Fairplay Ltd: Managing Director
Amanda Bennett studied P.E. & Sports Science and Recreation Management at Loughborough University, graduating in 1986. Here we find out about her extensive involvement in women’s rugby, founding a rugby team, her career within UK Sport and beyond.
Why did you choose to study P.E. & Sports Science and Recreation Management at Loughborough University?
I decided that, as well as Loughborough’s reputation as one of the best sporting universities in the world, this particular course would enable me to expand my career options beyond physical education. I was interested in the leadership and management of sport and recreation and knew this would be an area of significant growth. I did teach for a few years but subsequently moved into sports policy and sports leadership and governance.
I enjoyed every minute of my four years at Loughborough. Not only did I learn from lecturers and from the course itself, I learned a great deal from fellow students whose experiences were vast, from sporting excellence to travel, art and business. Studying alongside senior international athletes inspired me to be the best I could be. I remain friends with many alumni and in my professional capacity in the sector; I often meet other Loughborough alumni with whom I share great memories.
Would there be one piece of advice that you would give to current or prospective students looking to study the same course that you did?
Whilst knowledge is valuable, it is the relationships that will make the biggest difference in your life. The friendships you make at Loughborough will be enduring and special.
How did you establish your passion for sport and your Rugby career whilst studying at Loughborough University?
My passion for sport was established when I could just about walk. In my public speaking engagements I often advocate for the power of play – whether this is with friends in the park or, in my case, my father wanting someone to kick about with. I enjoyed all manner of kicking, throwing, running, catching, hitting and chasing games when I was growing up and this didn’t just create a passion for sport, it gave me confidence, self-discipline and inspired me to encourage others.
Even though I attended a Welsh school, Ysgol Gyfun Llanhari, the head teacher banned girls from playing rugby. Although I was disappointed, I still played netball, hockey, cricket, judo and badminton. When I arrived at Loughborough, I discovered there was a women’s rugby team. I decided to go along with a friend for fun and fell in love with the game in that one session. From there, all aspects of training were in preparation for rugby. I continued to play hockey and football for the university, but rugby provided a new and exciting challenge physically, tactically and technically. I never looked back have promoted the values and benefits of rugby for women ever since.
Having played for two years I was invited to captain Loughborough in 1986-87. It was a stunning year and we beat every team we played. The Loughborough tournament, held annually in April, was where the nation’s top team at that time (Wasps, Finchley, Magor, Leeds University) met and the tournament winners were, in effect, crowned national champions. We won not only the Loughborough tournament but also the BUCS (formerly UAU) championships that year.
I specialise in governance, leadership and equality, and have had the privilege of working with LOCOG, The International Paralympic Committee and the Football Association of Wales. The Sport England and UK Sport Code for Sports Governance may seem like a challenge for some but, in truth, it presents the sector with an opportunity to be world leading not only on the field of play, but in the areas of governance and leadership. I am looking forward to working with sports to make this happen.
How did it feel to be selected for GB’s first Rugby women’s team and later for the Wales Rugby team?
I was privileged to be coached by Jim Greenwood whilst at Loughborough and his passion for the game created a remarkable history for the University, England and GB. When it was announced there would be a GB team to play France in 1986, I went to trials in the hope that I might be considered. Playing for GB was in itself a fantastic feeling but being the first team to do so, was even more important. We knew we were making history.
Despite this, there were no resources available for the team and I slept on the floor of a teammate who lived in London the night before the game. We all had to pay £12 for our shirt, shorts and socks – I still have these! Although we lost 8-14, it was a significant milestone in the history of the game.
In 1987, it was decided that Wales and England should play each other, instead of a GB fixture, this was the first step towards what we now know at the RBS 6 Nations. It was a particularly proud moment for me when I was named in the team, as I was Wales’s first female fly half, a position revered in Welsh rugby folklore. I was also Vice Captain with Liza Burgess named as Captain. We continued as Wales’s leadership team through the inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup held in Cardiff in 1991. I also played in the 1994 World Cup where Wales came 4th, the highest position they have ever achieved.
After leaving Loughborough in 1987 I moved to Gillingham and started my first teaching job in Maidstone. There were no women’s rugby teams in the area, so, with 3 Loughborough friends, I started one. Gillingham Anchorians were a well-established club and were delighted to welcome the women’s section. We successfully achieved promotion to the Premiership and, although we didn’t win any silverware, we competed against the well-established clubs.
