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Celebrating Black History Month | Maylene interview

Maylene is a referee and venue manager for In2Touch. She has reffed for England Touch and has previously played and reffed touch in Singapore for a number of years. Equality and Diversity Officer Tatchen Dawodu-Alcide spoke to Maylene about her Touch journey.

Tae: What was your journey into Touch?

Maylene: My eldest daughter was playing and she kept saying, “Mum, Mum, you should come and join, it's a great game”. I'd never really heard of touch before. She was playing at school and was doing some social touch as well. So I thought, I'll try it out. I joined an ex-pat team out there and absolutely loved it from day one and thought “Oh, this is great!”.

Tae: You said an ex-pat team, so I'm assuming that was outside of the UK that you were playing?

Maylene: Yes, I was playing in Singapore. It’s quite big out there. It’s taught from around the age of 10-11 years so children are being trained up from quite a young age, which is nice to see. Actually, we get a lot of players coming over from Australia, so that's like the connection, it's just a big ex-pat thing out there.

Tae: That's really interesting because I was reading something on the website and it did mention how some students take into consideration what the Touch Rugby scene is like in the UK to choose where they’d like to study. I thought that was quite interesting as you've mentioned that it's quite big in Singapore, so that would make sense why they'd want to find somewhere in the UK where they can play.

Maylene: That's right, and you know, what's really interesting is coming over here and seeing a lot of the youngsters that I was refereeing in Singapore come over here for uni or to join their families. They are playing over here on the Touch field, which is really nice to see. 

Tae: I guess that almost ties into subconsciously a family kind of element, which I think is very nice. I wasn't aware of that so thank you for sharing. My next question would be, how long have you been involved in Touch?

Maylene: No, because it’s a long time ago.  At least 20 years I’d say! 

Tae: What would you say you enjoy most about Touch? If you could touch upon your experience as a player and then as a referee.

Maylene: I like Touch being about teamwork. Starting off in a social ex-pat team, they incorporate women a lot. Being an observer of mixed social teams here, especially teams that are starting out, they don't really use their women as much as they could do. Whereas certainly when I started out, touch was so prominent in Singapore, they really did have a good understanding of including women on the team, mixing them in and seeing them as equals. So I really enjoyed that, everyone is equal and it was just such a fun game.

Tae: How would you describe a typical day in your day-to-day job?

Maylene: I'm a teacher, I teach junior school. So it's quite different doing that as I'm busy all day. It's really nice to think, I actually look forward to going to the Touch field straight after work. It's really nice feeling, to think “Yay I've got Touch this evening and it's not like, Oh no, I've got touch this evening”. It really is something I look forward to. I realised that I find it a real release, after a busy hectic day when I then go on the field. I just enjoy the sport, it’s fantastic as a player when I used to play. Then as a referee, I was even more thrilled going on the field refereeing and having that control of the game as well. I think that is what it was. I'm not saying I'm a bossy person or anything!

It's just that feeling of having that control, having the players listen to you, controlling the game and organising the game so it can run smoother. Then when you understand the game really well as a referee, you can see the play that is going to take place that the players are building up to do, in the little dives, the movements or the way they drive the ball. It's nice to observe and then thoughts start entering your head and you start thinking “Oh, you should have played it to that player” that sort of thing - you’ve got all this strategizing going on which is great.

Tae: I found it really interesting when you mentioned that, once you've been involved in the game for a while and you had a better understanding of the teams, you can see the build-up of play that they're doing. Has the coaching side ever interested you or anything?

Maylene: When you referee, you do take on that kind of coaching style. More like a coach referee if you get what I mean. Especially when you get new teams that are just starting out. We get a lot of new people coming in who want to get into touch so you do end up doing that with the new teams. When venue managing, I quite like talking to players about some strategies and things to work on. I'll go through what a drive is, a buddy drive, how to position themselves on the defensive line and what to do, all those kinds of things. Switching to coaching though doesn't interest me as much as the refereeing, no.

Tae: What is the best part of your job? I think you touched briefly on it before, if you could answer that, it would be great.

Maylene: Venue managing I love because I do love that organization compared to when I was refereeing, as you are listening to little issues and things that developing teams might have and I feel like stepping in and saying “why don't you try this”? That sort of thing.  So yeah, I think the organizational side of it, it really appeals to me. I like to encourage them to develop and go further and give them other ideas of things that they can work on.

Watching those new teams coming in and building up their gameplay. When you see them at the start of the season when they first join and are working on some strategies, they're saying, “we've never played before or most of our team members haven't played before”. Seeing them each week, building up their skills, working together as a team and developing. Then by the time they are in their third season, you're sort of thinking, gosh, “they've come a long way in a short space of time”. Then to observe those players who really want to take it seriously by moving into a more developed team and going to coaching sessions that the teams have, developing their own gameplay and then eventually see them playing at regional competitions.

It's nice and important to pass on feedback and see players respond. It certainly can improve their game as well as the team’s play as a whole, including the opposition team that they're playing against. It's all about development, and that's really rewarding. 

I have found my little niche with venue management, I just love it. It's something I wanted to get into for a while. When the opportunity came up, I thought, “Yay!”. It was just really exciting for me and I love it. It's funny because I've gone from playing to refereeing to venue managing so I'm sort of finding ways to still stay in the game, as my abilities aren't quite what they were in terms of my fitness level and knee issues. Having said that, I was talking to a referee on the weekend and he was 63 which is inspiring! So I will be hanging in there for a lot longer! 

Tae: Wow! I’m in awe of that referee. Thank you so much for sharing. I think you touched on it a little bit there, but how did you actually get into the venue management side of things?

