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31/01/2017 12:11
Women in Volleyball – London 2012 Olympian Rachel Laybourne
News from the National Federations

Loughborough, England, January 31, 2017. With the launch of the 2017 version of Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, the spotlight is once again being shone on how to get more women exercising regularly. This means highlighting the benefits of being active and creating the environment within which this can happen. However, it also means identifying role models who can inspire and enthuse others into doing more.

A year after representing Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics, Rachel Laybourne officially retired from competitive Volleyball. Intent on moving into coaching, Rachel was determined to do whatever she could to improve women’s Volleyball in her home country. Four years on, she is certainly doing her bit, coaching the U-16 and U-18 girls at Boswells Academy, Team Essex Juniors in the NVL and the England U-19 squad.

For Rachel, having role models within the Volleyball “workforce” – coaches, officials and administrators – is every bit as important as having players who are role models. Volleyball is one of the better sports in terms of its male-to-female ratio but that only considers the participation side of the sport.

“I think everyone involved in our sport needs a role model, whether you’re an experienced player, a first-timer, a spectator or an official. That is why I would like to see more female coaches and officials within women’s Volleyball. That’s not a slight on the men involved with the female side of the sport. It’s simply an acknowledgment that female role models are more likely to inspire women to do even more within the sport.”

With this in mind, Rachel enrolled on the year long Women in High Performance programme in 2015, alongside fellow Olympian Maria Bertelli and Beach Volleyball pioneer Denise Austin. Developed by Sports Coach UK, this bespoke programme was aimed at female coaches who had been identified by their sport’s governing body as having the potential to work within the performance environment. It brought together coaches from several sports, including netball, athletics and golf.

“The programme really helped cement my transition from player to coach,” explains Rachel, “but it was also fascinating to see quite how much we had in common with other sports. With netball, for example, it is tempting to think that – with thousands of girls playing the sport – they cannot have any problems finding or nurturing top talent. Likewise with golf, we assume that such a wealthy sport has no problem energising youngsters to get into the game. It is not true though. Large or small, rich or poor, there is a lot of commonality across the sports in terms of how we can better engage with talented young girls. Understanding those different perspectives on the same issue was an eye-opener.”

As someone who made a very smooth transition through the volleyballing ranks as a player, Rachel cannot recall many barriers, which threatened to prevent her from playing the sport she loves. Talk about the transition to coaching though and a sense of mild frustration does emerge.

“I never assumed I could stop playing and immediately become an effective coach. You have to learn your craft; I get that. However, I did feel that after 17 years of playing, I could contribute something straight away – yet there was sometimes this sense of needing to serve my time all over again. Thankfully, the High Performance programme helped in this regard, giving me the confidence to apply the coaching skills that I had already developed. Shortly afterwards, I secured the England U-19 job.”

“The main barrier I now come up against, in terms of becoming the best coach I can be, is one I have inadvertently created for myself. Like many other volleyballing addicts, I am not very good at saying ‘no’. I always want to be involved and to take on new challenges. The thought of missing out on something is horrible. It was not until I took the time to appraise quite how much I was doing, that I realised I was over-stretched. In trying to balance work, life and Volleyball, some parts of my life were suffering and that meant I wasn’t being the best I could be.”

Ask Rachel what one thing she thinks would have the most beneficial impact on female Volleyball participation and the answer, unsurprisingly, is to get more girls playing the sport at an early age.

“There are girls being introduced to netball in Years 4 and 5 yet Volleyball might not even appear on their radar till Years 10 or 11. That is too late – and it is typically because many schools see it as a much more technically demanding sport, which the youngest children cannot cope with. As volleyballers, we can complain about that all we like – or we can do something to address this misconception in schools.”

“This idea of us taking more collective responsibility extends to the This Girl Can programme. I think it is a wonderful programme, which has made a real impact on the inactive female population. However, every one of us within Volleyball has a responsibility to consider how we can create a fantastic experience for any shy, typically inactive, first-time player. This may mean temporarily suspending our focus on getting new players ‘match-ready’ and focusing instead on volleyballing movements or just getting a decent burst of aerobic activity. As a sport, if we don’t capitalise on impactful, nationwide campaigns like this, then we only have ourselves to blame.”

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