I started coaching in 1992 as I had to take 2 years out for a series of knee operations. As Saracens Head Coach I led the team to the first ever treble. I returned to coaching after international retirement and briefly coached the Wales Women’s team. As I was working and living in London, this proved too difficult to sustain but I was invited to coach the London region and, in 2004 I was appointed to the England Elite coaching team. In 2007 I led the team to gold at the European Championships.
I joined UK Sport in 2003 as the organisation’s Equality Consultant. I led the production of the first UK Sport Equality Scheme, and authored the Equality Standard for Sport, which has since been adopted by over 240 sports bodies across the UK. I also led the development of a new sports leadership initiative, the Women and Leadership Development Programme. It was unique in that it aimed to help increase the number of women in leadership positions in sport, executive and at Board levels, and proved to be incredibly successful. Shortly after the first cohort graduated, the EU invested £250,000 in WLDP across Europe.
I was appointed as Head of Governance in 2011 and led the development of the UK Sport Governance Framework 2013-17. This was significantly more ambitious and demanding compared to previous requirements placed on sports receiving UK Sport funding and, even thought there remain issues in British sports governance, most governing bodies are operating to much higher standards of governance than previously.
I worked through a total of 5 Olympics and Paralympics, and the energy and focus we applied to London was quite remarkable. Mission 2012 was the model that countries across world have since tried to emulate. I was also a London 2012 Gamesmaker on the Domestic Dignitary Team. This involved the planning and hosting of British dignitaries at Games events. I had the privilege of entertaining the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge whilst watching Andy Murray win at Wimbledon; I also hosted Mayor Boris Johnson which was quite an experience!
I had served as a member of the EWS Executive Committee and, in my second term, I was encouraged to apply for the Chair position. EWS is the only organisation established solely to promote gender equality in European sport. It had maintained a fairly stable position in European sport but I believed we could and should seek greater influence.
Many European sports bodies talked a good game on equality but there were no real drivers for change. Once appointed, I consulted with the EWS network and stakeholders and produced a new strategy. This proved to be highly successful and the EWS Conference, which I led, was deemed to be one of the most successful in over 10 years by the participants. Subsequently, the EU developed its first gender equality in sport strategy to which I contributed, and has invested over £500,000 in its implementation since 2014.
As a founder member of Saracens Women’s Rugby what has been your journey with the UK’s most successful women’s club?
I moved to teach in East London in 1988 and, with 7 other international players, approached Saracens to set up a women’s section. They originally said no but one Committee member revisited the request and convinced the club this would be a good thing. We have not looked back since. Saracens is the most successful club in the UK having won 31 National titles and produced over 100 senior international players who have represented 8 different countries. We were the first team to win the treble (Premiership, National Cup and National 7s) in 1993 and repeated this feat again twice.
It wasn’t always thus and, in the early years, we had to prove our worth by serving meals to the men’s team after their games, serving on the burger stalls and acting as stewards checking tickets at men’s matches. On our match days we frequently had to change in the toilet so that our opposition could have the only available changing room. However, it didn’t take long for the club to understand that how much of an asset the women’s team was and, when the men’s professional side moved to Watford, the women’s team became the priority team at the club.
I served in almost every voluntary role off the pitch – press and publicity officer, secretary and club captain. I was made a Lifetime Member and Vice President in 2009, and received the Rob Bruce Award for services to Saracens in 2010.
I have been involved in sporting, work and volunteering teams for over 35 years. Without a doubt, Saracens is the one that embodies the values that most teams can only aspire to. This applies not only to the women’s teams, but the whole club including the professional men’s team.
It is a family, one built on respect, discipline, honesty and hard work. I have been privileged to be involved as a founder member, player, club volunteer and coach.
I left UK Sport in 2013 and set up my own consultancy business, FairPlay Ltd, and I now work with national and international sports bodies, helping them grow and develop. This is extraordinarily rewarding and I hope to continue meeting and working with incredible people in sport for the foreseeable future.
As well as working with organisations, I mentor aspiring female coaches as I would like to see more women operating at the elite level in sport. My work in women’s leadership is still important and, having successfully delivered leadership programmes for the IPC, UK Sport and ICSSPE, I am planning to develop more mentoring initiatives in future.
I also volunteer and, as well as serving on the RFU Game Development Sub-Committee, I have spent time in Rwanda and India coaching rugby in rural community schools. These are experiences that I would encourage anyone (whatever their age!) to seek. I hope to be able to volunteer overseas again soon.
Representing my country for the first time. Having seen the growth of women’s rugby not in the UK but globally, I am so proud to have been involved from the beginning. We were challenged at every step – no facilities, no support, media ridicule and verbal abuse were hurdles that we confronted because we just wanted to play. We now have professional players across the world and the quality of the game is exceptional.