17 November 2015

The Corridor of Opportunity

Guest blog by Julia Farman.

As a female coach you read lots of articles claiming that sport has the power to engage and empower women, but it was not until this year that I understood what this meant in reality.

Think of the ideal conditions for playing cricket – blue skies, hazy warm sunshine and a nice gentle breeze to take the edge off the heat. Now think of the opposite that. That was the conditions I had to work with when I met a girl at the start of this year at a cricket session in early January. Understandably with the freezing cold miserable weather outside, the girl didn’t want to get out of the car and stared glumly at the window. As 15 other girls jumped out of their parent’s cars, wielding cricket bats and dragging large cricket bags along the ground, which they could probably fit in, there was one reluctant to do so. Following the usual negotiations with the sports hall caretaker to get the key, we all bundled into the sports hall, and began to set up for our first cricket session. At the outset the lead coach and I explained that this is an all female squad and coaching staff, and we are here to coach them throughout the season. The girls gasp. ‘So there are no men teaching us???’  They asked. Our negative replies to their questions, is met with slight shock and a few words of approval. Looking around the group, the girl I spied sitting in the car in the car park is not there. I went outside the sports hall door to find out what was occurring to see the girl, red in the face, tears, and in the arms of her mum as she does not want to go in. I asked her ‘how’s it going?’ (looking back rather daft question but at the time it seemed logical) and through the tears, and sharp inhales of breath she explains that she really likes cricket, and loves hitting a ball, but she does not know anyone, they do not play cricket at her school so she only plays occasionally and she does not know if she will be good enough. I explained to her that this is her opportunity to make more friends and enjoy everything that cricket has to offer; playing sport in the warm sunshine (in theory), cricket teas, and hitting balls really hard with a wooden stick and someone goes and fetches it for you to do it again. She looked at me rather disbelievingly, but following some further middle-east style peace negotiations she came in and reluctantly joined the rest of the group.

As I came away from that session, the word ‘opportunity’ resonated with me on the drive back home. This is an opportunity for girls to play cricket. The girls’ reaction to having female coaches was nothing uncommon being a female coach. It stems back from cricket being a sport which is steeped in a history of male domination. Think of a famous cricketer? I bet they are all male. The women involved with the game be it playing, coaching, or officiating have, until recently, been cast aside for generalised stereotypes of women making the cricket teas, or being the ‘cricket wife’. What people didn’t realise is that for many girls and women in this country, the opportunity to be out on the field playing cricket in a competitive environment was rare until the last decade or so. Only recently has it been slightly more acceptable to be female and play cricket.

This notion of ‘opportunity’ became something of a mantra for our future coaching sessions with this new girls’ squad. When planning the cricket sessions and matches the girls would be playing, the lead coach and I would say; ‘Let’s give the girls the opportunity to try wicket keeping’, ‘let’s rotate the captaincy so they all have a go at it’… It was through providing these opportunities that the girls learnt and developed their game. It was through providing these opportunities that we were creating avenues for girls to become engaged with the sport, and through this build confidence both on and off the pitch.

So going back to the little girl I mentioned earlier. Much like the weather at the first session, her reluctance towards entering the sports hall to practice began to thaw as the season progressed.  There were occasions where she would be reluctant to try things or hide at the back of group as she was not sure of whether she could do it. As a coach, one of the key things you learn are different ways of getting your points across – whether that’s through demonstrating, explaining or negotiating. I sat down with the girl one session, and explained that what she did or wanted to do was up to her, but that these sessions were her opportunity to try it and to take it from there.

In early July, I was at work when my phone pinged and flashed demanding attention. I opened up the mailbox, to see an email from the girl’s mother informing that her daughter will not be coming to practice. I admit I did start to fear the worse. I read on. She will not be coming to practice as had been chosen to captain her Cricket Club’s U11s team, they had a fixture on the same date as practice and she had the opportunity to tell the boys what to do on the pitch (and she really wanted to do this) but she will be back next week. I inanely grinned at my phone for a couple of seconds, before shaking myself up and carrying on with the day job. Over the coming weeks we learned of more of the girls in the squad having the opportunity to captain their club or school side, or they would come into sessions telling stories of how they took lots of wickets or made loads of runs in matches or taking spectacular catches to get the batter out.

As a coach you learn to take the wins with the losses. It’s not really about the result of the matches. The real win was providing the opportunities for girls to empower themselves, to gain the confidence to be the best cricketer they could be. Everything else, the wickets, the runs, the stumpings and catches – well that was just an added bonus.

This year I was reminded that not everyone has the same opportunities in life. Volunteer coaching as part of the cricket charity, Cricket Without Boundaries, we joined up together with 28 Too Many and Cricket Kenya and headed to Laikipia, Kenya to work with the Maasai Cricket Warriors in their aim to end FGM in their community. It was here in the schools we coached in, where we saw loads of little girls running around with tennis balls and bats in primary school, and sadly few doing this when we went to secondary schools, that we realised that some of the girls in the Maasai community did not have the opportunity to have more than a basic education, to gain skills and confidence, to enable them to be who they wanted to be. Their futures had already been decided; they were going to be cut, married off and have children. That was their future already settled. No opportunities. The work that the Maasai Cricket Warriors do, as well as the One More Day centre which seeks to provide refuge and shelter to girls who had run away from fear of being cut by their families or suffer the consequences if they refused, is shifting the power over to girls so that they have the chance and opportunity to be who they want to be – not what another dictates.

We need to work together to make sure that all girls have the opportunity to decide their own futures, whether that’s on a sports field or in life. We can make a difference - we have done previously and we will do so in the future.

Blog by Julia Farman, Female Engagement and Empowerment Lead at Cricket Without Boundaries.


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