Through the eyes of a Lion

Through the eyes of a Lion

Maz joined the team in September of 2016, having never played American Football before – in her own words she has had a whirlwind adventure, with challenges and opportunities she never expected to experience presented to her to devour. 12 months on Maz is dedicated to taking her game to the next level, having been hooked by the Lions’ ambition and support of her team-mates, she is setting her sights high. A fantastic account of a year in the life of a proud Lion…enjoy the read!

My first year with the Birmingham Lions has been an absolute whirlwind – but I can honestly say that joining the team was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I came to the Lions having decided to take a step back from rugby after 16 years of playing. I knew a few people at Lions through various rugby connections, and I was encouraged to come down and give it a go – and I’m so glad I did!

I turned up to the Lions rookie sessions, which are a great way to get kitted up, try out different positions, get a feel for the sport and meet the team, with no pressure and no commitment. Mind you, I say ‘try out different positions’ but essentially, I walked out onto the pitch and Coach Carl (Offensive Line coach) took one look at the size of me and pretty much said ‘MINE’. The rest is history!

Those first sessions were amazing – I had a vague idea of how the game worked, but I learned so much right from the word go. I think one of the nicest things, as a newcomer, was that all the existing players were so incredibly welcoming and supportive. These ladies know their stuff, are reigning national champions, a huge proportion of them represent their sport at the highest possible level and yet every single person there took the time to explain the moves and the drills to me. You really couldn’t ask for a better introduction to the sport.

There was no pressure either to join the team after the rookie sessions but from my point of view it was an easy decision – I’d loved rookie sessions, I didn’t want to give up team sports, and the energy and enthusiasm of the team was contagious. So, I signed up, and I haven’t looked back since.

It was a really exciting time to come on board with the Lions too, as plans were underway for the team’s trip to Helsinki in February to play the Wolverines (one of the top teams in the country). As a newcomer, I don’t think I fully appreciated at the time how significant this opportunity was. Due to the relatively new status of the game in this country, the competitive American Football league in the UK (the Sapphire Series) is played as a 7-aside format. Full American Football is 11-aside, and outside of the GB programme there really aren’t many opportunities to gain experience at this level. To be training to play 9-aside against a top team in Finland (Finland, as a nation, are European champions) was an incredible opportunity that I don’t think I would have had anywhere else. The trip itself was absolutely amazing – if a little cold and, may I add, I have the utmost respect for the poor souls who were in charge of the logistics – getting 40 odd players, coaches and support staff where they needed to be was no small task.

I felt incredibly honoured to have earned a starting place on the team so my first ever appearance in an American Football game was in an international club game. No pressure…! The nerves soon went however, and the game went by in a flash. It was a steep learning curve but it was so much fun. The team and the coaches were all on hand keeping everyone focused, and encouraging each other. My biggest fear as a rookie was that I would mess up and let everyone down. However, although looking back it was by no means the best game I’ve played and there was room for a lot of improvement, I didn’t hear a single negative word. To come off the field with the win that day was an incredible feeling.

I think that’s one of the best things about training and playing with the Lions – the positivity that the coaches and your team mates bring to every session and every game. Don’t get me wrong, everyone wants to improve, and be better, and for the team to be the best but the ethos is not about picking people apart and highlighting errors. It’s all about building people up and helping them to improve.

Players will often beat themselves up and criticise their own game, which is where the coaches step in and say ok then, this is what we can work on, let’s improve this together. The team also regularly get together to review game footage and training footage, which is incredibly valuable to help player development.

After Finland, the next challenge for the team was Sapphire – and strangely I think I was more nervous about that! The odds were against us in Helsinki, we were the underdogs for sure. But the Lions were 3-time Sapphire champions looking to defend a title and the other teams were certainly going to be looking to challenge us for the top spot!

The Sapphire games took place over 4 separate Saturdays in Birmingham, Manchester, Hertfordshire and Leeds. Cue lots of road trips, raucous car journeys, inevitable Costa stops and boots crammed with kit. The games were fast paced and exciting, and it wasn’t an easy challenge however the Lions came out on top and secured a 4th national championship. As a rookie to the sport and the team, it was a great experience and a LOT of fun. I’m looking forward to defending our title next season!

Since being with the Lions, I was invited to some GB training sessions. This was an incredible opportunity, and really opened my eyes to the prospects that are out there. I’m incredibly grateful to the support and coaching I had from the Lions that led to that invite.

Now, having originally joined American Football for a social sport and a way to keep fit, I’m training hard and seriously looking at trying to be selected for a spot on the GB squad for the next international competition. It will take a lot of hard work, but I’m excited to see what I might be able to achieve. And being with the Lions, I know I’m in absolutely the best place to make sure I keep developing as a player. It’s not always easy to juggle all of my commitments – I work a fairly intense full-time job, I am in two choirs and I am a Mum to a gorgeous and cheeky 4-year old boy. However, I’m a big believer that you should make time for what you are passionate about, especially when it comes to sports. I’m also lucky to have a very supportive husband, who understands how important football has become to me! One of the nicest moments so far was having my husband and son come to watch the Birmingham round of Sapphire and cheer me on.

The cherry on top of the season was the End of Season Awards night, where I won Rookie of the Year. The evening was amazing, with so many athletes being recognised for their performance and contribution. The award now has pride of place on my shelf, along with my Sapphire winner’s medal!

So it’s been a pretty momentous year as a Lion but I am now so excited for the upcoming season, and can’t wait to see what new challenges and opportunities are in store.

To anyone who is considering whether American Football is for them, I would say – come to the Lions’ Rookie camps! You’ve nothing to lose, and you might just end up having the time of your life.

Maz #74

Image © Céline Bisson, with thanks.

Maz Hughes