If you’re going to read one book in 2019, let it be this one.

Eat Sweat Play

My reflections

Who wrote it?

Anna Kessell, sports writer for The Guardian and The Observer. Co founder and chair of Women in Football.

Who’s it for?

Any woman interested in sport and exercise, men in sport, sport students and PE teachers. I think this book is so good that I believe extracts should be compulsory reading for students within PE lessons.

What’s actually in there?

A huge amount is covered within the book! Topics include: exercise and pregnancy; PE lessons; sporting taboos (including periods, the menopause and their influence on exercise); not needing to play sport to enjoy sport; hard hitting stories and sports women in the media.

Quote from book:

‘It’s time for women over the world to reconnect with our bodies’

Would I recommend it?

I would definitely recommend this book to any woman interested in sport or exercise. The book is so inspiring, and has left me wanting to take part in a team sport again as a competitor.

My reflections on the book

How my eyes were opened to the subject of women in sport by reading the book ‘Eat Sweat Play’ by Anna Kessel.   Despite having taken an active role in sport and exercise for the whole of my life I had been pretty absent from the area of women in sport until this year. From the age of 3 to 18 I regularly took ballet lessons, and although I was dancing in a class of other girls, I felt completely alone in the activity. All work in class was geared to individual training and not team work. 

When I began rowing in my second year of university, I felt my competition, within the team, was the male rowers. Without blowing my own trumpet, I felt I did pretty well compared to the men. This was probably due to the very strong leg strength I had as a result of my ballet training. I also took the rowing training very seriously, whereas some did not. The attitude of some women on the team, I must say, did put me off joining purely women’s teams. (That was until I started working with womens flag football). Since leaving university I had worked wholly with male teams, as a sports therapist/coach, so the female sporting environment was relatively unknown to me.

Something which particularly shocked me in the book was the fact that there is little to no advice for expectant and new mothers wishing to exercise for the health of themselves and their child.  I didn’t realise that there is such a huge need for research in the area of sport and exercise for new and expectant mothers. I also didn’t realise how concerned and passionate I would become about it, as a 25yr old professional woman, not looking to start a family for a good few years yet. My partner always jokes that I will never want to have children as I’d never want to give up the gym. This makes me laugh and I agree because, in the back of my mind for some stupid reason, I have believed that if and when this time comes, I will have to give up heavy weight training and sacrifice all that hard work I have put in. Reading ‘Eat Sweat Play’ has led me to re-evaluate my thoughts, stop being stupid and think as the sport scientist I am that actually it is very healthy for women to take part in activity throughout pregnancy and post childbirth. I’m sure when the time comes I will be less selfish in my views. However, I am deeply concerned by the lack of research in this area and I do worry for other women and myself in the future. In fact it’s kind of scary. When can we return to activity? For how long can we continue to weight train? What benefits will exercise have on childbirth and carrying the child, or even the health of the baby? What are the areas of training that should be avoided?

I believe women need to assert themselves in the gym. I’m not an overly confident person and before I began training in the gym I didn’t have a clue how to lift weights, but with patience and persistence, I have worked it out. I have never once felt the need to shy away from the weights area because it was a ‘men’s only’ room. This could be because I can look past what others think, and would encourage others to do the same. I know that some men in there are often more concerned about themselves and how they look in the mirror, than what you’re doing – I’ve seen the evidence – particularly one guy hugging his own reflection in the mirror. The majority are either as confused as you or completely absorbed in their own workout. My advice would be to ask if you’re unsure, or use available resources to help you.

A growing trend that I have noticed are those women, who are influenced by the media, treating the gym as a fashion show/social hub.   Similarly, the current obsession with ‘booty gains’ (i.e. Kim Kardashian-West) drives me nuts. The Kardashians are, in my opinion, not good role models with their rumoured plastic surgery and body reshaping giving an unrealistic view of the female form. Yes having strong glutes are important for athletic performance but seriously, what about the rest of you? A fit and healthy body is more important than a passing fashion trend. Thankfully the women in American Football have meaningful goals to work towards. I’m looking forward to the day that female athletes such as Jen Welter become role models for young girls.

I totally agree that women should support each other in sport. I like the ‘Girl Gains’ concept developed by bloggers Zanna, Tally and Victoria, which holds events for women to get together to enjoy being active and healthy. Recently many people have commented about being friendly in the gym to other women.  Working with people every day in my job, it is nice to be able to train quietly by myself, pushing myself to achieve. It’s my downtime. When I’m in the gym I don’t always wish to talk to others. So yes I don’t always look happy or want to start a conversation, but not because I’m unfriendly or don’t support others. I can and do smile, and say hello. I do take my gym training very seriously for both personal and professional reasons, and I hope my attitude/approach to training in the gym would encourage others. However I have noticed that there can be too much shaming of some women in the gym when they are simply dedicated and motivated individuals wanting to achieve their best when training. So don’t take offence if they look very serious and focused.

Part of the book ‘Eat, Sweat, Play’ speaks about women making their voice heard at soccer matches. Although I have no experience of this sport, I have watched many rugby and American football games where there are few women on the side-lines shouting support. At a rugby club I once worked with we had an awesome lady called Lynn (who was the glue that held the team together). Lynn is a very special lady, who volunteers many hours of her week, organising the rugby admin, acting as a mother to all the boys and still times find to shout support on the side-line at home and away games. It is great to hear a woman’s voice among the men’s more colourful language, and I think it has encouraged me to open up during both rugby and football games too. Hands down to Lynn for all the work she does. I have met many similar women in American Football who are championing the sport. I hope the ratio of men to women on the sideline in Britball will soon be equal!

So far within my career I have felt little prejudice towards me as a woman working within sport. The one area I have experienced some difficulty is working as a Strength and Conditioning coach. I am happily accepted as a Sports Therapist, caring for individuals, acting out a more ‘womanly’ role, but not so as a strength coach. I feel that some believe that, as I am woman, I can’t know more than men about building individual and team strength to better performance. However, there are some environments where I am completely accepted as a specialist in these areas, and by some very good coaches and athletes. I believe this difference in attitude is down to the background, experience and education of individuals. It has been disheartening at times as this is the area I am most passionate about, but I’m finding ways to move onwards and upwards.

Personally, like many women working within the field of sport and exercise endeavouring to build a good reputation as professionals and athletes, I find it difficult to support female ‘sports’ such as the American Football Lingerie League. For practically naked women to flaunt around for men to watch in the name of sport is a huge step back for women’s equality and sexualizes women within sport. Again, having worked with many men’s teams I hear a lot of changing room talk, and these ‘sports’ just aren’t helping women to be respected. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the athleticism and training that goes into the sport itself, but just wish they would cover up. Even if you are a very talented player, many people will make assumptions as to your reasons for participating in such a ‘sport’.

Working daily at a sports University, with many great women’s sports teams is hugely inspiring. I am also incredibly lucky to have a very supportive partner whom I met through sport when at university. He is himself a sportsman and, before I moved, to my present job I was his strength and conditioning coach. I have also rehabbed him through injury and have coached American Football alongside him, where he has taught, and continues to teach me, about his own sports and I him about mine. We hold a mutual respect for each other’s knowledge of sport and exercise and spend our weekends playing/coaching/training. It’s great to have someone who completely supports me and also allows me to vent my frustration at times!

Here’s to continued development of women in sport!

And thank you Anna for writing such an inspiring and thought provoking book!

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