Sport Sister Podcast - Season 2, Episode 7

Episode 7 – Juggling sport at the highest level with everything else: Rachel Newborough and Zainab Alema.

Rachel Newborough and Zainab Alema

Rachel Newborough is a Northern Ireland senior international and professional footballer currently playing for Coventry United in the Barclays Women’s Championship, whilst also running her own marketing business, Prowess Marketing.  Zainab Alema is a rugby player for Richmond Women, mum of 3 and former neonatal nurse.

Rachel and Zainab join Natalie Doyle to discuss how they juggle elite level sport with all of their other responsibilities.  They cover why it’s important to make time for multiple priorities, how ‘the juggle’ can impact performance, and their top tips for juggling sport with other things.

“You step on the pitch, you’ve got a job to do, you’re playing a game with your teammates, everything else doesn’t matter at that particular time. You can deal with it after the game.”

- Zainab Alema

Read this episode’s transcript

Natalie Doyle:

Welcome to the Sports Sister Podcast, where we bring together professional experts with grassroots pioneers to discuss key topics for grassroots sport.

I’m Natalie Doyle, and today I’m joined by two women juggling elite sport with a number of other responsibilities. 

Zainab Alema plays rugby for Richmond Women and is also a mum of three and a former NHS nurse. Rachel Newborough is currently playing football for Coventry United and Northern Ireland, as well as running her own marketing business. I’m really looking forward to this episode because I think we can all relate to juggling multiple different things and having different responsibilities that we have to keep going. But when you throw high-level sport into the mix, I think there’s going to be some really interesting discussions that will come from this. So let’s hear what they have to say.

Rachel and Zainab, thank you so much for giving up your time to talk to me today. We are going to be talking about juggling sport at the highest level with all of the other things and I know you’ve both got a lot of experience in this, in your respective sports and are juggling various things. So let’s maybe start the episode by setting some of that context. Zainab, did you want to start us off and tell us a little bit about your background and what you’re juggling?

Zainab Alema:

Yeah, sure. Thank you so much Natalie for having me on. I’m really excited for this. I am Zee, Zainab. I’m a mum of three. The oldest is six, the middle is four and the youngest three. I am a neo-natal nurse by profession and I like to say a rugby player by passion, but I think more so recently I turned that around to focus on rugby as a career pathway and put my career in the NHS on the back burner for now. I have a sporting project called Studs in the Mud, which is a rugby project that uses rugby to change women and children’s life in Ghana. What else do I do? You know, when people ask me what do you do, I think that’s it for now. We’ll probably discuss the rest going into the podcast bit.

Natalie Doyle:

Perfect. How about you Rachel?

Rachel Newborough:

Yeah, that’s a lot going on. <laugh> Mine’s a little bit simpler for sure. So I play professional football in the championship at the moment and international football in Northern Ireland. My juggling act is that when I got injured and I was quite worried about income and all those kind of things, I thought instead of being worried about it, I’ll take action. And before going full-time with football, I’d worked in a marketing business development role. So I just set up my own business and have grown it since then. So yeah, at the moment it’s juggling running a business and playing professional sport. So yeah, I’ve got it a little bit easier than Zee but it is a bit to manage <laugh>.

Natalie Doyle:

There are some different challenges there though, aren’t there? And there are other things that are pulls on your time. How do you find that juggle? Is it a difficult one?

Rachel Newborough:

Yeah, definitely. I think the travel at the moment is difficult because with it being short contracts in womens sport, so I’ve moved to Coventry for six months but was playing at Charlton. So our flats in southeast London, so I’ve been travelling from South East London to Coventry three times a week, so that’s two and a half hours each way, so that’s been a bit mental but when it’s a short amount of time and you feel like it’s necessary, you sort of get on with it. It’s one of those things that you look back and you’re like, what was I doing? How did I do that? <laugh>

Zainab Alema:

<laugh> Yes, I totally agree on that point about what was I doing, how did I do that? Because I literally feel the same when I was juggling being a nurse, having children, looking after three kids and then also going to train and play rugby. Now that the nursing has been put to the side, I still look back and think how the hell did I cope? Because even now it’s a struggle. So how did I even manage when I was in nursing as well? So I totally get that Rachel and yeah, it’s a bit of a matter of trying to juggle it all, but I think like as you said, when you love it, you just have to find a way to make it work really, isn’t it?

Rachel Newborough:

Yeah, exactly. You’d be surprised how much you can do when you’re thrown into the situation <laugh>.

Natalie Doyle:

Absolutely. Yeah, they say if you want something done, give it to a busy person, don’t they? So I think probably when you’re in it, you do what you have to do because if all of those things are important to you, then you want to make them all work.

Zainab Alema:

Absolutely. And I think as well when you stop to think that, oh wow, like I’ve got so much on and that’s when it’s like, oh I actually do have, when you just don’t think about it, you’re just doing it, you sort of almost don’t realize.

