at events such as the 2021 French Open and UEFA EURO 2020. We chatted with Sigrid about her life in broadcasting, and how the industry has changed throughout her experience.

On her start in sports broadcasting:

I moved to television because I felt that I wanted to have my feet on the ground and participate in events, not stay in a room, never seeing the daylight. I was offered the opportunity to work on France’s Ligue 2 in football, with a new system and that’s how I started. The experience allowed me to travel all through France, which I loved most.  I was always trying to find a bike somewhere, meeting new people to work with, the camera operators and the crew, and creating valuable relationships with those people.  It was an environment where we all were helping each other to progress and building on the relationships. And when they see you evolving, they’re always happy and supportive.

“It was an environment where we all were helping each other to progress and building on the relationships.”

And when they see you evolving, they’re always happy and supportive.

Progressing to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup and HBS

After I did Ligue 2 for a couple of years, I was then involved in the infotainment coverage of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, working on the content that is broadcast on the giant screens. That was my first encounter with HBS (Host Broadcast Services), one of the main host broadcasters in the world, and they invited me to join the Broadcast Academy for one week’s training.  That training opened more doors for me, and I continued working on small configuration TV coverage of handball and football.

On learning from the best, taking stock during Covid-19 and reaching a Grand Slam

During the training at HBS, I had the opportunity to meet Laurent Lachand (the sports director), who is one of the top French directors, and it was interesting to hear about his vision.  He is not someone who just tells people ‘do this, do that;, he explains the way he sees things and learns from that.  It was a really eye-opening experience and an opportunity to develop relationships. Coming out of the training, I had the chance to direct two games before the pandemic hit.  Once COVID hit, it was like everything suddenly stopped. 

Like it was for everyone else, it was a time of introspection and thinking about what to do next. In September 2020 I was contacted by HBS and they offered me the chance to direct LNH Division 1 (Handball League) in France, which was a very interesting opportunity. Since I started directing there, it has really helped me build up my confidence to work on other events.

More recently, I was involved with the Women’s Football First Division in France, where they hired me to direct a few first-division matches this year.  It was fantastic, a great experience. I have been fortunate enough that many of my opportunities continue to open more doors for me.  This week I was at Roland Garros, working at the French Open, and next, will be the EURO 2020 tournament.

Women in sports broadcasts and HBS’s role in encouraging more

Most of the time, I’m the only one (director), but you have more operators and camera operators who are women. At Roland Garros, I was working on courts 14, 7 and 6, so I had a four-to-five-camera set-up. I was working there as a director, but we had women camera operators– HBS is really involved in getting more women on board and giving them a chance in the business. Of course you need to be good in order to do the job, but don’t be afraid. They’re deeply invested in giving women a chance and helping put more seats at the table.

 “They’re deeply invested in giving women a chance and helping put more seats at the table.”

On broadcast diversifying after many years as a male-dominated workplace

Well, I would need more data, but at Roland Garros, at the top courts, there’s a team of six directors and one of them is a woman. That’s pretty big. Based on just my opinion, the digital revolution has ignited change, with more women working. Before that, it was really complicated and the job was physically tougher, I would say, because you had lots of heavy equipment.  To be honest, it was not really a welcoming environment for women to go anywhere and pull that equipment. Often, directors were ex-camera operators and working on the field, and that pathway was preventing women getting in the profession.

The power of directives

Obviously, society as a whole is changing, and there is more and more focus, thanks to European directives encouraging companies to have CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and to look at the numbers and see the difference. 

The hardest thing in life is to acknowledge and work on biases. Once you’re conscious about that I think it’s easier to push forward– that’s the purpose of CSR, to help companies and people as whole to identify gaps and the things that can be fixed.

Directing live sport as it moves with the times

I can only speak about today’s world, which is rapidly changing, but from what I’ve seen, responsibility that changes too. Technology and skills change, and therefore so do the responsibilities of people.  As this all changes, it creates more room for women, because we’re more involved in the production phase and the management style is changing.

Being a director is a position of power, but it’s not like you give an order to someone and they have to do it; it’s not a one-way system. I like the expression ‘you are a servant as a leader’. You are not just pushing people, you’re responsible for the results of course, but your role is to give a vision to everyone. To make sure that everyone has the right information and can move in the right direction. It’s not about me knowing someone’s job better than them, but helping them go in the right direction. That’s how I see things; helping them to navigate.

 “It’s not about me knowing someone’s job better than them, but helping them go in the right direction. That’s how I see things; helping them to navigate.”

On what drives her forward

I would say different things. The main one is I really love people and creating stories that people can tell in the future. I really like when the job is done well.  What it comes down to is we have two people that we’re focused on: the end user and the person who hires you.  The end user, who is watching the game, you want them to enjoy a great moment, not just because of the result of their team. The person who hires you,  you just want to be satisfied and impressed with your work. That’s really my motivation. I don’t have a specific target, for me it’s a journey, and if someone is inviting you on that path, you go with them. If you spend time with them, it’s going to enrich you, so for me it’s getting opportunities to meet and work with people in different places around the world and exchanging ideas.

What she’s doing for UEFA EURO 2020

Similar to what I was doing at the FIFA 2019 Women’s World Cup, for EURO 2020 I’ll be doing big screen installations. I’m in Amsterdam right now, part of a team called the Fan TV team and our job is to work on the content that’s broadcast on the giant screens in the stadium.

