Leicester Athena: the evolution of a volleyball club
28th September 2018
The This Girl Can campaign celebrates and promotes ‘active women doing their thing no matter how well they do it’. When it comes to volleyball, Leicester Athena Volleyball Club are proof of the appetite of women to play and enjoy the sport.
The club was only created three seasons ago but already has over 30 registered members and two teams playing at local and regional level. This season will see the club reach national heights. For the 2018/19, Leicester Athena are adding another team to their ranks and they’ll be making their debut in the women’s National Volleyball League Division 3 Central in a triangular against Northampton and Loughborough Students on October 14th.
The clubs growth shows no signs of stopping as they are currently running a recruitment campaign to drive the expansion of the club and find more members.
The inspiration for the club came from its founder and coach, Paul Kaerger, who saw that women’s volleyball could thrive in the area – all they needed was their own club.
“I’ve been playing and coaching volleyball for a long time,” says Paul. “A few years ago, I was asked to set-up an outdoor volleyball court at an event at Leicester Tigers Rugby Club were running which featured all different sports. Loads of kids were playing and a guy came up to me and asked if there was anywhere his 12-year-old daughter could play volleyball in Leicester. I realised that there was nowhere girls and women could to learn the game and play volleyball.
“The idea stuck with me for a few years. I was a volleyball coach at the University of Leicester and I got bored of that and decided I wanted to set up a women’s club. I met Sarah, who was captain of the De Monfort University volleyball and we went for a coffee to discuss starting the club.
“I wanted it to be inclusive, welcoming, and fun. I’m from Leicester and knew it was a diverse city. There are lots of people from Eastern Europe, there are two universities and there were some schools were volleyball was taught – the volleyball community in Leicester was just untapped.”
The birth of a club
Sarah and Paul hit the ground running in making their vision a reality. They secured a venue at the Leicester Sports Arena, which is most famously home to the Leicester Riders basketball club, and began attracting players.
“We used three main routes to advertise the club,” says Paul. “We spoke to people we knew in the volleyball community and recruited a few women we knew who were involved at men’s clubs. We also used Facebook as we knew the people we were targeting would be into social media, and printed a load of leaflets that we distributed. All three methods worked in recruiting players. It was great, one lady came to the club and when I asked her where she had found out about the club she had picked up the leaflet in a Polish deli we had dropped the leaflets at.”
In September 2016, the club put on its first session which had eight players and continued to expand, thanks to a financial boost.
“We contacted Volleyball England about helping us with our bid for some Sport England funding,” says Paul. “They were magnificent and help us through the whole process. The money we received helped to buy equipment and fund the hire of the sports hall for a year – basically it helped us get up and running.
Thinking about the members
Since then the club has continued to go from strength to strength. One of the foundations of the success of the club has been its approach to understanding and supporting its members.
“We thought hard about how best to run the club and I had read about the challenges of running a women’s club,” says Paul. “We’ve tried to make the club really welcoming and one of the key things I had picked up was the particular need for flexibility with women’s teams. For instance, we have many players who have busy jobs and families to look after. One thing we do is run two types of membership: a 12-month full membership and a voucher system, where players buy ten vouchers and use them as and when they can come along.
“We also have a player engagement officer. They welcome new players to the club and get back to anyone who gets in touch about joining the club. If someone doesn’t turn up for a few weeks they will get in touch to make sure everything is OK.
“Over two years, we’d had around 60 people come along to at least one session. I wanted to understand why some people leave or drift away, having a player engagement officer has worked and we’ve retained more people in the club.”
“I’ve not invented any of these things. I’ve looked around to see how other organisations work and whenever we have encountered a problem, we’ve looked for a solution.”
Leicester Athena has developed its own committee, which includes a treasurer and safeguarding officer, and is currently self-sufficient while still keeping the cost of membership at a very affordable rate. Adult players pay £25 per month (NVL players £35), while juniors are charged just £15 a month.
“The next step is to establish the team in the NVL and help create the pathway at the club from local league to national level,” explains Paul. “Players from the current local league team will step up into the regional league and will get better playing a higher standard. The local league team will be the place for players and newcomers to learn and develop their skills.”
“I want to see more women coaching at the club and taking referee’s courses. I want the club members to see that a team sport is not just about playing, it’s about all the other parts of the sport and things that make a club function.”
One thing that Paul has always been aware of that people have busy lives and are not always able to commit as much to the club as they’d like. He refers to himself as a ‘committed nutter’ that calls developing the club, “one of the best things I have done in years” which gives him such a great buzz.
“I’m fortunate as I can do it because for the last six years, I have been self-employed which means I can balance it around my work life. Many people are so busy that the two hours at volleyball is often their escape. I’m always aware of that and understand that everyone needs to pick their own priorities. That doesn’t mean I won’t giving them a nudge to encourage them to help!”
Leicester Athena will need more members as the plan is to be an even bigger source of volleyball to women in the city. It’s not just Paul’s and Sarah’s vision either, it is quite clear at Athena, the club belongs to all its members.
“I don’t have an ultimate aim for the club as I want the club members to decide what their ambitions are,” says Paul. “This is not a vanity project, I want the club expand and be around for a long time giving women the opportunity to play volleyball.
“There are three possibilities for the long term: To play in the top league and I would love to be the coach for that, though I would have to get a lot better!
“The second is get volleyball projects and after school clubs into local schools which unearths local talent which comes to us and then on to bigger things.
“The third is that we have a club of 40 committed members which manage themselves and are involved with coaching and refereeing. Any of those three would represent success. If we managed all three, that would be amazing.”
The future for women’s volleyball in Leicester is very bright. It safe to say that girls and women wanting to play volleyball in the city have their club now – and the guy who asked Paul about if there was somewhere his 12-year-old daughter could play all those years ago? His daughter plays for Leicester Athena, of course.