Rachel Newborough:

Yeah, I agree <laugh>.

Natalie Doyle:

So Rachel, talk to me about the business. How do you manage your time I suppose because like you said, you are having extra commitments now with the travel that you have, travelling up to Coventry. How are you managing to build the business around your sporting commitments?

Rachel Newborough:

Yeah, it’s certainly been a journey of trial and error to work out what works best for me. And I think with the job being very flexible in terms of all I need is myself and my laptop and I can do it anywhere. I’ve made the most of that so trying to get the train where I can, even though obviously, trains in the UK are super expensive, and if I can work on it and the WiFi’s all right then I can make that money back on the way up, two birds and one stone, that kind of thing. But when I started it and I was still at Charlton, they asked me if I could come in early and do my gym before I was doing my rehab and my training.

So I was up and out earlier and then I’d be done at lunchtime instead of mid-afternoon. And you were fine with that considering the situation and then I got home straight on my laptop and worked longer. And now it’s the opposite way round that we’re training in the afternoon, so I get myself up a little bit earlier and just blast it out in the morning. And I think as you say, sometimes if I did have the whole day if I was waking up and starting work at nine and finishing at six-ish like a lot of people do, I’d probably get the same amount of work done as I do when I’m on my laptop just before seven and I have to close it by one o’clock, but I probably actually do the same amount of work in a sense.

But when you know you’ve got that deadline, write the list like okay, these are the five things that have to be done, the rest would be good to get done, but it’s not the end of the world most of the time, you’re always getting through that list. So I think it’s working out how to be super efficient and working it around and managing expectations of the people around you as well. And being realistic. At the start I was very much like, yeah that’s fine, I can do it. I can do it by next week and then it comes round to it and you can’t and that’s the worst part. So I think versus being like, okay, I know I’ve got this time so I’ll commit to saying I’ll have it done by this date and know I can deliver on it. So that’s certainly been a learning lesson <laugh>.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, that’s an interesting point Rachel, how you talk about the flexibility of your job that you can do it wherever you are as long as you’ve got yourself and a laptop. And I suppose that’s the difference for you Zee isn’t it, that when you were doing nursing and being a mum it’s probably as unflexible as it as it gets. So how was that juggle when you were trying to juggle your sporting commitments with those other commitments as well?

Zainab Alema:

Yeah, it was tough, and definitely not flexible because I was there shift work, so it was a case of like, this is your pattern, you can’t deviate from that. But my work did allow flexible working, which was great. So there were times when I needed to do a certain set of shifts and my hospital accommodated that, so that was really good. I think the tiredness was one thing trying to juggle, obviously doing 12-hour shifts and some of those shifts were really stressful and then you’re going home. If I do night shifts my kids would be awake when I get home and I’m like, I need to sleep but they want me. And that was the toughest bit, going home from a night, then the kids being awake knowing that they wanted me and I know that I need to sleep so I can be fresh for the next shift.

So that was the most difficult part. But with the rugby, I kind of felt like I didn’t mind it so much because the stresses of nursing, I was able to release that stress when I got onto the pitch and played rugby. So it was a nice balance whereas, if I had a tough day at work or maybe the kids were really hyper and that was getting me tired, for example. I’d go onto the pitch and then release that energy and then I would balance out my feelings, my emotions. So the rugby bit was great to manage my emotions really and how I felt. So yeah, I think it was a nice balance because people do ask me, how did you manage? But I kind of felt like rugby was my safe space and it was my thing that allowed me to be a better mother and I think that allowed me to be a better nurse.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, that’s a really interesting point, about how you then use your time in sport for all the positive things and that’s time when it’s just for you alone. Is that difficult to leave everything else off the pitch when you’re going into be it training or match day and all these other things going on in your life? Is it difficult to leave that at home?

Zainab Alema:

No, I found it quite I wouldn’t say easy, but it was just something that had to be done. I felt like going on the pitch, it allowed me to put everything else in the background and not have to think about it because I’m focused on the game. So it was just something that was just almost automatic. You step on the pitch, you’ve got a job to do, you’re playing a game with your teammates, everything else doesn’t matter at that particular time. You can deal with it after the game. So yeah, I found it quite easy to sort of transition between things that went on off the pitch and then get on the pitch and just focus on the game. Yeah, it was quite a good transition for me.

Rachel Newborough:

Yeah, that’s interesting. I think I have that at times. Like when you are on the pitch training, matches you know, you’re not thinking about other things, you’re present in the moment. So whether it’s something that’s not quite right with work or family or whatever, but at times I do find that although I’m not necessarily thinking about something, if I am struggling with something outside of football, it does usually translate into my performance that I don’t play as well. So it’s an odd one where it’s like not necessarily like conscious thinking that’s like distracting me in the game. If I’m sad or upset about something, I probably won’t be as expressive on the pitch or play as well. So I do have it a little bit that it can like run into football a bit.