How she prepares for high-pressure environments

I like to be organised, so I always have my Bristol boards, where I write down everything and once everything is written down I feel much better. And I do yoga, which really helps, because afterwards you feel aligned.

“I always try to remember why I do things and what’s my motivation and yoga helps me to be aligned with it: whatever decision I need to make has to align with my goals.”

PLAYBOOK

  1. Keep it Simple.

It’s something I started hearing a lot a few months ago. I was lucky to be in a team of five young directors and someone was coaching us and he said this and I think it’s true for everything in life. Don’t make it complicated. If it gets complicated and you feel overwhelmed, go back to the simple version, the simple plan. This really helps you to get a clear view and most of the time the simplest things are the most efficient.

2. Observe with a non-judgmental attitude

The attitude is hindering you more than helping you. It’s a waste of energy. We’re all human and we all make mistakes. Nothing is perfect. If we’re perfect, nothing would be interesting. Whenever we do something we need to be confident in our capability to deal with a lot of things without overthinking them. If you’re at work and something is not going well, instead of going into ‘oh that’s bad’, just relax and don’t be judgmental. Ok, there is a problem, so what can I do to fix this. That’s what people expect of you; to find a solution, to not exacerbate the problem.

3. Kaizen: improve continuously.

I’m doing an MBA at the Sorbonne Business School and we studied Kaizen, a Japanese word that is used to describe companies seeking continuous improvement; small adjustments over time are stronger than major changes or revolutions, and that’s something I unconsciously applied before, but this gave me a new perspective on it and today when I finish a match I write down the small things I could do to improve and I try to implement them the next time. It’s a form of motivation, because next time you want to do better. Perfection does not exist and there’s not one way of doing things, so you choose a way to do something and if it works, keep it, and if it doesn’t, then maybe it can be improved. And this is a motivation for life, because you want to do things better over time.

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She Speaks with Veronika Muehlhofer

Veronika Muehlhofer has 22 years experience in International Sports & Event Management, including 6 Olympic Games and countless World and European Championships in several sports.

She also has 10 years’ experience as an entrepreneur, and a lifetime’s passion for sports.

Veronika has worked, lived, or studied in the US, Europe, Asia, South America, and Russia and has learned six different languages along the way. 

Veronika is a World Rugby Level 3 certified coach and educator as well as an ex rugby player and alpine ski racer. She is a member of the Board of Rugby Europe representing Switzerland, and chairs the organization’s audit & risk committee. Veronika also serves on the Council of World Rugby where she is proud to represent Rugby Europe and all of its 46 member unions.
 

Her start in the sports industry

 I grew up in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, in Lugano. and I went to university in the States, in California, at Stanford University. 

I came back here (to Switzerland) in the early 2000s and did the FIFA Master in Sports Management, after having done a Masters at Stanford University. 

In 2004, I was Deputy Competition Manager for the Men’s Ice Hockey at Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games. The two years before the Games are the interesting planning phase, because anything two years out pretty much ends up in the trashcan! 

We worked closely with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), and they recruited me to come to Zurich after the Torino Games. 

I worked at the IIHF for five years as the Event Manager. They have big World Championships, but also tonnes of of different events, so it was a fun and busy time. 

After five years I left that job, even though I loved it, to start my own company.

I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I kind of have it in my blood.

I started [my business] in 2011 and I was lucky enough to get a contract for the London 2012 Olympic Summer Games, as a Deputy Venue Media Manager. 

Since then, I’ve been doing Venue Media Management at Olympic Games, and some Competition Management.

I also started working with National and International Federations, consulting for them, not just on the media side, but on strategic and organisational things. 

And that’s how I came to be CEO of the Swiss Rugby Union (Suisse Rugby).

“Rugby’s like a grass-roots sport here and it’s been interesting and fun because I’ve worked at six Olympic Games, but the other side of sports is all the grass roots sport, with the volunteers, and it’s actually 99 per cent of sport around the world.  

What you see on TV, with pro sports, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”

Her Rugby Road

I started playing when I was at university in the States and I ended up playing for 20 years. I played at Leicester in England, I played in Italy when I was working at Torino 2006, and then when I came back to live in Switzerland, obviously Rugby’s not that big here, but I started to get into coaching a bit more, and I was working in events, and that’s how the Union met me, because I was coaching. 

They were looking for a part-time CEO and asked me to apply., and now  I’ve been doing that now for eight years, and we’ve been able to grow the organisation, we’ve quadrupled the budget. 

They used to have no employees and now they have a staff of seven. And there’s a set-up of volunteers, so I’ve been able to put a bit of strategy and structure behind it.

On being a woman in charge of a Federation

When I started I never gave that much thought to being a woman in charge, I just kind of organically grew into that and as we started growing the Federation. 

The priorities were structuring and development, which, for a small grass-roots sport, are the main goals. 

It’s only been in the last couple of years, since 2018, when I was voted in as a Council Member of World Rugby (which never had any women), and when I and a few other women were voted in there, and I was made part of the Board of Directors of Rugby Europe (and the only woman on the Board), that this started to crystallise for me, because people would comment, but I never wanted to be ‘the woman’ or just there for women’s sport. 

