Leigh Nicol hopes the BOXPARK campaign will encourage teenage girls to stay in the sport

A new two-month campaign, Womxn Who Play, launched last week in London in partnership with Chivas Regal to coincide with the UEFA Women’s Euro in England, aims to encourage women’s participation in sport as research shows that many girls do not participate in organized competitions beyond their teenage years.

Leigh Nicol, who currently plays for South London side Crystal Palace in the English second tier, is one of 12 women from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds trying to raise awareness of the challenges girls face in sport and for the lack of education they receive while they are at it contemplating a sporting career.

Scotland midfielder Nicol was uprooted from her homeland when she joined the prestigious Arsenal academy in 2012 aged 16. She revealed to me that “The dream was completely different compared to reality. I always dreamed of doing this as a young girl, but when it actually got to packing my bags, waking up one morning and making my own bed and doing my own laundry without much guidance, it was really scary, something I looked forward to not being properly prepared was really growing up overnight.”

With the financial rewards of the sport still lagging behind the career opportunities available to men, young players are often forced to stay in education or work and train at the highest level. “We have to combine studying full-time while trying to fit into a part-time job while also trying to train full-time to ensure you’re in the best possible shape to compete. You’re trying to make money trying to pay the bills, while full-time education and training can really ruin the game because you don’t have time to enjoy anything. They’re under a lot of pressure all the time.”

So it’s not surprising that earlier this year a study by Women In Sport reported that more than 1 million girls in the UK lose interest in sport as teenagers. 68% said fear of feeling judged prevented them from participating. Nicol, who was the victim of a phone hack that saw private pictures of her stolen, understands only too well what young girls struggle with in the sport as interest in all facets of women’s football grows exponentially.

“Women’s sport needs all the media coverage it can get,” she tells me, “but unfortunately that will come with other pressures. It’s sexualized. Personally, I’m concerned that maybe my glutes and thighs are being sexualized. I look at how tall they are and not at just playing soccer. The more coverage, the more sexual comments you might get.

“I think the positives are definitely starting to outweigh the negatives. It just depends on each individual and if they are ready for it, they are prepared for it. Have they worked on themselves enough to deal with someone commenting? on their glutes and butts to tell them what they think of them on social media. It can be very demoralizing.”

“I think in those teenage years that can have a massive effect because you don’t yet know who you are and you’re trying to figure it out. They rely heavily on other people’s comments to somehow make them feel good or to get external validation. Especially when it comes to teenagers, nobody wants to look at negative comments about their bodies. That’s not why you exercise.”

The study also found that young girls during puberty may need more support to exercise, as a whopping 70% admit they would avoid exercise during menstruation. Leading clubs like Manchester City have started using groundbreaking research to give their players real-time information on how their hormone levels are affecting their ability to train and to tailor their programs accordingly. Below that, however, even for semi-professional teams like Crystal Palace, accommodating those with already limited training time remains problematic.

Nicol explained to me the difficulties she encountered. “Personally, I’m a lot more tired coming towards this time of the month. You feel a lot heavier than usual, so you feel out of shape. You want to snack a lot more, you want to eat a lot worse foods because you only crave greasy food. Your sleep is massively affected by it, which is why you interrupted your sleep.”

“Then going and having to compete at elite level is really hard with your emotions because there’s an imbalance there. It’s difficult to keep pushing and being resilient while you’re dealing with that. It’s something on which I can’t remember having because obviously I’ve had it from a young age It’s not pretty everyone hates that time of the month.

“Physically, in addition to the fatigue, there is also the worry that you might leak. That’s always in the back of your mind. Especially if you’re wearing shorts, which can obviously show you’ve leaked. Personally, I’m very embarrassed, I’m worried. I subconsciously think about it on game day with the social media and the coverage we’re getting now. It’s something you always remember that you need to make these changes fairly frequently. The Physios always have a spare pair of pants in their pocket just in case it happens. Maybe those are the things you don’t see.”

After Arsenal, Nicol left a division to build a successful career in the game and would like young girls to be educated in their mindset to hone their skills when they fail. “Sometimes we grew up in a bubble where failure is not allowed to happen. In many mindset coachings, they work on how you think, your perception of things, how you communicate effectively. I think that’s a big thing, understanding yourself, how you react to things and why you react to things.”

Originally billed as “the world’s first pop-up mall”, the first BOXPARK in Shoreditch, East London, when it opened in 2010, aimed to effortlessly extend the concepts of the modern street food market and the pop-up mall merge. Two further BOXPARKs were opened in Croydon, South London (2016) and Wembley, North West London (2018). Each BOXPARK will host live broadcasts of every match at the UEFA Women’s Euro, having become a hub for fans following the England men’s team at Euro 2020 last summer.

Running from June 10th to July 31st, the two-month Womxn Who Play program will include an on-site exhibition in Shoreditch and Croydon, a series of motivational panel discussions featuring the talent and guest speakers, live podcasts and workshops. Head of PR and Marketing, Tashia Cameron, said: “At BOXPARK we are very proud to consistently play a role in providing an inclusive and open space for sports fans to come together. We really hope that this campaign can help not only celebrate women and increase visibility for them in sport, but also help open a discussion about the setbacks some are facing and how we can help to overcome this.”

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