|Role:||Performance Coach, She Rallies Ambassador|
Jo Ward is a Perfomance Tennis Coach based in the UK who, in her long tennis career as both player and coach, has had many roles in pushing the message for equality in the sport.
Having played at the professional level in the 1990’s and co-founding the organisation “GB Tennis Girls”, Jo has worked hard through her coaching, her studies and her ambassador roles to encourage and inspire women and girls to take up the sport.
After a very busy year starting with her attendance at the Judy Murray ‘She Rallies’ Female Coach Conference in February, Jo has gone on to become a She Rallies Ambassador, attend the very first Women’s Tennis Coaching Association Conference during the US Open in August and writing a workshop on behalf of the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association UK) to empower and educate coaches on how to better coach females…oh and of course continue with her Phd Studies!
The FCN wanted to ask Jo about her thoughts as to how, once and for all, equality in the tennis World can be achieved, her views on how the media report women’s sport and find out more about her studies, research and coaching experiences.
Starting in February, we had our first female tennis coaches conference with Judy Murray which kicked off the swirl of conversations around women and girls in tennis and sport. There seems to be so much going on at the moment for women in sport including the conference and what the FCN are doing which is amazing -there are lots of pockets of people trying to engage in this conversation. In tennis terms, this conference re-started the conversations we were having back in the 1990s believe it or not!
Back then when I was playing professional tennis, I had some friends who were also playing on the women‘s tour and we set up a company called GB Tennis Girls. At the time of its first inception we called it the Women’s Player Committee and we got together as one voice to try and address some of the inequalities and gender imbalances that we were personally experiencing.
It was fairly selfish motivations at the beginning because we were experiencing those things ourselves and wanted to deal with them. Gradually, as we retired as players, we kept it going and it became GB Tennis girls to campaign for the rights of the next generation of women and girls. For many years since we have been campaigning for equal rights, equal prize money, equal respect and have been fundraising for sponsorships for the top female players (some of the top women have managed to get sponsored cars etc as a result of this).
It’s all done voluntarily, and over the years as we have banged our heads against the wall for a decade or two, I had felt that the light was dimming to a certain extent. Life gets in the way, we all have jobs and families etc (although we are all still involved with tennis however), but with this conference in February and the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) really starting to look at the imbalance in participation and engage with the topic, it has reignited everything again.
The conference was fantastic, being in a room with other female coaches and for once not being outnumbered was amazing. It was quite strange actually, I was walking down the street in Birmingham (where the conference was held) and looked at any semi-sporty woman walking past and you could assume that they were all coaches! Whereas what I have experienced in the past was when I myself am at a tournament, in a tracksuit with my club logo on, people presume I am someone‘s Mother! So that was refreshing!
That conference then led me to becoming a She Rallies Ambassador, which we had the training for 2 days after this conference. There were 23 of us and the training involved getting some children from local schools together and having great fun delivering the sessions to the girls. There was a real buzz about having Judy Murray in the room, parents were all really excited about having their girls front and centre stage!
Since then, I have been spending my time writing a workshop on behalf of the LTA to empower and educate coaches on how to better coach females. So I have spent a lot of time researching for this. Most of that time has been trying to find research that has been done because there is so little out there specifically about females. Now I think I have pretty much read, researched, spoken to everyone possible who I think can have some kind of impact on this workshop, which is now almost written!
Yes, I went out to New York for the US Open in August, for the very first Women‘s Tennis Coaching Association conference. This was a similar experience to the first conference in February [with Judy Murray], very inspiring, lots of female and male speakers – but just having women and women’s tennis front and centre of the conversation is still something that isn’t normal in tennis. Normally if I go to a coaching conference, I have to listen to what’s said and then put it through my own filter in order to apply it to female players and coaches, whereas this has removed any of the barriers.
The subtitle of the conference was “The Art and Science of Coaching Females”, so some of the speakers referred to the art, some the science of coaching and some in between, which was great!
I managed to catch up with some of my old friends from training days and that again was really inspiring, because it was so good to see that it’s not just in British tennis that this conversation about women and girls in sport is starting to gather momentum. I spoke to former pro Nicole Pratt who is now Head of Women’s Tennis in Australia and she explained that it’s starting to gather momentum in Australia as well.
Sarah Stone who is the co-founder of the WTCA who is based in the US and getting things going there. The whole thing is gathering momentum with women from all over the World and many of the players I used to play with are starting to get positions on boards, or becoming the head of women’s tennis etc…so it’s starting to get very exciting!
I am speaking very much from the outside on this, I don‘t have inroads into the mindset of those in the WTA these days, I retired in 2000, so I really am on the outside. It strikes me that those who are running the WTA at the moment are very well intentioned, but I don‘t agree with some of the things they are doing. That might feed into why they aren’t getting involved with the WTCA. For example, the WTA are running a social media campaign called ‘Guess The Dress’, so they have lots of famous female tennis players looking at a dress and they have to guess who wore it and when. On the surface you look at that and think it’s fun, they are well intentioned and they are just trying to make more female players have a higher profile. But if you look at the bigger picture narrative, having girls sat around talking about dresses, I don’t think that is going to help in the long run. It might be a short term win, but its a long term loss.
So maybe it’s all a bit insular because they don’t seem to be speaking to women players and coaches who are at the coal face and understanding the bigger picture and the problems that are going on. It’s about much more than just making the top women richer, it’s about enriching in a more cultural sense in everything we are doing.
