“We have a really ambitious goal and we know the right way to get there is to have the culture that supports that,” says Catherine Gilby, Head of Para Performance at the Football Association.
Catherine oversees seven para-teams across powerchair, cerebral palsy, blind, partially-sighted and deaf football. Having held various roles with British Para-Swimming, she had previous experience of working with the British Elite Athletes Association when she joined the FA to lead their Para Lions and Lionesses.
She had utilised the BEAA (then-BAC) for athlete support and selection, and, upon moving to the FA, felt the nation’s top para-football teams would benefit from the organisation’s independence and expertise.
So, roughly a year ago, we agreed to support England’s Para Lions and Lionesses in addition to our sports on the World Class Programme. The offer of our private services is available for discussion with other UK-based elite sports.
“I had really positive experiences from working with [the BEAA], and what stood out to me when I first came into para-football is we didn’t have anything like that,” Catherine explains. “We didn’t have an internal or external forum for players to be able to have a conversation if they were struggling with something or wanted to raise something.
“In conjunction with Emma [Speer, Athlete Support Manager] at the BEAA we implemented an internal forum, which was the player rep group, an internal body of players.
“[The BEAA also provide an] avenue for players to feel like there was someone they could go to talk to if they wanted someone who wasn’t involved in the sport. I think that’s important, not necessarily because there are bad things happening, but because players might want an independent, totally objective person they can just get everything out with.
“We aim to push an environment that is safe for players, but also acknowledge that sometimes people in the sport aren’t the right people to talk to at that time and that having someone a few steps out who understands the demands of being an elite player, being in high-performance sport, really supports players.”
The BEAA have performed two key roles for the FA’s para-teams: helping to establish their athlete representative group and providing direct, independent support to players. Facilitating athlete representatives is a central part of our purpose, as we help to recruit, train and support athletes in making their voices heard.
“I know the BEAA have [established athlete reps] with a number of different sports very successfully,” Catherine explains. “It’s positive to say we were inundated with applications… it showed me that we needed this, first and foremost.
“Fundamentally [the BEAA] helped us shape something that we feel will continue to evolve and has started well. We have great engagement, players have started to embrace what they can offer and bring. So for me it made sure it was highly effective when it started.”
On the support now available to para-footballers, Catherine adds: “There’s a critical need for confidentiality, which the BEAA are very hot on. Equally, they understand that sometimes for some challenges to be addressed, players have got to be in a place to perhaps share and give permission for that to be addressed.
“I am aware a number of players have accessed support, and that’s been beneficial in making sure we address the situation and move forward with it. I think that’s been positively reinforcing: players are using that avenue to seek support and advice on certain situations.
“I have to say [the support has] been of the highest level. What I love about working with Emma and the team is the challenge that they give us, and I mean that in a positive way. Ultimately, if we keep telling ourselves that what we’re doing is great, we’ll never evolve.
“I really like that with the experiences the organisation has, more often than not anything we’re experiencing has been experienced somewhere else and you can bring real-life narratives to situations we’re in, good solutions that have an impact and are worth considering. I like that level of challenge.
“As a programme, we want to be the best we can be, and the only way you can do that is to encourage and ask for feedback, input from people who are experts in the area of player-led support.”
The BEAA’s involvement with the FA forms part of their drive to promote a positive para-football culture and, in Catherine’s words, to “win in the right way”.
“I work with my team to create the best environment possible for our people,” she says. “When I go in and see, hear and feel what’s going on, I’m very pleased. But there’s still such a long way to go as well. I feel we’ve turned a real corner, gathered quite a bit of momentum and are heading in the right direction. We’re probably, as a programme and a sport, on the cusp of a wave of something great.”
Work in elite sport, and want to discuss utilising BEAA support? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.