Meet the most successful British sports event you've never heard of

·4-min read
Phoebe Schecter putting the NFL side Buffalo Bills through their paces. (c) Phoebe Schecter/Instagram
Phoebe Schecter putting the NFL side Buffalo Bills through their paces. (c) Phoebe Schecter/Instagram

Ranked second in Europe. Home to one of the first three female NFL coaches. The Great Britain women's tackle football side might be the most successful British team you've never heard of, writes Sammy Mngqosini.

While men have been playing American Football in the UK since the 1980s, it is the seven year old women's national programme which is the most successful in the history of the British American Football Association (BAFA), the sport's governing body.

One of the stars is national team captain Phoebe Schecter who spent two summers and the 2018/2019 season coaching men's professional side Buffalo Bills in New York before deciding to return to the UK.

At the Bills, the American-British citizen was exposed to the rigorous demands of coaching at the highest level.

Schecter assisted tight ends coach Rob Boras with quality control which involved everything from setting up drills, compiling playbooks and up-skilling the rookies.

The 30-year-old describes her decision to leave the Bills as tough but necessary as she wanted to honour her commitment to lead Great Britain women at the 2019 European Championships in Leeds.

"Leaving the Bills was by no means an easy decision and it was hard to tell them I was leaving because I loved being there, she says.

"But I had achieved my goal of coaching in the NFL and I had this burning passion to help other people access these opportunities.

She continues: “Everyone deserves a chance and just because you're not in the US doesn't mean you're not a good coach.”

Before the Euros, Schecter reached out to Stanford University sports performance coach Samantha Contorno, who designed strength and conditioning plans for each member of the women's national team - a first.

"Females are a different type of athlete, from the way we move, how our bodies are shaped and our complex hormonal systems, explains linebacker Schecter.

“So it was great to get tailored strength and conditioning plans designed by a highly experienced Division 1 football coach who is also a woman."

From left to right: Amanda Humphrey (captain), Rebecca Martin (captain), Phoebe Schecter (team captain) Laura Dye (captain) at the 2019 European Championships in Leeds. (c) Phoebe Schecter/Instagram
From left to right: Amanda Humphrey (captain), Rebecca Martin (captain), Phoebe Schecter (team captain) Laura Dye (captain) at the 2019 European Championships in Leeds. (c) Phoebe Schecter/Instagram

At club level, Birmingham Lions are the most dominant team and were just a few hours away from challenging for a record 7th national title against London Warriors when BAFA suspended the season due to the coronavirus outbreak.

General manager and quarterback Jo Kilby attributes the Midlands side's dominance to the recruitment of former rugby players who are not afraid of tackling and then exposing them to international club tournaments.

The Birmingham University affiliate contributes more players to the national programme than any other team.

The global Covid-19 pandemic also grounded the Lions' Ruth Matta whom Kilby describes as the world's best running back.

Matta was due to rejoin the Boston Renegades this summer having won the Most Valuable Player award with the club in last year's championship game.

From winning the 2018 Inaugural Diamond Bowl tournament in Helsinki - despite having never played 11-aside competitively - to becoming the first American women's football club to stage and fund an international club competition, Lions are committed to breaking down barriers and creating opportunities where none exist.

Kilby adds: "We've always been ambitious, focused on creating opportunities in order to keep our players and staff motivated in a sport where we've been very dominant."

The NFL's decision to stage four matches in the UK annually has increased the sport's visibility - but now the challenge is to get more people playing football regularly.

Through UK Dukes, a community interest company, Schecter and co-director Kenny Bello have created a national schools programme which embeds football into the day-to-day curriculum in order to increase participation.

According to Bello, Dukes provide equipment, train teachers, stage tournaments and facilitate sessions, all of which is essential since the sport is seeking Sport England accreditation ahead of the trial debut of flag football - the non-contact version - at the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics.

"Already we're giving kids and adults something to work towards and helping them set goals that are attainable," adds Bello.

BAFA is in the process of renewing coaching staff contracts and the aim is for Great Britain women to secure a top three spot at the 2021 World Championships in Finland next summer.

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