By Lucy Roberts
Former England international rugby union player Nolli Waterman has recently been involved in the making of a documentary focussing on her most recent venture into the media side of the game.
HSBC gave Waterman, one of their ambassadors, the platform to tell her story about the trolling she has faced from people telling her she isn’t qualified to be talking about men’s rugby despite having played at the top level of the sport herself and was part of a winning World Cup team, even scoring a try in the final.
Nolli Waterman - Finding Her Voice, was released earlier this month.
In the interview with Female First, the 36-year-old openly spoke of how she nearly walked away from her commentary career but revealed why she stayed and gave her advice to women who want to break into the sport media industry.
Q) What is your best memory from your playing career?
A) I think probably scoring in the World Cup final when we went on to win was pretty special. It was the most ridiculous team try and I was just on the end of it and screamed louder than the many thousands of people that were in the stadium to Maggie (Alphonsi) to pass me the ball because I knew that I could get to the line. But yeah, that was pretty special. And it sounds a little bit strange, but when I played my last test match for England at the Ricoh Arena and I hadn’t made a decision to retire but it was the last game of the Six Nations and I just had so much fun. It was an awesome game. And at the end of the game, I was waiting to do a media interview. My family were in hospitality on one side of the stadium and a lot of my teammate’s families were on the other side, it was a bit bizarre. Anyway, I was waiting, and I’d scored quite a good try and had a good game, it was really fun. Then I just looked up and all my family were there having the best time with loads of drinks and stuff like that, and I just thought, well if this is one of my last memories of England then I’m all good to retire now. But it’s something that I will always treasure.
Q) When you first got called up to play for England, how did it feel to become the then youngest woman to represent the country?
A) To be honest I don’t think I really realised what it was going to be like until it got given my shirt, until the shirt presentation the night before. I think I just went with it and it was all really exciting, then the nerves really hit me when I was given this England shirt and actually, I was going to go out and play in a test match the next day. I was really fortunate though because I had some amazing women that were quite a lot older than me in the squad, but just awesome role models and I just remember thinking they’re unbelievably tough, they’re unbelievably athletic and I think that I was probably more intimidated by that than I was just going out and playing the rugby. Because I wanted to make sure I did a good job for them.
Q) How difficult was the year out of the game that you took due to injuries?
A) To be fair I had few nearly a year injuries. The worst injury was in 2015 when I was out for over a year and it was really, really tough and it was the first time that I probably accepted that I needed a lot of help mentally as much as physically. It was a complete game changer going through that process, but it took me nearly five months just to walk down the stairs without pain and as somebody that had aspirations to go to the Olympics in Rugby Sevens when you’ve got to be the fittest, fastest athlete I’d ever been. I got to a point when I thought I can’t do this and I wrote an email to retire and decided to sit on the email, I was like I’ll just wait. And I spoke to my dad about it, and I said: “Look I’m done.” And he said absolutely, you’ve done what you’ve wanted to do in the game, you’ve won a World Cup, you’ve done all these things and he said it is totally fine to send that email. But I was like, I don’t want to. He was like, okay but you’ve just told me that you’ve written it. And just being asked that by somebody that had always been there for me for my whole career, my biggest role model in rugby. It gave me the perspective that actually I did want to carry on. My gut instinct wasn’t the emotional side of it, it was literally within me that I did want to carry on. It was pretty tough, but I’m pleased I did, I got to go to the Olympics and then go to another World Cup and do other bits and pieces. So, it wasn’t a bad decision to stay.
Q) Was the media side of the game the natural next step for you after you retired from playing or did you want to pursue other opportunities as well?
A) During all my different injuries I took as many different opportunities as I could and that involved a lot of media stuff, so whether it be in the studio or pitch side and then I started to do a little bit of commentary, but it was like this is far too hard for me. But I also, whilst I was playing for the vast majority of my career, I worked full time and I started out teaching and working in schools and then I got a job working and running a national rugby academy in Gloucester, Hartpury College, and so I was a full-time coach whilst I was an elite player. I think I’d always thought probably when I finished playing that the media stuff was great but actually to have a career and earn a consistent salary I would need to go back into teaching or coaching and I though about maybe going and being a head of sport over in America or doing something fun like that might be my path. But when I finished playing, I was coaching and also doing media and other bits and pieces and I think slowly but surely because of the opportunities that I’ve had in the media, because they have been more consistent, I’ve been able to make more of a career of it.
Q) How much pressure do you feel to prove that you know what you’re talking about when you’re working in the media despite the fact that you played rugby consistently at the highest level for a long time?