In Swiss Rugby I’m in charge of Rugby. And at the Olympic Games, I was working on Men’s Ice Hockey, so I always try to build up my expertise and to be known for the quality of my work and not for being ‘the woman’ who does that. It just kind of came on the side.

“When I started I never gave that much thought to being a woman in charge, I just kind of organically grew into that and as we started growing the Federation.”

On women being ‘firsts’ in some organisations and whether it creates greater demands on those women

I think in general that is the case, although for me, the sports I worked in, Rugby and Ice Hockey, which are both male dominated, there’s a culture that if you can hold your own on the field of play, you’re just as respected as your male counterparts, but yes, you have to prove your worth. 

I’ve played sport my whole life and I’ve been working in it for 20 years, so I’m lucky enough to have confidence in my competence and ability, and I’ve been able to build that up thanks to a lot of mentors, most of whom were men who had confidence in me or gave me a chance to do things.

How playing Rugby has affected her work with Swiss Rugby

I think that playing rugby in general gives you a certain something for life. It’s a cliché, but they talk about building character, and it’s a tough sport, it’s a scary sport physically, but it does help to build courage and determination and teamwork. 

Whether I was working in Rugby or in any other field, that background would be useful in a career. 

But at the same time, working in Rugby, having played gives you a bit more street cred, if you will. And it was similar in Ice Hockey. I was never a big Ice Hockey player, it was just for fun, but when you’re running the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games Men’s Ice Hockey tournament, and there’s all these coaches and players who are that much taller, well, they have a certain respect if they know you played a little.”

“I think that playing rugby in general gives you a certain something for life. It’s a cliché, but they talk about building character, and it’s a tough sport, it’s a scary sport physically, but it does help to build courage and determination and teamwork.”

Her key strengths

  1. Certainly my positive, can-do attitude, which is so important in just getting things done in events. 
  2. Problem-solving and a sense of humour have helped me through a lot of challenges. 
  3. Another strength, which is a talent that I was born with, is an affinity for languages. I’ve worked in a lot of parts of the world, and I’ve often picked up enough of the local language to get by. In international events, languages are extremely useful.

Where she’d like to see Federations head

Well, in terms of diversity, I do think that Feds would benefit from opening up a bit more, to all types of diversity. 

I was lucky enough that World Rugby made a conscious decision to open their board to women and to get a more diverse profile among the men. And they made a conscious push to get their members to nominate people from different backgrounds. So when the first women arrived, you could feel that they were excited for a breath of fresh air and for fresh blood. 

It just goes to show that even a traditional sports federation can benefit from some diversity and I hope more of them go in this direction, but at the same time it starts at the bottom, because if clubs don’t have women on their boards, or regional unions don’t have women, then how can women go to being at the top? 

You need to get that experience from the bottom; it has to start from the grass roots.”

How has Swiss Rugby adapted to Covid-19?

In terms of Covid, this has changed everything in sport and sport events this last year. It’s changed everything! I was meant to be spending the whole of last summer in Tokyo, working at the Olympics, and that didn’t happen. 

When Covid first hit, it was a really busy time, because cancelling events is almost as much work as planning them. And for me, as CEO of the Union, I had to get up to speed as soon as possible to learn how sport in a pandemic works and there was a big responsibility of making decisions, taking advice and getting information and making big decisions on a day to day basis, sorting it out. 

The pandemic has also provided huge opportunities to take a step back and look at how we’re doing things and to see if we could be doing things better. 

We managed to work with the Swiss Federal Office for Sport and Swiss Olympic, to develop and get the approval for Covid concepts, for kids to be able to play, even during the pandemic. 

Like, this last fall (autumn) we managed to have 65 amateur games, and we also cancelled about 23, 24, because every time there was a suspicion or a positive test we would cancel, just to be really safe. But we managed to get 65 games played, and that’s kids, youth, adults who got to play, who had an outlet for a stressful time. That’s been rewarding. 

And now we’re going to create an under-20 league: we’re taking opportunities and trying to make things happen in a safe and responsible way.

“It just goes to show that even a traditional sports federation can benefit from some diversity and I hope more of them go in this direction, but at the same time it starts at the bottom, because if clubs don’t have women on their boards, or regional unions don’t have women, then how can women go to being at the top?”

What she’ll do at Tokyo 2020

“I’m working in Media Operations. At Rio 2016 I was in charge of Media Ops for Rugby, which was a new sport at the Olympics, so there was no copy-paste, which is often the case at Games. We got to invent a lot of the operations. So in Tokyo I’m doing surfing, speed climbing and street ball; the new sports. I think they appreciate me being able to think outside the box and translate things into an Olympic format.”

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She Speaks with Tina Sharma

An illustrious career spanning nearly two decades has given Tina Sharma Tiwari a lot to say about breaking down barriers, balancing demanding professional expectations and family, and overcoming ‘imposter’ syndrome in sports.

The Start

Journalism was a way to get into sports journalism. To be honest, I was not interested in any other aspect of journalism at that time, other than sports. I had always been obsessed with sports and at some point in my late teens, I realised I was never going to be good enough to be a professional athlete! So, I considered some options like sports medicine and sports management, but then decided to go for journalism, because I guess I felt I had more skills suited for that.

“Senior female mentors, even if they’re not directly or officially mentors, are so important in shaping your career.”

