CONTRIBUTOR SERIES

Exclusive interviews and discussions.

Laura Massaro

Laura Massaro’s successful squash journey began at the age of 7 when she first picked up a racquet following in the footsteps of her parents. As a young girl, Massaro participated in numerous sports, however quickly realised she preferred individual sports as she liked the idea that she could win and lose on her own terms, rather than relying on other people. Laura quickly progressed through the ranks, where she became involved with the National set up. The decision to defer her college place to pursue her sporting passion meant that she got a part time job at the local David Lloyd to fund her sporting commitments. As Massaro continued to move up the ranks, she was able to quit her part time job and commit all her time and efforts to being a professional athlete. This was a huge milestone in her career and hinted from there it only got better. Laura stated she had achieved some “great things, but there were a lot of ups and downs, heartache, elation, hard work, honesty, and dedication” to get to the top.

 

Laura recalled on her win at the World Championships in 2014, where she had finally beaten 9x winning Nicole David, who she came through her junior career with. “Winning a World Championship whilst she was around, no one thought it was possible” Massaro explained, when asked whether she considered retiring at her pinnacle. “I had a bit of a dip after that, thinking ‘what do I do now?’ as I’d achieved more than I’d ever thought.” After deliberating for a while, Laura decided the time wasn’t right for her to hang up her racquet – she decided she wanted to go for World Number One. 2 years later, Massaro achieved this, and again, the retirement question was reignited. The final tough decision came in 2019 when Laura had started to see inconsistencies in her game and was starting to struggle mentally with underperforming.

 

Looking back at her career, the World Championships has to be Laura’s highlight. “Playing the World Championships final was the most nervous I have ever been in my career. I held myself together mentally during that time and got over the line. To win a tournament of that magnitude is so precious.” Massaro gave an insight into her husband’s analogy of living in the present, but she debated that “it’s so hard to live in the present, when there has been so much sacrifice in the past. When you win an event like that, everything that you’ve sacrificed in the past becomes worth it. Your past is always with you even though you can only control ‘the moment’. When you win a World Championship, everything you’ve done for your career – it changes the way you look at it in the past because of what you’ve achieved. That magnitude and looking at it from that mentality, I think that’s the highest thing I’ve ever done.”

 

Counteracting that, Laura’s lowlight came after this event. She felt lost and had feelings of no purpose anymore. A few bad games left a heavy fog in Massaro’s head. Taking herself away was the only way she could cope with these feelings. Although many people thought it was just a holiday, Laura knew in her head that she had retired. However, a week in the sun, with no racquet or training relieved the stress she had been feeling and allowed Laura to see the future more clearly. She wanted to be World Number One and from that moment, the hard graft restarted.

 

Since retiring, Laura has been finding her feet. The pandemic has taken away a lot of opportunities, however Massaro saw this as a positive. “I think I would have just said yes to everything, but actually I hadn’t figured out what I really wanted to do. I’ve enjoyed settling into retirement and enjoyed coaching in a different way and figuring out what I want to do, for myself.” Laura finished her autobiography during lockdown – a book based on her squash career and the highs and lows of sport. She touches on the aspect of not being the most talented technical athlete, but having the drive, determination and honesty to be the best.

 

Massaro finished the interview with a piece of advice. “Honesty” she replied, “surround yourself with people who you trust and whose honesty and opinion you value”. “Have the dedication to work hard and really commit to what you are doing”.

Tough Girl Challenges
- Sarah Williams

This week the Women’s Sports Alliance spoke with Sarah Williams, founder of Tough Girl Challenges.

 

After a successful 8 years in banking, Sarah quit her job at the age of 32 to travel the world, where she ended up completing a range of challenges from climbing Mt Kilimanjaro to cycling down Death Road. Whilst travelling on 24-hour bus journeys in South America, Sarah had a lot of time to think about what her next step in life was going to be. She compiled a list of interests and passions, the key factors being travel, challenging herself and the motivation to inspire. These interests developed once back in London in 2014 and Tough Girl Challenges was created to “motivate and inspire women and girls to be fit and active, to travel and explore and to live their best lives possible.”

 

One of Sarah’s first memories of Tough Girl Challenges was going into girls’ schools, where she shared her experiences and educated pupils on the importance of goal setting. Williams became very despondent when hearing that the majority of girls aspired to be a WAG and had no personal goals. This however didn’t surprise her, as one day when flicking through a newspaper, she realised the representation of women in sport was appalling. Williams continued by suggesting that “unless you are educated on women’s sport and actively seeking out information, it is so hard and rare to find.” Sarah became motivated to ensure that there were women’s voices out there, not only for women, but also for male figures to be able to look up to women as role models.

 

“Most people will complain about it [not seeing women in sport], but it doesn’t bring about change” Williams exclaimed as she went on to suggest that her podcast and blog was initiated as a way of ‘doing something’ and causing a ‘knock-on effect’. Since Sarah started in 2014, there has been over 350 Tough Girl episodes, talking with women from all walks of life completing their own personal challenges. “Women’s voices are incredibly powerful and the way they share their stories are more of an internal journey, breaking down individual steps. This is then listened to by other women who believe they can manage that first step and that is how you end up changing lives.”

