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The Reason I Play - Flyers Women

An in-depth look at the sacrifices senior Flyers Women players make to play the sport they love.

It’s Saturday and a basketball game is on at the WISE Arena. While usually this would see packed stands and plenty of noise, today it’s a decidedly quieter affair.

Even though the teams competing are among the best in their league, there isn’t the same excitement behind the home side we’re used to seeing. In fact, the away team seems to have more crowd support.

The home team is the Bristol Flyers Women – a team very different to their male counterparts.

For a start, while basketball is a full-time job for the men’s team, and others are paid in part, the women’s team has no financial commitments to play.

The players all have full-time jobs and come together on evenings to train and weekends for games. The only thing bringing them there is their devotion to basketball.

Two of their most senior players, who also work as a pharmacist and physiotherapist respectively, took time to explain what it’s like managing their work and basketball lives.

The story, though, is the same for all the players – maintaining the two commitments is straining, especially when both fall on the same day.

Forward Liisa Juul explains: “Sometimes it’s really hard. I wake up at six every morning, I get to work normally for nine. I finish at six/seven and there’s no time in between to go home. Our training is quite late, it normally finishes at ten, I get home at eleven. So it’s a long day when we’ve got training."

“On a Monday I work eight to six and have to be at training at 8pm,” says centre Hannah Watkins. “I have about a twenty-minute turn around from finishing work before I have to drive to practice an hour away. (There is) Just enough time to change and grab a quick bite to eat.”

Having worked all day, they’re not exactly ‘ready’ to play when they arrive, as Juul attests: “When you’re on your feet for nine hours, when you get to training you feel so tired. You want to run but your body doesn’t do it, you just have to push yourself.”

“Sometimes it's hard to get up and going, but once I'm at practice I forget I'm tired or what's been going on that day” says Watkins on the same subject.

“But you get used to it,” Juul continues, “I’ve done this for so long I don’t find it very extraordinary. My colleagues ask me, ‘How do you go to training after work?’ - It’s just what I’ve done ever since I was nine.”


Paying for the privilege

In terms of commercial and financial management, they are helped out a great deal by SGS and receive monetary contributions from local companies and individuals including principle partner Lancer Scott, yet a significant portion of the regular season’s costs still come out of their own pocket.


“The season can be very expensive: court hire, game costs, referees and officials take up the majority of our budget”

Flyers Women Head Coach Gareth Till


“We have great support from SGS college and Andreas (Kapoulas), in terms of facilities and transport which helps reduce running costs of the season", says head coach Gareth Till, who’s also responsible for all commercial aspects of the team. 

“Fortunately I’ve had help from some great friends and companies over the years who want to support women's basketball in Bristol. I passionately believe in the players and their commitment to the team and I'll continue to champion them so we're in a position where we can cover basic costs.”


Family lives take a backseat

The coach's faith in the players is well founded. Just talking to them, it’s easy to see their devotion and dedication to their team and their game. Even though it can be hard, they willingly balance their two lives.

“I used to go to work before games,” Juul reveals. “We had a game in the evening and I worked nine to one, but I don’t do that anymore. The game’s more important. You can’t be tired. On training days I make sure I do the morning shift, or at least finish before six so I can go training. For me, there has to be a really, really good reason why I miss training.

The 17/18 Flyers Women squad - Liisa Juul, back row, second from left. Hannah Watkins, back row, fourth from left.

It’s not uncommon, either, to find one life impacting on the other: “I broke a finger and a thumb last season which meant I couldn't do clinical work for a while” says Watkins.

Though she’s aware of the very real risk of injury and the problems it poses, she won’t let that affect her game: “You can't play like that. It's a physical and competitive game. You'd be holding back if that was going through your mind. I just try to work on my strength and fitness to help me stay injury free.”

Do they to remain competitive? “Of course,” Watkins exclaims, “that's the reason I play. I want to win every game.”

Devoting so much of their time to basketball also sees them missing out on time with family and friends. During the season, social lives have to take a back seat.

“From September to March we barely have any free weekends” says Juul. “People go out on Saturdays, we don’t really do that that much. We only have one or two weekends free.”


A struggle for recognition - even in the WNBA

Although they are very much a part of the Flyers Family, they played much of their 2016/17 season to mostly empty arenas. This is not unique to the Flyers Women - even those at the very top of women’s basketball have said they feel some disappointment at the lack of exposure and interest the female game receives.

Maya Moore, one of the most decorated women ever to play basketball, said in 2015: “It’s frustrating on several levels. We professional female athletes are continuing to grow and evolve, and trying to make an impact on our communities and other young lives (and) there are fewer eyeballs to even inspire or influence because the exposure to the players and our game isn’t as great.”

Thoughts later echoed by Candice Wiggins, who played eight years in the WNBA and won the 2011 championship with the Minnesota Lynx: “It was a depressing state in the WNBA. It’s not watched. Our value is diminished. It can be quite hard.”

With women's stars struggling to break through the glass ceiling in the USA, many of the world's top players have had to move half-way across the world to Russia during the WNBA off-season to earn wages closer to their male counterparts.


Playing for the love of it

For the Flyers Women, though, given all the strain and sacrifice that is caused by juggling basketball and the real world, what is it that keeps them playing?

Liisa Juul is quick to respond: “Every time the season ends I’m thinking, ‘nah, I’ve had enough.’ Then after that two months break the coaches ask you to come to training in August. I have that first training session and I’m thinking ‘what have I done without this?’”

“I still love playing” says Hannah Watkins. “I missed having a competitive outlet when I didn't play for a couple of seasons.”

“You miss the people as well” Juul continues.


“The people you meet through basketball, especially your teammates, are going to be friends with you forever."

Liisa Juul


"It’s a different kind of bond because you work for something together, for the same purpose, and you learn to rely on each other and I think that unites people more. It’s like a little family.”

Watkins adds: “One day you don't get to choose whether you can play or not, so while my body is hanging on in there I'll keep going! Being part of a team keeps you motivated.”

Juul concludes: “I’ve tried to live without it, but it’s really hard.”

Bristol Flyers Women are always on the lookout for new players, coaches and volunteers.  Anybody who's interested and committed is always welcome to join the Flyers Family. Contact Flyers Women at flyerswomen@gmail.com 


About the contributor

Written by Jack Ford. A recent member of the Flyers Family, Jack has been volunteering with Bristol Flyers writing game reports on Flyers Women for the website and game day programme.