First job

With all the confidence and swagger of a 21-year-old, I had an interview with the editor-in-chief (Vir Sanghvi) of the Hindustan Times and convinced him to offer me a job on the sports desk. He had actually suggested I would be a better fit for the city features supplement, because I happen to also have a degree in fashion design. After a few false starts, I’m still very grateful for the break Vir Sanghvi gave me.

A woman in sports journalism in early 2000s India: breaking barriers or swimming in quicksand?

A bit of both. Just by being there, you’re breaking barriers, and back then there were so few of us women doing that that it was a statement. And it was really hard; during one of my early job interviews, the sports editor asked me if I wanted to be a sports journalist only to meet male sports stars.

I mean, can you imagine a guy being asked if he wanted to be a sports reporter only to meet female athletes? It was just so insulting and humiliating. And the only reason I was asked that question is because I’m a woman.

The silver lining

I was constantly fighting for my stories to get published with a byline in the early days. The editor of the features section of the Sunday newspaper was so supportive and could see that the sports editor was actively killing my stories, so she started publishing all my exclusives and interviews in her Sunday edition. She was so instrumental in my career, because I got the majority of my bylines during my first six to 10 months thanks to her.

A novel experience

“When I started in TV, international consultants from Fox and the BBC were helping us set up the channel (at India Today). They thought it was really interesting, a novelty, that we were going to have a female sports anchor. So I actually got the break because of the apparent novelty factor. It may not have happened in the best possible way but I was glad for it! And if I not been able to do my job well, I wouldn’t have lasted 15 years in the business.  

The environment was actually completely gender neutral and that had a lot to do with the leadership. I grew rapidly and became sports editor within two years. It was a period in my life where being a woman had no bearing on how my work or competence were perceived.”

“It was such an insulting experience to be told that you’re not going to be able to do the job as well as a man, because you’re a woman who’s had a child.

The mother of all dilemmas

“Unfortunately, after my first stint as a TV journalist, came one of my worst experiences. When I had my first child, instead of taking maternity leave, I resigned, because the (mandatory) three months leave wasn’t going to be enough for me. I wanted to give my baby more time so I opted to stay home for a year and half.

When I returned to work, the leadership had changed, along with the direction and work culture. We had a new editor-in-chief, who informed me that I was not going to be sports editor again, because I was a mother and therefore my commitment and dedication to work would not be the same as before. They didn’t think I was up for it anymore. That’s how f****d up it was. And I was not in a position at the time to say no, because I needed to get back to work.”

A level playing field

“At Times Now (a 24-hour English news channel), I forayed into political journalism, which turned out to be so interesting! I worked directly under one of the most controversial figures in India, Arnab Goswami and I absolutely loved it. The pressure was always high and the work environment extremely tense, but Arnab as an editor-in-chief was 100% gender blind. It was absolutely equal footing; the playing field was level for everyone. And that’s what we need; if women can have that level playing field, we don’t need more, because we know how to do our jobs.”

Lausanne-bound

“Political journalism was challenging, interesting, and a peak in my career, but after a few years, I missed sport. It was not entirely possible to go back to being a sports journalist after being a prime time political anchor, because that would have seemed like a ‘demotion’, and I also felt that I had spent so many years being a sports journalist, that I’d ‘been there, done that’.

And by then what I really wanted to do was actually work in sport; to work with these international organisations that run sport. I was really interested in the actual governance of sport and youth sport, and how grassroots sport is run, so I packed my bags and moved to Lausanne for the AISTS Master’s in Sport Administration. After that, I started at the International University Sports Federation (FISU) and haven’t looked back.”

“I’ve done it myself! Imposter syndrome creeps up on you without realizing it. So my advice would be to actively guard against it. Make sure you constantly remind yourself that you deserve to be here because nobody is handing out freebies in the world.”

On avoiding the imposter syndrome.

“This subconscious bias that exists in this male-dominated industry, most women will agree, means you always end up working twice/thrice as hard, in order to prove yourself.”

The elephant in the room - COVID-19 and sport events

“COVID-19 has been a real challenge for the sports industry, as it has been for many others. We (FISU) had to cancel about 30 of our events. We had a really packed comms calendar this year, and suddenly in March, it was wiped clean, and then we had to go back to the drawing board and really come up with ways to keep our audiences engaged and interested.  

That required a lot of creative thought, a lot of online campaigns. It actually meant getting in touch directly with some of our student athletes and using them to create more original, more authentic campaigns and content. So it’s been nerve wracking because you’re constantly having to produce something from nothing. And it’s been demanding, but ialso been very interesting and a massive learning curve for me.”

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She Speaks with Sofia Gonzalez

It wasn’t until a visit to the 2012 London Paralympic Games that she saw what was possible for her future.

Her interest in sport turned into passion four years later while attending a “Run and Play” clinic by [German prosthetics company] Ottobock. Under the tutelage of German Paralympic gold medallist Heinrich Popow, Sofia began learning how to run, thanks to a running blade.

“Heinrich Popow was the one who helped me run for the first time in my life.

“He is the one who I looked up to at the beginning because he has accomplished so much in his life and I had never had an example of someone who had succeeded with an amputation like me.

“Today, I am an Ottobock Swiss Ambassador and I feel really grateful that they believed in me and support me in my life.”

“I had never had an example of someone who had succeeded with an amputation like me.”

