This much I know

Published on March 28, 2024 by Mimi O'Callaghan
Campaign Girls participation Leadership

As our On Her Team campaign comes to an end—a month devoted to celebrating the women in our community and encouraging more girls to join in—we hear directly from our CEO, Don Barrell, about his personal journey and insights gained along the way.

Don takes us back to his own childhood, admitting he didn’t fully understand the hurdles his sister faced as a young girl playing rugby. However, through his experiences leading a women’s elite sport pathway, he’s gained invaluable insights into the importance of inclusivity. He also offers practical advice on how each of us can contribute to a more inclusive environment, stressing the big impact even the smallest changes can have.

This much I know

By Don Barrell

The Beginning 

My sport journey is like so many – my family played a huge role from the outset. 

My brother, sister, and I grew up very close. My sister and I are only 13 months apart, and we both played a lot of sport in school, on the streets, in our free time, and spent long summer holidays mucking around on campsites. When I think about childhood, I think about all the fun we had, both in and out of school playing mixed sports. 

We both joined the local rugby club at the same time. Being so close in age we used to pair up together at the club. Not so long ago, she recently told me this story about something that I had absolutely no recollection of. As a 10-year-old girl, after feeling frustrated and marginalised (for being a girl) she wrote a poem about how she felt different and treated differently as a girl at a rugby club. She would have been one of the very few girls there, but this wasn’t something that occurred to me as a kid. While I don’t think children particularly see barriers, I was also not able to appreciate that she might be experiencing something different from me. 

Awareness and reflection: recognising differences 

As I reflect on that, it strikes me that kids remain largely unaware of differences. In many ways, it’s a golden time, but as you get older something changes. Typically, I think it’s the influence of adults. Comments that get heard, the environment around you, and who sets the tone. In reflecting further, I question it and wonder what could have changed that experience. What could have made someone feel included? What could have been the change that meant my sister did not feel different, or that it wasn’t something that bothered her; that which made a 10-year-old girl feel the need to write it down in a private poem to herself. After all, we want sport to be for all.  

Creating inclusive environments: challenging the status quo 

I believe it relates often to how individuals act, and if environments are ever questioned or challenged. It so often gets casually blamed on systems, but that just irritates me and can be a lazy assumption. Blaming sport and blaming the culture just isn’t acceptable anymore, that’s old hat. 

Practical ways to be more inclusive 

My learning is, to create an inclusive environment, you must challenge individuals and make them think about their impact on other people. Create environments where at an individual level, people are made conscious of their possible impact on others. I think that’s critical. But you also must create a space where this approach is accepted. 

How do you do that? One way is to just ask people if you can ask them questions. In my rugby career, I led a national women’s elite sport pathway, a privilege and a very new experience. The first thing I did was to engage with some experienced and strong women to challenge my thinking and have a safe space to ask questions and be questioned! The first thing I said to them was ‘can you challenge me, but in a positive way?’ One of those women was the 10-year-old who wrote the poem, my sister Clare, who is very good at telling me when I’m wrong! I also reached out to a few colleagues at work and from across different sports. Then, I went out to go and learn. 

This process has helped me understand that my strength as someone who did not have so many lived experiences to call upon, was in how I could bring my experience of the men’s elite pathway, comparing the coaching cultures and call out what was unacceptable. As we drove to raise standards and challenge head-on things that needed to change, I realised I could add value in being inclusive, and in providing a platform for other people by making sure that those who had found voice and agency were celebrated. 

Small changes: big impact 

As I went through so much learning and development in the role, one thing I understand now is that the most impactful changes can seem quite small. 

One occasion sticks out for me. There are lots of brilliant male coaches in women’s rugby, but they had never created a space to really just sit and listen. Our training ground was a 5-minute walk from clubhouse to the training pitch, and there had never been any conversations about if that was OK for players on their period – bearing in mind they would be two hours on the pitch at a time. 

Now clearly there was no bad intent from the coaches, but none of them had been asked or directed to ask those questions and listen. As a result, now sessions are run near toilet and changing facilities and breaks are factored into all sessions.  

I believe that it all starts with inclusion, and as a leader, that’s one of my grounding pieces. In anthropology, you have a concept called cultural relativism; understanding and judging a culture on its own terms, not using your own frame of the world. So, I think everyone must start with inclusion first. There is so much power is simply asking the question – how can I make you feel more included, what do you need from me? Then, being accountable to action the things people are willing to share. I think everyone could benefit from adopting this approach.   

The power of strong female role models 

At Greenhouse, we’ve set ourselves the objective of gender parity for our programmes and have made good progress. We are not there yet though; from a staffing, coaching, or leadership perspective. I am committed to work alongside my team to continue to challenge for it. 

I know first-hand the value that female coaches can add to the development of young boys. As a charity, one of the key spaces we work in is adolescence. Adolescence is a challenging time for boys especially if they may not often get exposed to positive male behaviour. 

For us to have strong female leads in our coaches, those that are super-confident in their sport, and super confident in challenging poor behaviours, that is gold. In society as a whole, we need to expose young boys to strong female role models. 

One small action we can take at Greenhouse Sports is to provide our female coaches with a platform to do drop-in weeks at boys’ programmes where they work with participants who have traditionally only had a male coach.  

Key to progress: inclusion 

Looking at our approach to Inclusion, Diversity, and Equality, as I said, my starting point is inclusion. 

Some steps for individuals to how we How can be more inclusive? I feel we all need to take small easy steps. During our #OnHerTeam campaign we encouraged our staff to take a female colleague, friend or family member they already have a strong relationship with out for a coffee and ask them if they mind sharing some of their experiences with you – tell you some of the challenges they’ve faced, or to relay simply what it’s like to be a woman going through your career. It’s important to do that. Just sit and listen. 

In coaching culture, sporting language is typically male – it’s the 5-man lineout in rugby, it’s ‘man-on’ in football etc. I’ve learned to shift and refer to the players as ‘team’ all the time, as an example, a cognitive plant. Sport can too often feel like men’s territory, and that starts early in life. 

Gendered language irritates me, unless you’re deliberate and explicit about in your use of language – we can’t have basketball and then girls’ basketball – it’s boys’ basketball and girls’ basketball or just basketball. If you support a sports team, then know the other team; know both Arsenal teams scores from the weekend. Those behaviours matter. In life, in work, in sport, if we can successfully pivot to inclusion first, I know that everyone can be inspired, and everyone wins.