A) To be honest, initially, a huge amount. I really struggled with the fact that I didn’t feel like everyone in the room didn’t feel like I was good enough to be there. Actually, when I now know all these people and I’m good friends with a lot of the people I work with, it wasn’t actually them thinking it, it was just what I was telling myself that I was thinking what they were thinking. I think because there isn’t that many women doing it, it’s not a normal situation to have lots of women commentate on men’s rugby. And so, you haven’t really got a touchpoint with somebody else doing it. I think I’ve looked up to Alex Scott quite a lot in the football world and seen her journey and I think she’s fantastic and the respect that she has. And she’s been open about the challenges she’s faced with regard to racism and sexism and all of those things that actually that’s where I was really passionate about being able to do the documentary. When HSBC asked me would I want to do I was like yeah because if I’m going into that room and I’m not feeling confident as somebody who’s done what I’ve done, how on earth is somebody without the rugby CV going to have the confidence to step in there and own it. It’s crazy from the outside and now I see it a little bit more. I think the more we can talk about it and normalise it and be open about the fact that I found it really tough. Hopefully, that’ll get everybody else to realise that quite often it’s our own restrictions that we put on ourselves rather than the ones that are coming from the people in the room alongside you
Q) In the documentary you mentioned that the people who troll you on social media have an unconscious bias because you’re a woman, what are your thoughts on that?
A) I think a lot of people don’t realise that they’re not engaged, or they don’t enjoy something, and they don’t think about the deeper reasons for that and actually it’s change, having something new, having a woman in men’s sport. I suppose, what I meant with that is it’s more getting people to realise that unconscious bias is there. We all have it at different levels, at different situations and scenarios. But until we start really stopping and thinking and reflecting and some of the most interesting feedback I’ve had has come from men because they’ve said that they never knew it would happen and they didn’t think that I would get trolled. I was like, but why do you think that it doesn’t happen? And they said well because we never hear that it does. So, just pointing out these things and getting someone to realise that they might be making a decision because of how they’ve been brought up and it’s also how role models have affected their thinking. And if they are a parent themselves, how are they role modelling for their youngsters and their children and so that they actually take out that unconscious bias towards supporting women and open up that thought process around why they respond the way they do.
I’ve been blown away by how incredibly positive all of the response has been to the documentary. I think it’s been great because it has asked those questions and it has got people to stop and think and reflect, and have they made comments that aren’t funny or aren’t suitable or aren’t necessary. Have they without thinking that they’re read by people or that actually do hurt?
Q) How much strength did it take to carry on your career in the media after facing negativity?
A) From my perspective it got to the point where I wasn’t enjoying it and I had to reflect on why I wasn’t because I was so upset after the trolling that I’d experienced. I never experienced the level that I got after commentating with ITV, and just because of the level of exposure. There weren’t tens of thousands, there wasn’t hundreds of thousands, there was millions of people tuning in. And I had just never experienced it on a personal level. I’d seen it from other people but until it really is at you, you don’t understand, and I was desperately upset at what was being said about me. But it actually ran a bit deeper than that because I was losing enjoyment from it because I was getting so anxious, and I didn’t realise the anxiety was there building up to games and then after games. I was getting so worried about, am I good enough, what do I need to do, overpreparing, I had notes everywhere so I was just bombarding myself. And immediately after the game I would question, or even at half time I would question, oh I shouldn’t have said that, what will people think about that comment, oh I missed that. I would overanalyse absolutely everything and I was always very detail focussed as a player and I was always tremendously competitive to make sure that I got better as I got older. That gave me the career that I wanted and that’s great because it’s driving me as a commentator and a pundit, but it was also crippling me because it was taking away so much enjoyment from actually just delivering something that fundamentally should be a fun role. I’m getting the opportunity to talk about something that I love. I think the trolling coming hand in hand with how I was feeling, and I was losing that enjoyment. It was both of them, then I had to stop and reflect about why I was feeling like I was and did I need to listen to the trolls. If I’m telling young girls, I work as an athlete mentor, and I tell them that they can do whatever they want, and I genuinely believe that. But yet I’m getting overly anxious about believing I’m not good enough and overthinking everything, so that was where I thought I do need to listen to myself and listen to some of my own advice. I was also very fortunate that I had a number of people from within the media reach out and also provide me with that support. And there are people that I have a massive amount of respect for and them saying it allowed me to hear it. It wasn’t just coming from my own thoughts; it was coming from a peer group that I hugely respect. On the back of that reflection and knowing why I wanted to do it and actually being passionate about being okay that I’m on a journey of learning and that people do want me there and I am doing okay, and I am getting better, has now just brought this amazing amount of enjoyment to what I do. And then it comes through in terms of what I’m delivering. So, yeah, there was a few different things.
Q) How did you feel when you got offered a full season contract from Channel Four to cover the Heineken Champions Cup Final?