 

When asked for a Tough Girl highlight, Williams giggled “all of them”. Sarah went on to explain that the ones that were life changing included Marathon Des Sables and the Appalachian Trail, which pushed her body physically, mentally and emotionally. Although the idea of sharing her success was incredible, Williams articulated that the biggest lesson she took away was that she “doesn’t need to do challenges for other people” and that she is good enough and “doesn’t have anything to prove at all.”

 

Sarah’s ‘I am enough’ mentality surfaced when questioned on how we can support and develop women’s sport. “The media is interconnected with the sponsorship; the sponsorship is interconnected with the media. There isn’t one silver bullet that can fix it, systematic change is needed on so many levels.” Sarah ultimately believed that the money invested into the men’s sector should be equal to the women’s sector of a club, and wording for tournaments such as the World Cup, should be ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’, rather than ‘World Cup’ [for men] and ‘Women’s World Cup’.

 

Finally, we asked Sarah to give the WSA some advice on how to be successful and conquer challenges in life. Her response was:

 

  1. “Enjoy the journey”

 

  1. “Be patient and work hard”

 

  1. “Show up when you don’t feel like it”.

 

BBC Journalist and Presenter
- Jane Dougall

This week the Women’s Sports Alliance spoke with BBC journalist and presenter, Jane Dougall, who gave us an insight into her career in women’s sport. Jane has been working in the sports media industry for 21 years, with her journey being based around her passion and love for sport. As a young woman, Jane participated in numerous sports, with her main achievements being playing hockey for her county and competing in the heptathlon. As time went on and Jane realised playing for her country wasn’t an option, she started to consider what careers were available for her in sport. One suggestion was a PE teacher, however Dougall knew she didn’t want to go down this avenue. Dougall went on to explain how one day, when at school, the idea of being a sports presenter just “hit her”, and it seemed the perfect opportunity.

 

After being talked out of doing a journalism degree, Jane completed an undergraduate degree in English Literature, furthering her education, with a postgrad degree in journalism. Dougall’s first part time sports media role was as a runner for a radio stations weekend sports programme. “At this stage, it [the sports environment] wasn’t particularly welcoming to women” Dougall exclaimed, which lead to a change in sectors, from sports to news. For the next 12 years, Jane produced and reported for various media outlets, including Sky News, BBC Northwest Tonight and ITN.

 

“About 8 years ago, a job came up at Sky Sports News in women’s sport. It wasn’t particularly fashionable at that point to be interested in women’s sport, but I jumped at it”. Jane covered women’s sport exclusively at Sky Sports for 6 years and presented Sports Women, which was the first women’s sports programme on Sky Sports News. In 2019, Jane joined the BBC, with her first reporting duty being the Women’s Football World Cup.

 

We asked Jane if she has noticed a difference in women’s sport form the start of her career to now. “Massively”, she stated, continuing to say she feels privileged to work in a growing sports industry. “At the start of my career, we used to have the managers phone number”. Dougall reminisced on the times she turned up to games with a camera, and people would jump at the idea of being interviewed and would feel grateful to get coverage. She compared it to today, where the process is more extensive and “you have to go through a press officer to even get into the game”.

 

“I’ve got a responsibility to promote women’s sport” Dougall replied in response to being questioned on whether she finds it hard to report on sports she is less knowledgeable about. Dougall believes that her role as a sports journalist is about supporting women’s sport and its profile. In comparison to news interviews, where you want to be balanced, but can also be critical, Dougall suggested she takes her “foot off the pedal” on criticism when it comes to emerging sports. This is due to the fact that many women playing ‘elite’ level sport are having to work alongside their sporting career for financial stability. She hopes that in the future, this will not be the case.

 

Dougall’s highlight in women’s sport had to be her sit-down interview with the Queen of Tennis, Billie Jean King. “I remember turning up mega early, got it all set up in a corridor, with my camera man telling him to film everything.” You could feel the excitement in Janes tone, as she spoke about the interview and how King had faced and overcome adversity to pave the way for women’s sport. On the flip side, a low light of Dougall’s career was the feeling of belittlement in a press conference, where she had received one word, “spikey” answers to a “rather safe question”, which when asked by a male counterpart a minute later, was answered with “no problem”.

 

“Emma Hayes. She has bossed it, and she has bossed it in a man’s world” Dougall responded when asked who she thinks the most inspirational coach is in women’s sport. “What she has achieved is second to none and she is so switched on.” Dougall told the WSA that Hayes adjusts her training to the players menstrual cycles and described her as a lioness around her players.

 

The interview finished by asking Jane for advice to young women who want to be involved in sports media – “you find something you love and you work hard at it and then it doesn’t even feel like work”.