Maylene: It was an area that I saw and felt that I would really like doing.  I do like organizing and I thought to myself, “I can be a valuable asset here”. So it was more about putting myself forward at the time that was right for me knowing that I still want to be involved in the sport, but not able to do as much refereeing as I would like to do. Being a good candidate in terms of being reliable, having good organization and management skills, seeing problems and finding solutions to solving them and wanting to help more as well as providing reliability which I think is important.

Tae: I think you pretty much touched on it in that answer as you mentioned reliability, time management and also communication skills but do you think there are any other skills that are helpful for being a venue manager?

Maylene: Definitely personality. I think you need to have the right personality and be approachable as well, to not always feel that someone's either personally attacking you or attacking the other refs and having a good understanding of the rules and the game and how to implement them fairly, so that you can support the refs too. If players come up to you as a venue manager and say, “was that correct, what the ref called?”  It's nice to not only back them up, but to satisfy the players in terms of “yeah it was a good call, that is the rule.”  which helps their understanding of the rules too, or even to advise that the refs call what they see. It's nice to be that person, communicating with people or calming them down. I think the game does bring out a completely different side of people. Players and refs are all passionate about the game.

Tae: That was a very interesting insight. What do you think are the main challenges in your field at the moment, I guess from the venue management perspective?

Maylene: I think the main thing that I really want to do is just to bring more women into the game and in all honesty, bring more people of black, Asian and other ethnic groups into the game. I feel this diversity is lacking. I think it's more about people's perspective of what they think Touch is all about, really. I think those are areas that whilst I'm still able and part of touch and working with In2Touch that's something I want to see develop, although it really is a challenge. It's about getting the message out there, targeting people, having them develop an understanding of the game and showing them what a great, enjoyable game it is. 

Tae: I personally can resonate with that, because that's one of the reasons why I wanted to join because one of the values of England Touch as an organisation is that Touch Rugby is a sport for everyone.  I think one of the main barriers at the moment is that the sport is not very well known so it's hard to make it known to the masses. Funding is another issue too. Off the back of what you said, since you've been in the game for a long time, would you say that you've seen over the years that you've seen an improvement in terms of women in the game, black people and other ethnicities as well? 

Maylene: No. I root for the game 100 per cent but yeah, it's an area that I don't feel there's been any real improvement in. It needs targeting.

Tae: That is very disappointing to hear but thanks for being honest. It’s not good that you think there has been any progress.

Maylene: I mean, one of the things I'll share with you, which I love looking back on myself and makes me smile is when I came back from Singapore, I understood there was a shortage of referees here. So then I joined In2Touch and had my first refereeing assignment. I turned up on the field and remember the players were standing there looking at me and looking at each other and it was written all over their faces, this little black woman is the ref. One player did later confess these thoughts and added that he felt what could I possibly know about the game. 

I will never forget that because I actually found that quite amusing - that's my personality. 

I thought to myself, right, they need to just see who I am and what I can do. The fact that I may be a small black woman doesn't matter. I can ref just as well as any other referee that you've had on the fields in the past. Then at the end of the game, it felt good to have nice compliments after my first game back in the UK. All those players that looked at me strangely, were all like “ref, that was brilliant, brilliant refereeing”, It was a really nice experience to go from the weird looks at the beginning of the game, to the nice compliments at the end of the game. So that was a big memorable thing for me, and I think that's also helped me to stay in refereeing as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. 

At that time when I did join, I would say there were certainly more female teams as well. Whereas now certainly on the social touch, you don't see that many female teams around, which is a shame. The numbers have dwindled. We are thinking of how to encourage more women into the sport.

Tae: Do you know why that is? 

Maylene: In all honesty, I've never actually considered why. I’ve always thought that’s a shame but I’ve never thought why? I have no idea.

Tae: Okay, I thought it was interesting because of what you said and I wondered what it could be. 

Maylene: I should ask. Some people seem to disappear for a while and then they'll come back. Some end up disappearing completely. So yeah, maybe I should just start speaking to people and asking them why? Because it is an interesting perspective. It would be good to find out why.

Tae: I think it would be helpful to know what are the barriers to participation. I was just wondering if it is age-related as people get older, that they have more responsibilities.

Maylene:  For me playing and refereeing from when my youngest two were really young. I used to just bring them with me because I felt that it's my release. I still wanted to do something that I enjoy despite being a parent and having a full-time job. I think it's like grabbing onto something and saying to yourself that this is my thing. I will make time for it, regardless of how busy and hectic my life is.

I do love the social Touch because on warm days, you do see some families out there bringing their children. That's really great and I do enjoy observing that and I think it would be nice to have a lot more of that as well. 

Tae: Is there a particular event that has stood out? 

Maylene: We have an annual World Cup Day, which is where teams are assigned a country and they dress up in fancy dress costumes to represent the country that they have been assigned. Some teams literally go to town on their costumes. For example, if a team is assigned India, the players may come dressed in a saree to play touch on the field.

It's really nice when all the teams make an effort and come out and play. It's a big social thing and the more teams that join in, the better.

I also enjoy some of the tournaments run by England Touch as it’s nice seeing some of the referees or players that I knew in Singapore, other countries or other parts of the UK. It’s nice to touch base with them and catch up at the tournaments.

Tae: What advice would you give to someone who wants to try Touch?

Maylene: Come down and join. Come down and do the socials with us and get into it. You’ll love it, you won’t look back and guarantee that you will enjoy your first session. You will meet people, it’s nice and sociable and you’ll have fun. You’ll be thrown into the deep end but you will have fun!

We are England Touch

Some space. A ball. Your mates. A game
Your team. A competition. Maybe a trophy or two
Work hard. Develop skills. Get selected. Represent your nation
Volunteer time. Pick up a whistle. Make a difference
This is England Touch. Pick up a ball and play!