A) I’m in my officially third season but second full season with them. It’s not just about the contract but it’s also about the fact that I massively feel part of the team. I love working with everybody. I have a huge amount of respect for Jamie Heaslip, a very, very big name in the men’s game but he also has a huge amount of respect for me and the relationship that we have, and then with Miles Harrison who, in my opinion, is one of the best commentators in the world. It’s about us working together and delivering and their respect, how they talk to me when we’re on air really reflects how confident I can be about myself and also, it’s getting on with the producers and the directors and feeling part of that wider team has made a massive difference and brought just a huge amount of enjoyment because as a rugby player, one of the reasons I played was because we were a team sport. So, to feel part of a team again I think is really cool and that’s where I think we need to be pushing with more women having opportunities and it’s not just dropping someone in and having a one-off shot. Because whenever you do something for the first time you have to try and prove yourself and you chuck in as much as you can and then it’s never going to go well or as well as it could do. That’s where I think women become stuck because it’s one chance and then they’re gone whereas to have that repeated opportunity and feeling like someone is backing you, it then allows you to improve and get better and ask for feedback and have those relationships where as soon as the game is finished the producer will come and talk to me and say, right that was great, could have improved there, really like that bit. I think that’s how we need to get more women in and where we really, really start to build confidence.
Q) What would your advice be to women wanting to go into the media industry and the sport media industry?
A) I think the most important thing is work hard on your knowledge base. If you find something you’re massively passionate about and if you’re passionate about it, learning and watching and educating yourself around it - building that knowledge doesn’t seem like work because it’s something you just love doing. Although I am getting a little bit sick of watching men’s rugby now, I kind of have to suck it up! But I think first and foremost find that passion and build a huge amount of knowledge and depth and understanding and being confident with also having your opinion on those people, teams and stories. Also building relationships with people is really important, just like it is with any industry and being a great person is super important because actually it’s in the media, a lot of what you do is about relationship building and having trust. If you’re a good person and people can see that you work hard, and they can see that you’re honest and then people will trust you with their stories or with giving you opportunities. I think a lot of people forget that just being a great human and being on time, being loyal, being humble, being honest and all of those things in my opinion stand you in really good stead.
Plenty of people will tell you reasons why you shouldn’t – you’ve just got to understand why you should. And know that there are more people who will say out loud why you shouldn’t but there will be probably more people that think you should but just won’t tell you. It’s human nature unfortunately to jump on the negative more so than the positive sometimes so believe that there are lots of people who want you to succeed. If you’ve got that drive from within yourself, then I believe that we shouldn’t let other people’s negativity tells us whether we should or shouldn’t. It never stopped me as a player so why should it stop me in this environment? I think that’s the last couple of lines in the documentary around society telling us that we shouldn’t rather than actually just believing that we can.
For me I think what’s been amazing is that we’re often asked how can we make change in women’s sport and a lot of people look towards the sports themselves to professionalise it or we look to the media and for me over recent weeks having seen the benefit that HSBC have is that brands have a huge role in it all. It’s not just about that sponsorship money, it’s not just about putting their brand everywhere around the pitches or on the courts or whatever. And it’s things like this (the documentary) because they have tens of thousands of people that they employ within the bank globally and other brands have huge amounts of employees globally and the message goes out to them. Telling tens of thousands of people, right this what we believe in, these are our values, this is the brand, this is a story that brings it to life. It’s also the relationships and the influence they can have on the sports because if they’re putting themselves out there, they can add pressure and ask people within sports, right we’re bringing in the money, you need to be doing something else. I think from my perspective it’s been brilliant because HSBC are an awesome company to work for, I’ve loved being an ambassador for them, but this has gone to a new level. It’s hard because I’m genuinely not saying it because I’m an ambassador, I’m saying it because it’s the first brand that I’ve seen that has really started to action something. And have started to tell a story and invest in that time, energy, and platform. It’s the platform that these big brands have that make people stop and listen. I think that’s what’s been really cool just on a personal level and as a female been asked all the time, what can we all do to get women’s sport out there more, like this is it. That’s something that as a young female, if you have any influence over brands or know anybody, asking them, it’s all well and good sponsoring stuff, it’s all well and good putting out nice PR statements, but actually what are you doing, what action points are you doing to make a difference.
This is a massive action; the documentary took a lot of investment to build and to put out there. It was probably out of their comfort zone with some of the stuff being a bank and they’re talking about trolling; they’re putting tweets out and actually it’s that type of statement that I think is the biggest part for me. And what’s super cool is some of the stuff that we’ve got lined up on the back of this with regards to potentially looking at engaging with younger women to come into this industry and doing some workshops and doing some bits and pieces like that is what I’m asking for, so we’ll see. I think they’re getting fed up of me now! But I think that’s what we’re trying to do as well, so yeah, there’s some really cool stuff, so watch this space with it.
To watch Finding Her Voice, please visit the HSBC YouTube Channel -
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