This sporting life

Playing sport at the highest level requires huge dedication but also sacrifices, with employers often less supportive than might be expected. As sponsors of the FIL Rathbones Women’s Lacrosse World Cup, we look at the challenges facing high-performing sportswomen.

Martha Back, Investment Director, Rathbones

If playing lacrosse for England has taught Kirsten Lafferty anything it is how to cope with pressure. “If you can handle playing against the US in the World Cup you can handle stitching someone up for a surgeon after an operation,” says the young doctor.

Lafferty took up the sport at boarding school — “It looked really satisfying chucking a ball around with a stick!”. By the time she came to sit her A-levels she was also faced with preparing to play for England at the 2007 Under-19 World Cup.

Despite the pressure, she stormed through with four As, earning a place at Birmingham University to study medicine. The results came through just as she was helping England win the bronze medal.

Soon afterwards she was promoted to the senior England team for the 2009 World Cup in Prague. “I did more lacrosse than studying in my first year at university,” she says. “It was a miracle I passed my exams — I think they’d mixed my papers with someone else’s!”

Thereafter began the challenge of juggling the demands of elite sport and studying for a medical career. For much of the time recently it is medicine that has been the winner.

“In my first year of clinical study I didn’t play — I was on the pancreatic surgery wards with 40 to 60 patients; I was meant to work 8am to 5.30pm, but in reality it was 7.30am to 7.30pm — I was too shattered to do anything afterwards. Then I was on emergency admissions, doing 13-hour days and working every other weekend.”

Lafferty has now put the career on pause. Rather than go into another demanding training position, she is working as a locum, picking shifts that fit around the tough lacrosse coaching schedule. She is on the fringes, fighting for a place in the England team for the Rathbones Lacrosse World Cup to take place in Guildford next summer.

Her story is not unusual, says the CEO of English Lacrosse, Mark Coups — himself a former international. “We don’t draw down elite funding and players often take on board considerable financial sacrifices and stresses if they don’t have supportive bosses.”

Many of England’s women players are teachers. In some schools having an England player teaching lacrosse is seen as hugely advantageous and players are given paid time off for tournaments; others force the players to work overtime to compensate.

“I’m a massive believer in sport and elite sport in particular,” says Coups. “It has enormous benefits for employers. You have a different set of standards to others. Your expectations of yourself and your ability are at a different level. You are more diligent about working smarter and harder and also very focused on setting out goals and how you attain them.”  

Lafferty agrees: “I’m Miss Efficient,” she says. “At university I hadn’t time to procrastinate. I had to squeeze into one hour what my friends might do in two. It was the same when I started working on the wards — I was a complete list fiend. As you race from bed to bed, picking up tasks at each stop, you need to be really efficient, getting them done quickly and well.”

Coups says a team sport like lacrosse offers other benefits too. “It builds confidence, team working and good communication. That’s what you need to succeed on the playing field and often in the workplace too. These are skills you usually only find in people in their 40s who’ve racked up many hours on expensive courses.”

Research by EY, based on interviews with women in senior positions across four continents, supports his arguments. Around 94% of them played sport, arguing it helped them see projects through to completion, to motivate others and to build teams. Three quarters of them said it could help accelerate a woman’s career and 61% said it had contributed to their own career success.

But other research by the EY Women. Fast forward gender parity campaign showed that though organisations perform better with more women promoted to senior positions, women remain seriously under-represented on boards of directors and in C-suite positions. 

Coups says: “We still don’t have a system sorted that works for women in the workplace and that’s something we have to address. We’ve seen top-class athletes having babies and coming back to win world records; in the same way a talented accountant, who’s worked at a very senior level and taken time out to have a family, is perfectly capable of doing a senior role again — in fact, she may be better equipped because parenting skills translate to the workplace too. Employers are missing out if they don’t recognise that.”

On the positive side, Coups says campaigns like Women. Fast forward are encouraging a change of attitude and coming generations will not tolerate the disparity. 

Turning back to his own sport, he sees plenty of athletes who can go on to shine in their careers, and a sport that itself is thriving.

With 25,000 women choosing to play lacrosse on a week-by-week basis — he does not include the 15,000 playing at school — it is the fastest-growing sport in the UK. It is particularly popular in universities and women who have developed a passion for the sport there are now taking it into the wider community on graduation, setting up clubs across the country.

“It’s been a fantastic few years,” says Coups. “Hosting the Rathbones Women’s Lacrosse World Cup next year, and only a year after the men’s tournament which will be held in Manchester, is a huge vote of confidence in the state of the game in the UK.

“We’re really looking forward to the tournament and I hope the hard work and training and all the sacrifices the Team England players are making pay off.”

The FIL Rathbones Women’s Lacrosse World Cup 2017 will be held at Surrey Sports Park from 12 to 22 July. For more information visit the Rathbones Lacrosse World Cup hub. 

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