Born in London to a Swiss-Spanish mother and a Swiss-Mexican father, Sofia has lived a life across different countries and multiple languages. Fluent in Swiss-German, German, French, English and Spanish, she is able to communicate with almost anyone she comes across, something she says is a blessing.

 

Sofia’s life motto is “Your only difference is your attitude”. A defining moment for her came when she felt she was truly living and believing this at her first-ever competition.

“I thought ‘Okay I can do that, I can run.’ At that moment, my life changed. My mindset changed and a new journey began.

“As a teenage girl you want to fit in and not be judged if you have something different.

“Every girl had straight hair, so I was straightening my hair. And every girl was feeling beautiful, but I wasn’t feeling that way.

“I felt different. I also wasn’t proud of myself.

“I tried to hide my prosthetic leg as much as I could, I never wore shorts or dresses.

“That mindset changed when I took up sport. It gave me something that I could believe in –myself.  

“I love the freedom that running gives me. I only have to focus on myself and I love the feeling of the speed and the wind against my face.

“I tried to hide my prosthetic leg as much as I could, I never wore shorts or dresses.

“That mindset changed when I took up sport. It gave me something that I could believe in –myself.”

Over recent years, Sofia has risen through the ranks of world sprinting and, at 19 years of age, her career highlights include a fourth place at the 2018 World Para Athletics European Championship and a fifth place in the 2019 World Para Athletics Championship.

She was also awarded the honour of carrying the Olympic Flame through Lausanne as part of the Torch Relay ahead of the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games.

Now Sofia has one clear goal: the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Summer Games, but admits that the postponement of the Games due to COVID-19 has taken a toll on her.

“The postponement has affected everyone, but not in the same way. For me personally, at first I didn’t believe it. I thought that 2020 would be my year, an amazing year, but it wasn’t.

“I was really sad, confused and had to refocus on myself a lot. I work with a psychologist who prepares me mentally for my races and during the confinement she had to help me more, because my feelings were confused.  

“My training was also affected, as I had to train only at home. I was lucky to have a garden where I could move more and run a little bit.

“I spoke with my little team and of course my coach helped me a lot and planned everything again.

I said to myself that you can’t change the past so focus on the future and the future is Tokyo 2021.”

And finally, what advice would Sofia give to anyone wanting to be a professional athlete?

“It takes a lot of courage, determination and time. You need to set your goals before you begin your journey as an athlete. If you don’t have enough time or determination, then it will be hard.

“My main advice would be to believe in yourself and see every step you take as moving forward to accomplish your goals and dreams.”

I said to myself that you can’t change the past so focus on the future and the future is Tokyo 2021.”

More about Sofia Gonzalez

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He Speaks with Phil Deignan

This month, we are launching He Speaks; a look at the gender imbalance in sport from the other side.

In our first He Speaks, we talk to Philip Deignan, ex pro cyclist who is now a stay-at-home dad to his daughter Orla, while his wife – fellow professional cyclist – Lizzie Deignan (Armitstead) continues to compete at the highest levels.

Retiring from professional sport is always a bit of a shock to the system and I had that compounded by becoming a father at the same time. I think it is a good thing though; often when people retire from being a professional athlete there is a bit of a void, whereas I got really stuck into being a father from the first moment.

It was definitely a unique situation we found ourselves in. We could have both continued our careers but neither of us wanted Orla to grow up with a full-time nanny. I was coming to the end of my career and Lizzie still had some big goals to accomplish, so it made sense for me to be the one to retire.

I think Lizzie is handling it much better than I ever could have. If I’d continued to compete, I think I would struggle with the interrupted sleep and training, unlike Lizzie who has done an incredible job juggling being a mum and competing at the highest levels. We saw last year that she came back almost to her very best and this season I reckon she will lift even further.

Don’t get me wrong, becoming a full-time dad was a big shock in the beginning. Professional sport in many ways is very selfish; it is about your training, your nutrition, your diet etc. And that’s all been flipped on its head now!

I had some mixed reactions from people at the beginning, because it’s not really the ‘done’ thing here in Monaco. I’m in this bubble of 50 or so male cyclists and it’s often a very traditional set up. When I initially told people I was going full-time dad, I’d always be asked ‘But what’s your real job going to be?’. I felt like saying – ‘hey, have you ever brought up a baby?’. It was a definite double standard which was a bit frustrating. 

 

“When I initially told people I was going full-time dad, I’d always be asked ‘But what’s your real job going to be?’. I felt like saying – ‘hey, have you ever brought up a baby?’. It was a definite double standard which was a bit frustrating.”

Discovering the gender imbalance in sport

I have had the chance to work with some incredible women in sport such as Team Ineos CEO Fran Miller who is a stand-out case. She came in and she worked right to the top of the best cycling team in the world. She is a great example and shows that it is possible.

I didn’t really take much note of the gender imbalance until I met Lizzie, and then I could see how big the gap was. There needs to be more investment and more TV to attract bigger sponsors. At the moment – as you can see from Lizzie’s team Trek-Segafredo – a lot of support is coming from the industry itself. But we need more sponsors outside of the industry and that starts with TV coverage.

One good thing is that we’re seeing a lot of the bigger races in the women’s calendar being run in conjunction with the men’s races, which means you have a bigger crowd and a bigger TV infrastructure already in place. Driving change also needs to come from the race organisers and the UCI.