Zainab Alema:

Yeah, that is definitely a good point and I definitely agree with that. I feel like it’s almost like yes you’re not thinking about it but your body just knows or your mind just knows it’s something in the background that’s probably stressing you out and yeah it can rear its head when you are performing so yeah, that’s true.

Natalie Doyle:

I suppose that happens with the tiredness as well as when you talked about the tiredness of juggling all the different things, and Rachel you’ll have this with the additional travel as well if you add in stresses in your life outside of sport, adding the tiredness and then you’re trying to go and perform as well as you can. It must be quite a challenging combination.

Zainab Alema:

Yeah, definitely. I think as well with me one of the things that I struggle with sometimes is childcare. So the ability for me to, whenever I step on the pitch, I’ll never take that for granted. Because I know next week I may not have the opportunity because I won’t have that childcare. So for me when I go and I step on the pitch to perform, it’s like I have to give 110% no matter how I’m feeling because I know next week I may not get the opportunity. Which I guess can seem as a positive and negative because if you’re already tired you are burning yourself to the ground. But for me, I feel like with rugby, when I step on the pitch it’s just, I don’t know if it’s the adrenaline but I just go with the flow and sometimes when I’m tired I probably perform better. I know that sounds crazy but <laugh> it’s probably like I go to autopilot or like overdrive and it’s when I step off the pitch I’m like oh my god, I’m bloody exhausted <laugh>. But in the moment you’re just going and going and going and rugby is such a physical sport, there’s no time to think, to register certain things you’re just going.

Rachel Newborough:

Yeah, wow, that’s amazing. <laugh>. I think for me, like as I’m getting older and thinking about kids and that kind of thing, I think that’s the main thing that worries me the most, how on earth do you manage having kids plus play in sport plus trying to keep the business ticking along because you need that to top up the income and you don’t want to shut that off for future opportunities and stuff. The lack of sleep, for me, my one saving grace is like I get into bed dead early, I’m talking 9:30pm and I’m waking at half six, so I’m getting a really good night’s sleep and that’s how I feel like I smash things. I’m so worried it’s all going to come crumbling down <laugh>.

Zainab Alema:

No way, I’m so jealous. I remember when I had my first child, people saw me and would say, you’re not going to sleep, it’s going to be, it’s bad. And I literally put in my mind that, okay when I give birth, I’m going to put in my mind that I’m not going to sleep. If I sleep it’s a bonus. And yes it sounds very exaggerated, but that helped me because I didn’t have expectations of sleeping at all. So when I did sleep I was like okay good, I’m sleeping because if I went into it thinking yeah, I have a baby, but you know, I’ll sleep, the baby will sleep, I’ll sleep when the baby’s asleep and all that stuff that people say, which sometimes is not really realistic, so to explain that to myself, Zee you’re not going to sleep, you’ve got a child now you’re not going to sleep. That really actually helped me. So when I did sleep it was like okay, wow, I’ve got a 20-minute nap here, I’ve got a one-hour nap here and that’s how I went on with it. It’s probably not healthy but <laugh>, it was just a reality at the time.

Rachel Newborough:

Yes, it gets you through <laugh>.

Natalie Doyle:

It’s like managing expectations with yourself, isn’t it?

Zainab Alema:

Yeah.

Natalie Doyle:

<laugh> Brilliant. Obviously, you wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t worth the juggle, right? So you must both enjoy what you get out of it, both from a sporting point of view and the other things as well. Would you recommend it?

Rachel Newborough:

Definitely <laugh>.

Natalie Doyle:

There was a bit of a pause there.

Rachel Newborough:

Although it is really busy in a way you kind of, this is really random, but for me in a sense you kind of like to moan about the fact that it’s busy. <laugh>

Natalie Doyle:

<laugh>. Oh yeah. We love to moan about being busy. That’s classic.

Rachel Newborough:

Honestly, my worst nightmare is waking up and having a day with not much to do or we’re just chilling and watching a Netflix series. Honestly, I couldn’t think of anything worse. I just don’t enjoy it. So I think I would recommend it if you are a busy person, and you like being like, okay, what’s going on next? Like, I’m here, I’m there and people are like oh wow, I don’t know how you do it. And you’re like, yeah, I’m absolutely smashing it.

If you’re that type of person, but if you’re not, I would not recommend <laugh>.

Natalie Doyle:

<laugh>, How about you Zee?

