Lipa Nessa is the Co-founder of a sports podcast, formerly a semi-professional footballer and now a grassroots coach, sports activist, and National Youth Board member for several sports boards. Lipa wants to facilitate change and continues to challenge herself and engage with ethnically diverse communities. Lipa’s dream is to ‘change the world with a hijab on her head and a ball at her feet’, and has already become a trailblazer and a powerful voice for positive change in the sector.
What drew you to sports advocacy?
What drew me was my negative experiences within the sporting sector. Being a minority, being a Muslim woman, being a woman generally, it’s a tough world, especially in the world of sport when you’re told what you can and can’t wear and everything else between the lines. When I was younger, I went through a very negative experience, which made me take a step back and think, how can I challenge this in the right way? Can I be that representation that I didn’t have when I was younger? So I went through the representation pathway. If you can’t see it you can’t be it, so let me be that person that everyone can see.
As I grew older and went to university, I realised that I had the representation in the bag, so how could I influence the sector even more? So I went into coaching and decided I’d coach girls’ football within the local area, as I knew there were more Muslim girls and Muslim families in the area.
I then decided to join the Youth Sport Trust Youth Board, and where I realised how much power a young person holds, and it all grew from there.
What are you up to now?
I’m a Trustee at Muslimah Sports Association, a local charity that was established in 2014. They’re all to do with Muslim women in sports and creating a safe space for women who look like me to celebrate their sporting achievements.
I’m also a Trustee and the Chair of the Youth Board at the Youth Sport Trust. This is a space that I literally never thought I’d get. Before joining Patchwork it wasn’t even on my radar to achieve, but afterwards I thought you know what, I’ve got the skills, I think I can do it. Through curiosity I decided to give it a go, and I got the position! I’m really chuffed with that, and it’s on a national level. I’ve got a lot of work in September when school starts again, but it’s okay because I did say I wanted to change the world!
I’m also on the social media scene. For instance, I’ve done a recent campaign with Adidas ‘All About Your Body’. It was about championing the body and talking about the pandemic as well. I was able to showcase change through a difficult period, where mental and physical health were challenged repeatedly.
Why do you think sport is so important?
It’s important now more than ever! You might have seen during the pandemic, the PT and dietician Joe Wicks started to blow up with his exercise videos and I just thought this is great for sports and for PE, especially the way he engaged not only with children and young people but also their parents. There was also Captain Sir Tom Moore, who before he passed away had his daily walk which fundraised millions for the NHS, just showing that no matter your age, where you come from, where you are in the world, sports can bring people together.
In this day and age, there’s so much trauma and mental health struggles, from children in primary school to their teachers to the elderly. There are so many people, especially key and frontline workers, who haven’t had the chance to just stop and look after themselves.
I think sports and PE is that artistic form to allow one to express themselves. No one actually thinks about its like that, because at school you’re just told to get changed, to go outside and play netball in the cold. No one sees it as an artistic form of communicating and expressing yourself, and that’s where I think we’ve gone wrong with this.
As a nation we’ve already seen how much sports and PE can do, all the way back to WWI when soldiers put down their weapons to play football. History already told us that sports brings people together, so how come after all these years we’ve forgotten that, and instead we’ve made it a barrier? I think every child has the right and every person has the right to PE and physical activity whoever they are. Just enjoy yourself while you’re expressing yourself.
What would you do to change that?
If I was in power, I would make sure that PE holds an important place in the curriculum in school. I’d try to spread it across to NHS services, frontline workers, and key workers to make sure they’re ‘getting their steps in’, no matter how they do that, whether it be jogging, walking, jumping on the trampoline. You’re not too old to do anything, even just running out in the rain – I think lots of people have put that barrier in from of them before they’ve even begun.
This is, of course, the year of the Olympics – how have you found Tokyo 2020?
Stressful! I think I’ve got grey hairs under my headscarf!
I’ve just been screaming at the telly and challenging people, especially when it comes to clothing, one example being the backlash towards the gymnasts from the German team who chose to wear the longer-legged unitards. And then there was the Norwegian team during the European Beach Handball Championships recently who didn’t want to wear bikini pants, they wanted to wear shorts and the European Handball Federation gave them a fine for it. So men can wear longer trousers and they don’t need to show their muscles or contours of their bodies, whereas women are sexualised into wearing revealing clothes. It took me back to my own sporting roots when I decided to wear a headscarf and the negativity around that period was really toxic for me, so imagine that at a that level of competition. I just feel for them.
But at the same time, I’m looking at these younger Olympians coming through and all these new sports – like skateboarding, so cool! – but seeing all these younger people come through and absolutely bossing it is so great to see. Hopefully one day this argument will come back in the future, but instead of arguing everyone will laugh at it and everyone will be like well why didn’t we allow women to just cover up if they want to cover up.
Going back to mental health, too, one of the USA gymnasts, Simone Biles, pulled out of her finals. Everyone thought it was a physical injury, but when she came out and said no it’s actually my mental health, everyone was giving her stick for it, but no one actually realises that in sport you need your brain as much as your body. So her doing that shows that even at such an elite level at such a pinnacle point in her career, you can say no actually, I’ll lead but I’ll lead from the back today. There’s a lot there we can take as people and even into the political scene – how much saying no is okay and how setting those boundaries early is so important.
If you could participate in any Olympic sport, what would it be?
Football. Then again, it might be archery! That’s one sport I’ve been trying to get into! It’s just so much fun and historical within the sporting scene. It’s like any track event in the Olympics, it’s very ancient, so going back to the roots of where sports came from is something I like!
Football was also an ancient sport – instead of football it was actually the heads of prisoners . . . but we just kind of forget about that!
Why did you apply to the Patchwork Masterclass Programme, and what did you get out of the experience?
I saw it as an opportunity to advance my skillset and to have a greater understanding of what governance means within the political sector, and what I learned could be transferred to my sector.
But the main reason I wanted to join Patchwork was because it scared me and it was out of my comfort zone. It gave me a little feeling of being unsure, of not knowing what’s ahead, of being nervous because you’re not sure. Every time that happens, it leads to something good. It always has. So I applied because I was scared basically.
It was one of the best things I did during the pandemic. During the pandemic I was able to enhance my skillset and learn about different things going on around me in the political scene and governance sector. Going back into the ‘real world’ and seeing of what I learn in Patchwork take form in the sporting sector has been fun!
There were a lot of people that I couldn’t relate to directly, but indirectly I could, and I took the bits that I could relate to and I applied it to my pathway and my journey, starting with my trustee roles, just jumping in head-first like I did with Patchwork.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue their passion?
If it’s something you’re think about for too long and you don’t pursue it, might be a regret you think about forever.