“It’s definitely a juggling act but I have found that I manage my time a lot more efficiently than I used to. In the past it was train, massage, eat, sleep, repeat. Now I have to plan my day out more effectively but also remain flexible.”

From professional cyclist to coaching others

At the beginning cycling was just a mode of transport for me, until I did a charity cycle ride and it just snowballed from there. I quit university when I was 19 and took a place on a pro French team and haven’t looked back since.

Now – alongside looking after Orla full time while Lizzie is at competitions – I do media and TV work and have also launched a coaching company called Panache Coaching.

It’s definitely a juggling act but I have found that I manage my time a lot more efficiently than I used to. In the past it was train, massage, eat, sleep, repeat. Now I have to plan my day out more effectively but also remain flexible.

I left cycling still loving the sport, which I am really grateful for. A lot of people retire and never want to look at the bike again, but I still love being on the bike and get pleasure and enjoyment from it. Coaching was a natural step. I have been lucky to be coached by some of the best in the world and saw what a difference it can make. I now find it fulfilling to be able to pass on that knowledge and see athletes progress.

As well as the one-to-one coaching we offer training camps such as the upcoming one to Majorca. They’re a chance to get out there and enjoy without any worry about logistics.

We will definitely be encouraging Orla to do sport as we believe it is a very good environment for a child; it allows you to focus your energy and meet great people. But we won’t be pushing a bike on her or be pushing her to reach a high level. For us, the most important thing about sports is the health aspect and enjoyment.

Coping during the COVID-19 Global Pandemic

We have coped pretty well during lockdown. We were in the UK so we enjoyed the freedom to still be able to exercise outside. It was nice to have some quality time together as a family without the pressure of races every weekend like there would have usually been during the spring. 

We have always worked as a team with parenting Orla, I actually had more time to work on my coaching and other projects. As Lizzie’s training was not as intense as it would normally be, it meant she was able to do more with Orla in the afternoons than usual. As a professional athlete, Lizzie has lots of free time off the bike but when you are looking after a toddler it comes down to energy rather than just time, so we are usually pretty flexible on how we share childcare responsibilities based on Lizzie’s level of recovery. 

We started to block out hours of ‘productive’ time during the day where we would move to a different space to work on paperwork etc rather than just replying to emails as an when they come in, it helped to have time alone to focus and be productive, we will do that going forwards. 

Follow Phil Deignan

  • Visit the Bespoke M Travel website for more information on how you can book to ride with Phil
  • Follow Phil Deignan on Twitter.
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Filming Power Meri aerial shots with a rarely-seen drone in the PNG highlands

She Speaks with Joanna Lester

Working in sport has taken London-born Joanna Lester around the world; living and working  in England, Australia and Papua New Guinea and reporting on ten Olympic, Commonwealth and Pacific Games as a journalist, starting with the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

In 2014, Joanna moved to Papua New Guinea (PNG) to work for a sport-for-development programme that used the national sport – Rugby League – to deliver key messages and create social change.

It was during this time that the idea of the documentary ‘Power Meri’ was born. Power Meri documents the uprising of the women’s Rugby League in PNG, in the lead up to the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.

It is now an award-winning and internationally released film, recently winning ‘Best Depiction of Inclusive Sport’ at the 2020 Sport Australia Media Awards. The film is creating opportunities for its stars to lead the growth and development of women’s Rugby League in their own communities and other countries.

How did the documentary Power Meri come about?

In 2014 I moved to Papua New Guinea to work as a media and communications officer for a sport-for-development programme that used the national sport, Rugby League, to deliver key messages and create social change.

I worked alongside many female Rugby League players who were pioneers in their communities, as women playing a traditionally male-dominated sport in a country with high rates of gender-based violence and few opportunities for women.

I decided to make a documentary film about these ground-breaking women and their journey as members of Papua New Guinea’s first national women’s Rugby League team to the World Cup, and how they were changing lives and attitudes in their country and beyond.

We have released the film in Australia, New Zealand, USA, UK, PNG and many other Pacific countries, but not yet in Switzerland! We would love to hear from organisations interested in hosting virtual screenings (under current circumstances, see below) or the Switzerland cinema premiere, once restrictions have eased.

While I continue to drive outreach of Power Meri, my main job these days is in media and communications with Pacific Sports Partnerships – a sport-for-development programme across six Pacific countries funded by the Australian Government through its aid programme, which brings together Australian and Pacific sporting organisations to design and deliver sport-based programmes that have a social impact.

“I decided to make a documentary film about these ground-breaking women and their journey as members of Papua New Guinea’s first national women’s Rugby League team to the World Cup, and how they were changing lives and attitudes in their country and beyond.”

How has COVID-19 affected your work for the year and have you been able to pivot?

As I work mostly with sports people, organisations and programmes in the Pacific islands, we are a few weeks later than many parts of the world. Fortunately, there have been very few cases so far in the Pacific (and none in some of the countries where we work), but almost all sports activity has ceased as a result of precautionary lockdowns.

 

Travel restrictions in and out of Australia have been a major hurdle. While many sport-for-development programmes are turning to online delivery of activities and video content, this is not straightforward in the Pacific, where expensive data costs and slow internet speeds are a barrier for many people. I’m involved in a couple of different projects looking at how to alter the delivery of activities under the current circumstances. In particular, I’m working on a project to support (non-professional) female athletes during this time.

