The NWFL Interviews: Janis of the Northumberland Shieldmaidens

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Chris TebbuttInterview
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Another week, another 5 NWFL interviews leading up to the second week of action.

We are starting off this week with Jan from the Northumberland Shieldmaidens who made their NWFL on the first week and had two very close games against the Edinburgh Wolves & East Kilbride Pirates.

I interviewed Jan before those games had happened but did manage to catch up after their first games ever.

So, first question who are you and how long have you been playing?

My name is Jan, I’m the center for the Northumberland Shieldmaidens and I have played for various scratch teams for the last four or five years and I’ve made a few appearances with my university team, the Sunderland Spartans but this is my first proper contact season.

Then who is your NFL team and why?

I’m a Green Bay Packers girl.

I’ve got a cheese head around here somewhere.

It was the first NFL game I saw, and they were playing in the snow, I had no clue what was going on, but it was good viewing, I love snow games.

The Northumberland Shieldmaidens are making their debut in the NWFL this year. Have there been any growing pains?

Little bits and pieces like you get lots of new interest, but not everyone that comes down wants to play or they’ll give it a go and then it’s not for them.

Getting the team together and getting everyone to practice and making sure we can bond as a team, which takes time, hasn’t been the easiest when we’ve only been allowed to train together since November because of COVID.  We were all starting, and everything was moving along and then Covid happened. Everything was delayed.

And then in terms of your roster at the minute, how many experienced players are there versus people who are brand new to the sport?

Probably about a third who have played in the Women’s Contact League before to two thirds who haven’t some like me have played elsewhere and about a third brand new rookies who are very, very excited.

what do you feel all those experienced players bring to the table to help the Northumberland Shieldmaidens grow?

They bring experience. They can teach techniques that they have learned in the past, They know what to expect which helps the rookies build in their confidence, it’s someone to guide the way. Someone who knows what’s going to happen makes everybody feel more secure and more confident in what’s happening.

What’s the most important factor when creating a new team?

Making sure you have coaching staff who know what they’re doing, who know how to work with the demographic you’re aiming for. It’s no good having someone who’s never worked with women before to work with women.

And probably most important is being accessible to the community, being somewhere people can get to, but also not being somewhere where there’s already teams that exist.

What are your expectations for this season?

To make lots of mistakes so we can learn from them. We’re brand new. Nobody knows what game day is going to bring until we walk on the field, and we get that first down under our belts. We’ll see what comes out of it. And if we score lots of points, we’ll be very happy. As long as everybody walks off the field happy with a smile on their face, it will have been a good day.

So, in talking to other people in the NWFL, they have seen your social media posts and have been impressed with the size of the squad. Do you feel that social media is important when creating a new team?

It certainly helps get the news out there to potential players. We’ve had quite a few who’ve seen stuff on Instagram and have sent us messages or come along, people who didn’t even know that American Football for women existed in the UK.

What do you expect to learn from the first tournaments and how do you think and how do you think you’ll be able to implement changes?

We’ve got the first and third game, so we’ve got a nice break in the middle to go over what’s happened in the first game while it’s fresh in our minds, we’ve only got two weeks till the next tournament.

It’s going to be a quick turnaround to get changes put into place, but hopefully we’ll learn how the defenses work, how other offenses work so that we can adjust what we do to work with what they do better.

And then do you think that having home field advantage in the first tournament is a positive or a negative?

It certainly makes the day less daunting. I think a lot of our rookies who’ve never experienced a game day before at all the thought of having to put them on a bus for a couple of hours to then do a game day was a very nerve-racking idea for them.

We get to be at home. We get to be surrounded by friends and family. There’s a lot of support there that we wouldn’t be able to take with us on the road. So, it makes it a little bit less scary.

What do you personally think of the tournament style of play in the NWFL?

I quite like the three teams getting together and playing. I’ve seen it done where it was four teams and that seemed to be a bit too much because you play in three games in an afternoon. By the third game. Everyone’s tired. There are more injuries.

Havign to only play the two games with a bit of a break in the middle, seems to work better. It is just a shame we can’t get our teams big enough to play a full 11 aside games like the boys do. But hopefully one day.

As the league kicks off tomorrow, what would you say is the overall locker room feeling going into tomorrow?

There are a few nerves flying around, but everybody’s really excited. You can’t sit still, you really want it to come but, It’s a bit scary, too. We were all together last night, which was great, and everyone was bouncing, really excited, ready to go.

Are there any challenges when confronting brand new rookies to the sport and a playbook that obviously has just so has been created with the team in mind?

As an offense. I don’t think we’ve experienced any real playbook issues.
We were quite lucky that most of our offense has been together since early March joining the team at the rookie days in January and February so we’ve all learned the playbook and the terms we use together.  Our OC Angie is great at teaching it in stages.

We’ve got a digital copy of The Playbook. We’ve got videos of the plays. We’ve talked it through. We’ve walked it through. I think if we would have someone join us last Sunday for this Sunday, that would be a bit more difficult. It’s just about teaching them the language.