Zainab Alema:

Yeah, thankfully I’m the type of person, same like Rachel, I like being busy even though I would sometimes complain about being busy, but yeah, I would recommend it from my perspective because, well, I don’t know, it’s a tough one. For me for example, my sporting career probably started after I had children, so it’s one of those things that it’s a bit different. Society would think that okay, get married, have children, put your career on hold. But I flipped it on its head and was like, okay, I’ve done all of that, now I want a career in sport. So it’s a different route that I’m taking, so the juggling is different, but I see it from a perspective that actually I’m happy that my kids get to see that I’m not just their mum. I’m actually a rugby player, I’ve got a career in the NHS, I’m doing other things as well. So from that perspective, I look at it, yeah, I would recommend it because hopefully I’m teaching them that when they’re adults they can actually have multiple hats and not just stay in a box really. So from that perspective, I would say yeah, I would recommend that.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah. We talk all the time about the importance of positive role models, don’t we? And what better role model than seeing your mum and all of the different hats that she wears and the different things that she’s doing and achieving in her life to give them something to aspire to and show what you can achieve if you put your mind to it.

Zainab Alema:

Yeah, absolutely. My eldest was like, mummy, I want to be a rugby player like you. And I was like, oh, that’s so sweet. And actually, she does come and watch when she can and when she sees our teammates are coming off, some of them have nosebleeds or someone’s holding their arm, physios going on, she’s like, Mummy, I’m not sure if I’m going to play rugby. I don’t want to get hurt. She’s very well in tune with the fact that she knows mum’s obsessed with rugby as well. Because sometimes I go and get my coat if I’m going out and she’ll be like, mum, are you going to play rugby? Are you going to train? I’m like, no, I’m just going to buy milk <laugh>. Every time I get my coat I’m going to play or I’m going to train. But sometimes it’s literally just a case of, we’ve run out of milk, I’m going to buy milk <laugh>.

Natalie Doyle:

So just thinking about if there’s people listening to this who are either currently in this similar sort of situation or would like to be in the future, what advice or tips would you give to people who are juggling multiple things and lots of people are, that won’t always be top-level sport, but what’s your biggest advice or the best techniques that you use to try and juggle all of those things?

Rachel Newborough:

Yeah, I think for me it’s what Zee and I touched on earlier, that you don’t know what you’re capable above of until you’re in that situation. And if you think, oh, I can’t fit that in, like I’m working and looking after the kids, there’s no way I can make time for myself even social sport, I can’t make time for myself to go and play netball with women on a Wednesday. Obviously, I’m saying it here, I haven’t got kids so <laugh>, but I think making that time for you to play sport, whether it’s socially or competitively, brings you so much. The amount of times I’ve been in an awful mood and then you play sport and it goes well and you just feel on top of the world. The confidence boost that it gives you and that adrenaline rush and everything afterwards just improves everything so much. Your mental health of just taking part in sport is absolutely massive. And so I would recommend it and say that if you think you can’t do it, you’d be surprised. Give it a go, try and manage it for a month or so and you’ll be surprised and you’ll get the benefits from it.

Zainab Alema:

Yeah, absolutely. I agree. Especially with the fact that socially, I mean we don’t want to play top flight for any sport, but even just the social aspect’s really important and it can bring so much to your life. You can meet people from different walks of life and it’s great. And I think as well, I’d say to come out of your comfort zone, that’s one of my biggest things and I think that’s the one thing that I try to start doing that’s led me to where I am now. It’s stepping out of your comfort zone and testing yourself, stretching yourself. Because we all have masses of potential, but if you don’t try to unlock it, you just never know. And I think life already is sometimes a bit of like a rat race where you’re just doing the same thing over and over again.

And when you step outside of that hamster world and you’ll be like, actually I’m going to do something I’ve never done before, then you open up a whole different type of experience to your life and you’re like, wow. So yeah, I’d definitely encourage to come out outside their comfort zone and to stretch and to try and strive to fulfil their fullest potential. Because actually life is too short and if you don’t really like it, you can also go back to your comfort zone, but at least try <laugh>.

Natalie Doyle:

That’s really good advice from both of you. I think that’s a really good way to close the episode. Thank you so much for giving up your time to speak to me today.

Rachel Newborough:

It’s been lovely. Zee, you’re an inspiration as well. It’s been great hearing from you from my point of view, <laugh>.

Zainab Alema:

Sure. We would have to come and watch each other one day.

Rachel Newborough:

Yeah, I would love that.

Zainab Alema:

And Natalie, you have to come and watch too.

Natalie Doyle:

Some great honesty and insight from Rachel and Zainab in that episode. And I really enjoyed how willing and open they were to share with us the challenges they have and how that can sometimes affect performance on the pitch. And it can sometimes be difficult to juggle all of those things, but also both of them really clearly saying that it’s all worth it in the end and the amazing things that they get out of that juggle that they have is fantastic. So I hope you enjoyed that episode.

Make sure you leave us a review if you haven’t already and subscribe if you haven’t yet. This is going to be our second to last episode of the series, so next week we’ll be back with our final episode of Season Two. Thank you all very much for listening and we’ll speak to you soon.

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