 

On the Power Meri front, we recently hosted our first virtual screening in partnership with Griffith University in Australia, and are looking to facilitate more virtual screenings, accompanied by post-screening discussions, so that people can still watch and discuss the film virtually. We’re particularly hoping that sports organisations and teams will want to host a virtual screening as a team activity at this time when they can’t train together. You can organise a virtual screening on our website.

“The under-funding of women’s sport is often based on assumptions about audience/commercial interest, or lack thereof. A few recent events and women’s competitions have started to challenge this.”

If you could give advice to women in sport working through this crisis, what would it be?

Consider how we can leverage this situation, and the ‘new normal’ that will emerge, to benefit women’s sport. Also focus on recent positives and gains (of which there are many in women’s sport) and ensure female athletes feel connected and supported. 

“For a long time, women’s sport has been an add-on to established financial models in male-dominated sports. Those models are now being forced to change.” 

What's the thing you'd most like to see come out of this Pandemic?

A re-thinking and re-shaping of how sport is financed, to produce better outcomes for women’s sport. For a long time, women’s sport has been an add-on to established financial models in male-dominated sports. Those models are now being forced to change, and it’s a crucial opportunity to re-evaluate the value proposition of women’s sport, and how it should be funded. The under-funding of women’s sport is often based on assumptions about audience/commercial interest, or lack thereof.

A few recent events and women’s competitions have started to challenge this, and the inevitable restructuring that the pandemic will cause, could be a game-changer for women’s sport at all levels. I definitely think it’s an opportunity as much as a challenge.

IMG_2764 JL with Power Meri star Amelia Kuk after Power Meri won the Sport Australia Media Award for best depiction of inclusive sport in Februa

What are your top three tips for women working in sport?

  1. Breaking into the boys’ club – management roles in many sports are occupied by former players (who, in traditionally male-dominated sports, are still mostly men). As in any line of work, finding your niche and positioning yourself as the best-placed person to deliver on it is key. As the sports sector collectively begins to realise the value and importance of women’s sport, I’m optimistic this will start to change.

  2. Being the only woman in the room – remember that you are there because of your specific skills and, as a woman, and even as a non-athlete if that’s the case, you bring an important perspective to sport that those who are deeply ingrained might not be able to see. 

  3. The chicken and egg problem of demonstrating the value of women’s sport – no one wants to fund it because ‘there is no audience’, so it doesn’t get the media coverage it needs, so it can’t build its audience etc. This cycle is difficult to break. Things are starting to change but, in my work in the Pacific, I am always articulating the broader social benefits of women’s sport and re-shaping it as a tool for social change, to make its value more tangible beyond what happens on the field, therefore attracting different types of partners and funders. This was at the heart of the Power Meri film project I designed and led and is a genuine characterisation of women’s sport in many parts of the world.

Follow Joanna Lester

For more from Joanna Lester, listen to this in depth podcast interview with Rugby Reloaded.

Press here for more information on the film Power Meri.

Follow Joanna Lester on Twitter.

SarahHuntley

She Speaks with Sarah Huntley

When the world is going through so much change, uncertainty and loss all at the same time due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, we thought it would be poignant to speak to a Sports Psychologist and ask them for the tips and techniques that we can implement to survive or even thrive during this period.   

Our amazing Communications Manager Tina Sharma sat down with Sports Psychologist Sarah Huntley to chat on Instagram Live, and below is a transcript of the best bits of the very engaging and uplifting conversation.

To watch the whole interview, head over to our Facebook page or click here

During this time of “lockdown” during COVID-19, we haven’t seen as much online around mental health compared with physical health – what would you say to that?

Mental health is so key, because it’s really hard to do the physical side of things if you’re not feeling on form mentally, so I think that comes before anything else and comes as a bit of a foundation.

Previously, success might have meant five meetings, two presentations, kids here, go to the fitness class. Now it might mean something different and that’s okay.”

How can we still continue to set goals for ourselves when we don’t know when things might change?

It’s similar to what we do with athletes because we can’t predict what’s going to happen in terms of injury or fitness so you have to be quite flexible.

I’d say to break it down – it’s fine to have big goals that you might have set for next year or in six months’ time but just appreciate that they may have to change and that it’s ok to change.

With goal setting, when we’ve got so much uncertainty, it’s all about those process goals – so what are the things you can do on a day-to-day basis that will get you back to where you want to be?

So it could be time management – if you’re struggling to create a routine for yourself you could write down your schedule for the day as the first thing you do in the morning.

Your goal could be as simple of feeling in control of today.

I think it’s important to move the boundaries a little bit in terms of what success means.

Previously, success might have meant five meetings, two presentations, kids here, go to the fitness class. Now it might mean something different and that’s ok. But try to look for the benefits in that. What are the things you can do now that you couldn’t do before? 

“What are the things you can do now that you couldn’t do before?”

Sarah Huntley

Do you have advice to stay focused when working from home?

With focus – planning is absolutely key and creating your own structure.

For those of us who work for ourselves it’s probably an easier transition than those who are employed full time and are used to working in an office environment and being around people.

