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Belong, Believe, Achieve : PhD candidate Jo Ward is a big hitter in the sport of tennis

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Jo is making tennis a better sport for women and girls

'Belong, Believe, Achieve' is a series of profiles showcasing inspiring students and staff at the University of East London (UEL). Each week, we bring you a new story about someone achieving great things in our amazing community.

University of East London (UEL) PhD candidate and lecturer Jo Ward has undergone a series of remarkable transitions in her chosen sport of tennis. From champion player to coach to advocate for gender equality, Jo has always been a big hitter. 

Jo began playing tennis at the relatively late age of 13. She soon moved from juniors to playing on the professional women’s tour.  She was crowned British champion at 19, and ranked 150th in the world in 1998. Jo retired in 2000 at the age of 25. 

At the age of 27 Jo decided to go back to university to study for a BA in Religious Studies at Kings College London. This was followed by an MA in English Literature at the University of Sussex.  Jo funded her studies by coaching tennis, running her own WIMX Tennis Academy in Chingford.

Jo said, “It didn’t matter how far I tried to get from tennis and get a break, it was never too far.”

Jo first came into contact with UEL in 2012 when her company was contracted to do the coaching for UEL’s High Performance Tennis programme. The leader of the Sports Coaching programme, Richard Buscombe, asked Jo if she would also like to be a course lecturer.

Being around a university again gave Jo the study bug, and she considered doing another master’s degree. Dr Buscombe, however, encouraged Jo to go for a PhD.  

Jo is now in the middle of the third year of her doctorate, which looks at the effects of stereotypes on girls in tennis.

There is quite a lot of academic literature on the topic of stereotype threat, but this usually refers to BME students in education. The struggles of women footballers to be taken seriously have also been well documented. But stereotype threat has not been considered much when it comes to women’s performance in tennis.

Jo said, “As a former junior player, former professional player, coach, and coach educator, subjectively I can feel all of those undercurrents going on. And when I started to read about stereotype threat, I just had a lightbulb moment. I’m not BME, but I am a woman in a man’s world, and you can draw direct parallels with that.  

“There are external factors as well as internal factors that play into your level of attainment.  If you have an environment that just doesn’t feel welcoming, then you will have participation problems, and your performances will not be as high as they otherwise could be, if you were not having this extra cognitive load.”

Jo has written resources for both the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) on coaching women and girls and delivers a module on the same topic that is now compulsory for every coach taking a tennis qualification in the UK.  

Jo is also a 'She Rallies' ambassador and one of a relatively small number of Level 5 female coaches in the UK.  She said she hopes the publication of her PhD will result in significant changes on the women’s tennis circuit.

Jo said, “I think there will be meaningful recommendations that could be made to change the environment, and not just in terms of stereotypes. It’s everything that is implicit in the environment of tennis.

“Everything that coaches are taught, all the biomechanics and all the physiology, are based on male norms. There are many obvious and easy differences that coaches need to learn about.

“Until we get the coaching for girls right, we are not going to redress the imbalance we have in participation, and we’re not going to get the kind of performances we want from our best women tennis players.”