The media is an interesting topic. I am 2 years into my PhD in which I am looking at the stereotypes in tennis. One of the things I have researched is the ‘Media Production Consumption Model’. So basically, the media produce in quality and quantity what they think we want. The usual answer by the media as to why they produce what they do is “we are just giving people what they want”. But based on what they give us, that feeds our sense of society, who belongs where, our sense of celebrity and in sporting terms; what is an athlete. So automatically we think of a male when we think of an athlete because of what we are given by the media. That then has the self-fulfilling prophecy effect of us then wanting to consume what we have already been given. It becomes a vicious cycle.
It is in some respects counter-cultural and non conformist to see women as athletes. I think that is starting to turn around now as a popular narrative but it’s not represented by coverage in the press. The highest percentage women’s sports ever get in the mainstream media is around 8% globally.
The media are also still very guilty of picking up on stories that are either sensationalist or conformist. Even when they speak about women athletes, they often speak of them in terms of their relationships i.e. Lindsay Davenport, mother of three, is coach to Madison Keyes. They can’t help themselves in putting in those little snippets of conformity in. I don’t think they are all aware of what they are doing – the media machine just continues to grind on.
I feel very strongly about this because when you think about young girls growing up and having the TV on, all those implicit messages become ingrained. ‘You have to see it, to be it’…so if they are not seeing women athletes on TV, then they take that off the list of future aspirations.
Yes. The first step is to make women part of the conversation, we want more than our 8% coverage. In some places that is even less, and in some studies it turns out we were getting more coverage in the 1970s and 80s!
The second step is that we need to bust some myths. If you listen to the way people talk in tennis such as “you are playing like a girl”, you then start to think that the difference between boys and girls physically is huge, in measurable terms around 60-70% difference. But in reality, the physical differences only equates to 8-12% across a range of measurable sports. So we need to completely demystify the idea that men are built for sports and women are built for babies, its just not true! We need to control the narrative, and we can only do that if we are part of the conversation first.
I think in tennis we benefit and suffer is because of its profile. Because it’s one of the more high profile women‘s sports, it does get more TV coverage and column inches etc. I think we then experience more positives (such as when Andy Murray talked about his experience with Amelie Mauresmo) but also big negatives, such as when John McEnroe came out and said that Serena Williams would lose to any man in the top 800 or whatever it was. That then all kicks off a big row and totally downplays the immense achievements she has made as a tennis player. So we, as tennis, are exposed to both sides of the coin, we get extreme positives and extreme negatives.
In all honesty, it wasn’t a decision, it was more organic than that. I love tennis, I love the feeling of hitting tennis balls and being on a tennis court, it’s my home! I am really fascinated by the whole process of teaching and learning, so coaching seemed natural.
Tennis has however taken it’s toll on me, I had 6 knee surgery’s whilst I was playing and 3 since then. I’ve got one coming up which will be huge and horrible. So now, most of what I am doing at the moment is around education, because of my knee problems. But I love it so much, I run an academy, I like getting involved with other coaches and lessons. I am not able to physically coach for 25 hours a week like I could at one point.
I think it is important to have an outlet. My own previous outlets have been varied. During the times I was coaching the most I did my undergraduate degree. I specifically didn’t choose a sporting topic because I wanted it to be my ‘switch off’ time. Attending lectures was a complete switch off because I had to engage with the topic, I had essays and deadlines due, which were all pressures of a different kind. I can’t say I always loved it, there were times I questioned what on Earth I was doing, but that worked for me.
As soon as I finished that degree I was at a bit of a loss and went straight into doing my Masters because I was worried I would miss that diversion of my attention. When I finished that I went on to do other things such as art classes, languages…I am lucky in the fact lots of things interesting!
Even when I competed professionally I always had other things to do because I felt I couldn’t dedicate all of myself to tennis unless I could also withdraw myself from tennis. I remember taking an Egyptology class, and wherever I was travelling to play, I would make sure to get back in time for it. I loved it, and it made the tennis experience so much more enriching because I could take myself out of that world. I also didn’t tell anyone I was a tennis player at these things, because I didn’t want to talk about tennis whilst I was there. I wanted to be someone else for a while so that when I got back into tennis I could fully emerge myself again.
That is so important because if you only have one thing that you do, that ability to commit to that one thing can dilute over time and you end up jaded and tired from it all. But if you can take yourself out of an environment mentally and emotionally, I think you are then able to put more of yourself back in.
No, it is a no brainer to have high profile sports women involved! Judy has over 200,000 followers on Twitter so when she tweets about her programmes, it gives these programs power and a promotion that they wouldn’t otherwise have. We absolutely need high profile women like her to get behind these things and make them visible.
The press aren’t going to make these things visible for us! They won’t start making projects like these part of their output unless they have some sort of celebrity attached to them. So She Rallies needs to keep going and building momentum and build up some good stats and figures and that can only be done if Judy keeps doing her thing in promoting it whilst we are all in the background getting out there and being at the coal face. We all need to push towards the same thing and that is the only way it is going to work.
But we do also need female Ministers getting behind it, we need female athletes, female journalists…the more loud voices that can get behind it, the more we have a chorus that will try and push things forward.
My advice would be, it’s absolutely fine to go and explore other things because that’s what makes coaching a more attractive proposition. When you have experienced life on the outside [of tennis] and sat behind a desk in an office job for a while, you will remember how much you loved what you did before and coaching is part of that same journey.
When I first started coaching, I had thoughts of ‘do I really want to be working until 9pm every night?’. It was never the coaching I was worried about, it was the environment of being the only woman on a course, do I really want to have Dads of boys telling me it was time for their sons to have a male coach. Despite all of those little incremental negatives, it is a fantastic job and we do it because we love our sport.
If we as women can all be doing our bit so that generations after don’t have those same internal doubts about coaching that have nothing to do with coaching and everything to do with the environment, that will solve all the issues we have with inequality.