What do you think could aid the teaching of new rookies? Especially within the culture of the NWFL, as I have seen players don’t harbour any animosity toward other teams.

But why would you? We all want the same thing. We all want the sport to get known. We all want to see the sport grow. If you’ve got feelings like that you can leave it on the field.

Having someone who’s nominated to welcome rookies as they arrive, someone that they’ve been able to chat with on social media in advance who can introduce them to other people makes it a more welcoming environment and then making sure someone is available to go through the basics with them before they join the rest of the team to practice.  This makes sure they’ve got enough under their belts to be safe.

Maybe a buddy who plays the same position they’re looking to play to help guide them through the first session. Meeting them where they’re at, and there’s a place for everyone on an American football team.

It’s all about getting them over that first little nervous, getting them through the door, isn’t it? And as long as everybody’s safe and you’ve got equipment for everyone, which seems to be the biggest challenge we’ve had, getting enough women’s equipment.

in that case, what do you think could be done to aid women’s teams in getting equipment?

Having it available in the UK would be a good start. Do you know how hard it is to get a medium sized helmet or even a small?

It’s Impossible.

Me and the QB ordered our helmets on the same day. We ordered the same helmets and different face cages. We then got a phone call to say that the face cage I wanted was out of stock and I had to choose something different. What I ended up with is rather cool, but not what I wanted. And then the QB gets a call. They can’t supply two black helmets in a medium. We can have one black and one matte black or Only one of us can have a helmet.

Nowhere else had them in stock we contacted four different stores online I ended up having to get a face cage from a different store to the one I got the helmet from because the store I got the helmet from could only provide QB and kicker face cages.  They couldn’t provide me with anything suitable for the line. There’s only two places that I know of that sell women’s pads and they don’t always have them in stock.

Our younger rookies and smaller built girls can sometimes get away with the smaller men’s pads or the youth pads, designed for the under 19s. but your bigger girls, the girls with a shape. It just doesn’t work. It’s not safe. I had to wait three weeks for my pads to arrive. A bloke can order them and have them in 48 hours.

Also, if you want proper American football cleats.

average, women have smaller feet than men. You look around our offense (we had this conversation last week.) Half of our offence have sized three, four, five feet. They are just out of kid’s sizes.

None of them have been able to get proper cleats, they are all having to wear soccer boots because they can’t get them. I had order mine back in March to get mine and they were the last pair in the shop.

So how did you get into the sport?

From the sideline, I actually started as a sports massage therapist who needed hours to finish my qualification and I was asked to go to Tynedale Fury at the time in Winlaton and Gateshead and I did my sports massage qualification and then my sports therapy qualification as part of their sideline crew.

They wanted to expand into women’s football, and junior flag at the time then something happened, and the decision was made to merge with Gateshead Senators so, I went along  with the boys to Gateshead. But at the time, Gateshead didn’t have the coaching capacity for the women’s team. So, it was put on, it kind of disappeared.

I also went to Sunderland University to work with the Spartans. Played some summer series flag football. Some summer series contact, basically all the women would get together and play football. And if we didn’t have a team, they’d put us all together and make a scratch team. So, we got a chance to play because there weren’t enough women in the north east at the time who wanted to play football.

I’ve been with the Spartans. Five years on pitch sides. I’ve always, always, always actually wanted to play properly in a league. And I finally get the chance now at 37. I’ve been waiting nearly a decade for a team to exist. So, I can actually play as center because I can’t snap an adult sized ball, I’ve got kid sized hands.

Have you played for a senior team?

I Haven’t played for a senior team. Trained with the senior team, never actually played because they needed me on the sideline. My taping skills were more important.

What do you foresee as the biggest difference between playing uni ball and the NWSL?

Uni Ball teams have a high turnover because you lose a set of players and get a new set of rookies every year. Whereas The girls we have they are all committed. All want to play long term or are all interested in building the team and. I can see us together. Whether people change roles, things like that, that remains to be seen.

Where do you see the Northumberland Shield Maidens in three years’ time?

Being competitive. Worked through all the teething problems and have the capacity to grow into a nine aside team.

As the sport grows. You never know, we might even get promoted by then. If we work really hard but, the most important bit is having ironed out all the little kinks that come with being a new team and getting everyone strong and growing and hopefully getting more women in the sport.

What is your best playing moment so far?

The first play we did full contact in training where it all worked like it’s supposed to. Everyone did their jobs. We were on the first snap of the drive and our running back hit the end zone, and it was like woah, we actually feel like a team now.  the smile on everyone’s face when we got back in the huddle, was like everyone felt it. And hopefully we’ll have a few moments like that tomorrow.

as the team’s new to the league, what issues have you run into in terms of coverage and recruitment?

