Am I a role model? Yes I am

Sara Bayman says Leicester City’s unlikely Premier League title win will act as inspiration ahead of Manchester Thunder’s Superleague Grand Final against Surrey Storm at the Copperbox.

The Thunder captain admitted: “We’ve all seen the Leicester celebrations and that does get you thinking about winning it. The Leicester story reminds everyone why they love sport. You never forget, week in week out, why you do it – for your team-mates and for the bond that creates.

“You know the people around you aren’t in it for the money, fame or fortune, they are there because they want to win. You saw the celebrations when we won the semi-finals. It will be massive whoever wins, and to go through so much as a team, creates some amazing memories.

“I have allowed myself to dream and think about what it would be like to win it. But you’ve got to rein that in. It is important to think about winning it, but we have to focus on how we are going to do that and not just the result.

“Both clubs really want to win it and that shows how competitive the Superleague has become. That makes it even more special. Whichever team wins has had to beat some very good teams to do it. We are nervous and excited. It’s a massive game and so hard to predict the outcome. We just have to stay focused on what we have done well so far and not get too distracted by the hype. It’s just a usual training week.”

Thunder won their semi-final against Bath 53-46 and have only lost one game from 15 this season – against Surrey Storm, who were successful 55-49 in Manchester back in February. That defeat was avenged on April 16 by 64-56.

Both sides know each other well. England veteran turned coach Tamsin Greenway will have done her homework on Thunder’s patterns, plays and tactics. But, equally, Thunder coach Dan Ryan has kept on top of Storm’s improvements.

“We’ve won one each, but they’ve improved throughout the season,” Bayman said. “We’re on top of that improvement in their gameplan. And we will put out the best combinations and gameplay to prevent them from what we do well. Our away form has been good this season and we’re hoping that carries on.

“It doesn’t get any easier, I am just as nervous. But you have to acknowledge it and use it to your advantage. You can’t shy away from nerves, you embrace the situation. You have to attack the game and enjoy the level of excitement, not dwell on fear and anxiety. As captain I make sure everyone is settled down and on the right path. The temptation is to get over hyped, so we must remain calm and treat it like any other game – even though it’s not! It’s about acknowledging what we’ve done to get to this point, go through our processes, work as a team, play for each other. That’s when we play best.”

The Superleague has gone from strength to strength in recent years, both on and off court with greater strength and depth in the eight teams, and improved media coverage to boot. As a result participation levels have soared. Superleague matches are sold out and teams now have the welcome problem of searching for larger venues to accommodate an ever-growing fanbase.

And thanks to improved television, young girls now have role models to look up to. “I didn’t used to think of myself as a role model, but now when I think about it – yes, I am. But that is responsibility, not pressure. It’s about being accessible, letting our fans see us and be able to talk to us. The fanbase means a massive amount to us, and from where the Superleague started, you’d never believe it. Young girls tell us we are their inspiration and that is so good to hear. It makes you humble. We are doing this anyway, but it’s nice they are on board and able to see it and experience it with you.”

A stronger Superleague, buoyed by more fans, more TV coverage and bigger investment, will only contribute to head coach Tracey Neville’s grand plan to make England the no 1 team in the world ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2019 World Cup in Liverpool. Until now, they have always been the bridesmaids to Australia and New Zealand. And Bayman recalls in painful detail the heartbreak of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, when England finished fourth.

“It was a crushing defeat, to lose that semi-final against New Zealand by one,” said the Bath University graduate. “For one of the first times, England went out there to win it, rather than simply wanting a medal. We knew from the group stages we were good enough to win it. It was a process of acknowledging how close we were. Eventually you see that as a positive. It’s so easy to get drawn in to the thinking that we lost. But if you look at our performances, we had some great performances in 2014. At some point you have to bin the result and just take the positives. And that helped us to winning bronze at the World Cup.

“Straight after Glasgow, everyone took some time off and a lot of people were struggling. I went away with Jo [Harten], Serena [Guthrie] and Pam [Cookey] to Vegas and we didn’t speak about netball for three weeks. It was a time to do some healing and look at it from an outside perspective. You realise it’s still what you want. It’s still a game and I play it because I enjoy it.

“I’ve learnt a lot in my career, and most of all I’d tell myself to relax. I was always very worried about people’s perceptions of me, how good people thought I was, how people saw me as a player. Those worries are irrelevant, it doesn’t matter. It’s about the job you are doing for your team, how your team-mates perceive you. My desire to please people was always inhibiting, but now I am much more comfortable with the player I am and how I play the game. I can’t change who I am.”

Sky Sports’ biggest ever season of netball concludes with live coverage of the Vitality Netball Superleague Grand Final on Saturday, May 7, Sky Sports 5, 4.30pm

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.

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