One of the things I want to do as part of these blog posts is focus on some of the women who make a difference in Amateur Boxing in the UK. I’ll start with Hilary Lissenden, a National level referee. She found the sport by walking into a boxing gym above a pub in South London in a bid to lose her baby weight and is now (among her many boxing accolades) one of the most senior female referees in the country. She also happens to be a Director of England Boxing (the National Governing Body) and CEO of London Community Boxing, so is certainly paving the way for women in the sport.
I spoke to Hilary about her role as a referee and asked her what drew her to boxing. She started training to get fit using the sport as a weight loss tool but soon saw the difference it could make to people on a whole range of levels and from all walks of life.
‘I like the people, the amateur ethos and values of participation for all with Olympic participation the ultimate goal. Also the rewards that are individual and shared on a volunteer basis without financial motivation driving everything. I also love the way boxing replicates life’s challenges – how we respond to rules, how we prepare for demanding situations, how we react and develop when we ‘lose’, what we learn from victory and defeat’.
After gaining basic coaching qualifications Hilary noticed the lack of female judges and referees so set out to change that obtaining the qualifications needed. Four years later she is now an England Boxing Major Panel (National) Referee and Judge. She has refereed internationally in a duel Elite International match with Ireland and at the England Boxing Elite National Championships.
I asked Hilary whether she faces discrimination as a woman in a predominantly male role.
‘I have but both for and against. As a female ref in short supply you tend to get fast-tracked so perhaps pushed outside your comfort zone but sometimes even beyond where your competency lies. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had great, experienced, mentors who have been very generous with their time and advice and many of the England and AIBA refs have helped me at different times. England Boxing have also provided really good upgrade seminars and assessments so I’ve been able to learn and improve constantly.
The sexism I have encountered has unfortunately been from coaches and spectators and is not usually overt. However, I was once told by a woman that I have no place in the ring because I am a woman. You have to be tough and have a skin however that is true for all referees in any case. Every single person is an expert out there but the job is much, much harder than people think. No two situations are ever the same, so you can encounter something new at any moment and have to make decisions that not only can affect the result of the bout, but really affect the potential safety and wellbeing of the boxers. You have to do that on the spot, all the time, in the noise and heat and pressure, in full accordance with all the rules, on your own, and not care that whatever you do, someone is going to be unhappy – at least vocally and sometimes physically’.
Female referees are very rare in boxing so Hilary learnt from the men on the circuit, taking little bits from each and developing her own style.
‘They are generally really helpful and constructive. Everyone has different styles so you tend to watch and model yourself on those you admire (the way they move and position themselves in the ring; the way they make and communicate decisions; their ‘presence’ and influence on the boxers and the bout). Geoff Cannell is probably the ref I like watching the most and try to learn from. Calm, authoritative, unobtrusive. You have to be confident and stick to your decisions no matter how unpopular they may be. One important point is that the referee has to make him/herself clear to the boxers but also the officials and even the spectators, so people understand the flow of the bout and the reasons behind your decisions’.
Last month I had a ringside view of her in action at the Elite National Championships and she did this with ease. There was no hint of the pressure she felt refereeing in the finals – the highest level of competition in the country.
For the few years I’ve known her, Hilary has always been supportive and constructive in my development as a coach and for that I am grateful. She mentioned to me while discussing this article that she would love to be mentored by one of the female AIBA referees and I realised that she is in a way mentoring me. We have different roles in the sport but she has helped me realise my strengths and given me the confidence to pursue my goals as a coach and opportunity to build towards them. There is nothing more valuable to the progress of women in sport than women who inspire and help others achieve, and for all the reasons above – Hilary is one of them.
Bio: Rachel Bower, is a boxing coach at London Community Boxing. A former National Champion and England representative she now coaches Novice to Elite Amateur boxers at club level, the London Female Squad and the Metropolitan Police boxing team. She also holds a position on the England Boxing Coach Education Sub Committee.
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