Think about your ideal day. Give yourself structure. It might be that you’d like to get out and exercise first thing and that actually helps you concentrate.

I know for me, I definitely need to get outside and get some sunlight in the morning and then the time between 10am and lunch time is my most productive. I switch my notifications off, I don’t take phone calls, I’m just zoned in on what I’m doing.

I also prioritise tasks. With all this uncertainty, it can be quite easy to get overwhelmed thinking you have to be Superwomen and do x, y, and z, but actually if I just get one thing done today, what’s the most important thing I can do? And if I can get that done, that’s ok.

Really stripping it back – what are the necessities in this situation, what do I actually need to do.

And being kind to ourselves as well. None of us have been in this situation before, and it’s going to be a struggle but it’s going to be ok. And if you can cope with this and just learn a few more skills around kind of how to cope with it, then that’s great.

One more thing is that it can be really tempting to think we need to sit down in our homes for six or eight hours a day and be working and productive all that time. But if we break our day down to 90 minute cycles, that’s a really good one.

So after 90 minutes the timer goes off and you get up and maybe have a snack or a drink just to break up your day a little bit.

If you’ve got a partner at home and you’ve got kids, maybe sit down with them and work out the best way to do it together so you guys have got your own time to look after yourself and to make sure you’re still getting what you need as well.

You’re going to be a much better partner or much better parent if you know you’ve got your half hour walk outside or whatever it is. Try not to put yourself at the bottom of the pile and create some time for yourself if you possibly can.

“Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor.”

How do we keep our chin up in the moments when everything feels hard and we want to throw in the towel!

Accepting that that is absolutely normal is key. Feeling that way is how most people have probably felt. Appreciate that it’s hard to have the highs without the lows too but knowing that it will pass.

Emotions are not us. We’re not our emotions. It’s just a feeling. And although you might feel very overwhelmed and stressed out, the next day you’re probably going to feel a bit better again.

There’s a great quote – smooth seas never made a skilled sailor.

So try and interpret this time, although it can feel like a threat, interpret it as a challenge. How can I get through this and get stronger as a result.

But it’s also important to know what works for you. Someone else online might be promoting you need to be up at 5am every morning to watch the sunrise and do some yoga but that might not work for everyone. Try some different things. It might be exercising in the morning, it might be getting out in the afternoon, it might be reading a book, mindfulness and meditation. Whatever it is, just notice what works for you and have those tools in your tool kit for when you are feeling like that.  And step away from it too. Don’t let it get too big. Step away and switch off the computer or whatever it might be and take some time out.

Sarah Huntley

“Performance equals potential minus interference.”

What can we borrow from sports performance psychology to improve work mindset, especially at this challenging time?

There is so much we can learn from sport for the work environment, in terms of performance it’s very similar, they go together really well.

There’s a really great formula I’ve been looking at and will use with my clients – Performance equals potential minus interference.

So what that means is your potential is your ability and your skills and interference is things that might get in the way of you reaching that potential.

So at this time interference could be all those distracting things like watching the news, worrying about weather everyone else is doing social distancing, wondering if there’s any loo roll left in your local supermarket or wondering when this is all going to end! All those things that we can’t control and they are not worth focusing on. It’s worth acknowledging for sure but not worth focusing on.

So that kind of formula can be put into practice if we think about what are the things that are interference for me, what is stopping me focusing? What are the reoccurring thoughts I’m having.

I thought that formula in terms of work mindset could be key. But it also comes down to structure and planning, and when you concentrate best.

“It’s really interesting – we’re all in such a desperate need or want to get back to normal but actually, let’s think about which parts of normal we want to get back to.”

Sarah Huntley

What’s your advice for athletes that we can also apply when we return to “normal”?

It’s really interesting – we’re all in such a desperate need or want to get back to normal but actually let’s think about which parts of normal we want to get back to.  

The time we’ve had is an opportunity to think, ‘what do I want to hang on to?’ So being quite intentional in what you want your life to look like. So perhaps it’s taking the lunch hour and that time outside is now a non-negotiable. Think about “how can I come back stronger, happier and more fulfilled when things get back to “normal”, and what can I do to get me there as well.”?

Is letting go giving up?

No. I think if you let go of something, you’re freeing yourself up for other things that come your way.

If you stick at something and you’re not enjoying it or you’re not getting out of it what you want, then perhaps you’re missing out on other opportunities.

That’s something I work with athletes a lot about in terms of getting to the end of their careers – when is the right time to retire. So is that giving up or is that letting go. And what’s that new thing that’s waiting for them. With young athletes who have trained so hard all the way through school and then suddenly they ask themselves – ‘do I want to do this anymore’? And that’s ok to feel like that and it’s just a process of working through it but knowing either way it’s going to be ok.

Is there a way we can build up our resilience?

First of all let’s all give ourselves a big pat on the back for getting this far.

Our lives have been turned upside down. Our businesses have been turned upside down, our work upside down. Whatever it is. Whether you’ve got kids or have not got kids, working from home or whatever it is, it’s been hard for everyone. But the fact that we’re still here and we are still staying positive is absolutely crucial.

For me, building resilience is all about getting out of my comfort zone. Making my comfort zone bigger and bigger. And trying to do it in small ways. It’s so possible during this time, even agreeing to doing an Instagram Live is something new for me but once you’ve done something it becomes part of your comfort zone.