It’s just making sure people know we exist, it’s getting the information out there, it’s knowing who to contact. Luckily, we’ve got a few people who’ve been around football for a long time with Uni Ball, men’s football and some people who’ve got experience with the women’s league. So, they’ve got contacts. The number of people who are still surprised, the sports even in the country, let alone women’s football surprises me.

What teams are the Northumberland Shieldmaidens affiliated with?

We have the adult team, the Vikings who train at the same ground as us and the Giants (U16s & U19s) which are part of the Northeast Academy.

And then how have the Northumberland Vikings helped the Shield Maidens?

Well, we share training grounds. We share equipment as much as we can.

A lot of their lads are interested in what’s going on, they’re offering hints and tips.

Where to buy kit from if we are struggling?

“Oh, those gloves are pretty, where did you get them from?”

They you we like we like things to look nice as well as work, but things like line gloves, they all they’re all slightly different so try before you buy helps.

How would you say your experience as a sports therapist has helped you prepare not just yourself, but the Northumberland shield maidens?

I’m always there to answer their questions. So, when people have got little niggles, we’re able to tackle them straight away before they become problems. You teach them how to stretch properly so they don’t get injured for their position.

Sometimes a little bit of tape on your wrists makes you feel better as well. You’ve hurt yourself tape it, make sure it doesn’t get worse. But sometimes it’s a confidence thing, It’s like a pre-game ritual.

I have a real interest in biomechanics when it comes to American Football slight changes in form can make a big difference

What went into creating the logo, name and colour scheme of the Northumberland Shieldmaidens?

I believe it was Nell our defensive captain who designed the logo, our brother team is the Vikings, so we needed something that fit with that. And the shield maidens go into battle just like the Vikings did.

You’ve got to have your sword, you’ve got to have your shield, and then you’ve got a football on your shield and if you blow the logo up, there’s a rune behind. It’s the Nordic rune for strength. And our jerseys have got the runes on the collar, for family, strength and protection.

I don’t know where the teal came from but I love it.  We had two options for the jerseys. We had a black option and a white option. And everyone was like, oh, yes, we’ll all wear black. And then when we saw the digital mockups against the black pants the white really, really popped.

So, we talked as a team. We decided that we’d go for the white first. So, we’ve got black helmets, white jerseys and black pants.

What are you personally most excited about tomorrow?

We finally get to hit people properly full speed without having to worry about it. Because you’re always a bit gentler with your own team, aren’t you? It’s the whole atmosphere of gameday as well. GameDay is exciting.

There’s a buzz about the place and energy that you can’t recreate.

I get to walk this team, these offensive rookies out for their very first game. And we’re going to make history in the northeast with women’s football. It’s going to be as good as a uniform day. We were like kids at Christmas morning when our uniforms and helmet stickers arrived.

So, you’re leading out the offence with that how are you going to look to motivate the players on that side of the ball?

Motivation is not something they really need; they are already motivated. It’s going to be settling those first day jitters. They’re really excited. They’re ready for this. It’s going to be reminding them that they’ve done the work and they know what they’re doing. And to get out of their head a little bit. And then remind them why we are there.

 We’ve worked hard. We know our playbook. We’ve earned the right to walk onto that field just the same as any other woman has that day. And let’s just go out and surprise everybody. Because nobody expects us to do anything tomorrow.

So, with that, do you think it’s more a case of getting them calm and thinking with level heads where they can feel comfortable and then not overthink things?

Yeah. It’s getting their head in the game. But I think after last night’s training session, they’re feeling a lot better about it because we’ve done the walkthroughs. We’ve gone over everything that we need to know for the day. We’ve done the timings.

it’s going to be a few deep breaths. Come on, we’ve got this. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

When tomorrow is over, what do the Northumberland Shieldmaidens want the world to know?

That we’re here, that we exist. That we made it to game day, and we actually made it into the league, and we gave it our all, the points don’t matter. We turned up. We did our jobs. We tried our best. And we’ll be back in a fortnight.

And then with that, just any closing remarks.

I’m just really excited. Every time someone has a new bit of kit, it’s like Christmas morning and there are pictures flying everywhere in the WhatsApp group. We’ve been working towards this now for nine weeks. And I can’t wait to lead the ladies out onto the field. And to be there when they actually finally get to make their debuts. I’m more excited to get them on the field for the first time. Because you can’t beat that feeling.

I followed up with Jan after the Shieldmaiden’s first tournament.

How are you feeling after yesterday’s games?

I am feeling great, it’s been a day a long time in the making. I’m very proud to have led the team out and of their attitude to the day.

How did the games go?

We had a great first day out, everyone worked hard, we scored points and stopped drives. Everyone was smiling at the end of the day.

What was the best play of the game?

It was a touchdown from out number #14, Eli. She’d been just a short a few times over the day, but that play went off exactly as it was supposed to and the look on her face when she turned around was awesome. I’m a very proud captain

You can keep up with the Shieldmaidens by following them at Shieldmaidens_afc on Instagram.

Also follow GirlsofGridionUK on Instagram and TikTok for more coverage of the NWFL.

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