For Manchester United forward Jess Sigsworth, a football career was always on the cards. Invited to play with Branton Boys after her enthusiasm was spotted on the sidelines, Sigsworth’s development continued throughout her teenage years and a senior career beckoned with legendary women’s side Doncaster Rovers Belles. Selection to represent England at youth level soon […]
For Manchester United forward Jess Sigsworth, a football career was always on the cards. Invited to play with Branton Boys after her enthusiasm was spotted on the sidelines, Sigsworth’s development continued throughout her teenage years and a senior career beckoned with legendary women’s side Doncaster Rovers Belles. Selection to represent England at youth level soon followed.
A tear to a cruciate knee ligament made its mark on Jess’ 2015/2016 season with Donny Belles, pushing her resolve to its limits at times. “I was in such a dark place and I struggled to get up in the morning,” she said of the experience. ‘I didn’t want to do anything and I didn’t want to speak to anyone.”
Where there have been challenges, there have also been triumphs and by the conclusion of the 2018/2019 season, Sigsworth was the FA Women’s Championship’s top scorer, netting 18 goals in 28 competitive appearances for United. It was her precision and fast thinking in the box that also helped elevate United to the FA Women’s Super League for the first time. Seemingly far-off dreams during 14 months of intensive, dedicated injury recovery finally came true.
We caught up with Jess just before this season’s Super League action kicked off with the first ever female Manchester derby. She talked us through overcoming serious injury, her thoughts on the 2019 Women’s World Cup and advice for young athletes.
You started your football career at a young age – how did you get into playing?
Were you encouraged at school to play? As a girl wanting to play football, did you find it difficult to fit in with the boys?
When I got to school, I was encouraged quite a bit. I obviously played for the boys team, and quite a lot of my friends that I went to school with did too. I was just always hanging around with them and playing with them. I was never really discouraged actually.
The 2018/2019 season saw multiple achievements for yourself and United as a whole. Has this success inspired you to put yourself up for a spot on the England national team?
I really hope so. I think I’m in the right place now and it would massively help my development within the game. I hope one day that I can play for the seniors.
United manager [and former England captain] Casey Stoney has spoken about using team building and personal development off the pitch to help the team connect. Can you tell us more about that?
She tries to put us out of our comfort zone, so we’ve had animals like snakes come to the stadium and we’ve had to hold them. We’ve also had boxing at 6am, army camps, ropes courses. Even people who are scared of heights had to walk on high wires. Everything pushes you out of your comfort zone, and I think pushes you together as a team and encourages any team members who are a bit scared. It makes you closer to everyone, and that really does help when you’re on the pitch.
How do you think these actives have helped your own personal development as a player?
For me, sometimes I’m maybe a bit more of a reserved or laid back player. I think it helps with my communication and allows me to help others who are struggling.
What does your training and nutritional regimes look like as a professional athlete?
We train near enough every day except Thursday, and then on Monday we have a recovery day. We get quite a lot of gym time in there – maybe three or four times a week we’ll be in the gym.
The nutrition part is important, and obviously carbohydrates are a massive help for when you need energy. Then after the gym and training, getting your proteins on board through shakes for your muscles.
How do you balance that with your off days? Do you manage to get treats in here and there?
On our off days, [United midfielder] Katie Zelem, who I live with, has got a massive sweet tooth so it’s hard to keep off the sweets. Sometimes we go out for a milkshake or something which is really nice – you know, like a really unhealthy one with Milky Bar or Maltesers.
I think it is important to balance it out with stuff like that because if you eat very healthily all the time, it’s not actually all that great for you. You need to eat sweets now and then.
You tore your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) a few years back, which can be tough to recover from and sometimes costs players their career. Can you tell us what the experience was like for you?
It happened when I was at Doncaster [Rovers] and I had to wait about two or three months for my first surgery, because I needed to get my leg into a bit of a better shape going into surgery so that when it was over I wouldn’t lose muscle.
Unfortunately after the first operation, it didn’t go great at all. I just knew after my first few months of rehab that something wasn’t quite right. I could hardly bend or straighten it, and it was hurting in the gym and my muscle was just deteriorating. I went to see the surgeon and they said, “We need to get you into surgery ASAP.” A few days later, I had quite a bit more done to it.
When I came back, it immediately felt so much better. I think from there, that made me so motivated to go to the gym. I went to the gym nearly every single day and I followed every point on my programme. I didn’t miss a session, didn’t miss a rep, didn’t miss a set. I went to St George’s Park to do some work with some top physiotherapists as well – I think four weeks there – and getting stronger motivated me even more. Then when I started running and doing pitch sessions, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I thought, “Right, one big push and I’ll be back.”
Ever since then – touch wood – I’ve never had any problems or pain and it feels great.
I didn’t want to do anything and I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I thought, “What’s the point?” But when you know it’s getting a little bit better, that motivates you a little bit more every day.
Has recovering from a serious injury been the toughest challenge for you so far?
Yeah. I think before you get a serious injury, you never think it’s going to happen to you. When it does, you think, “I’m going to be out for so long, and there’s nothing I can do to come back from this quickly.” You have to go through the entire rehab stage.
It’s not even just the physical side, but the mental side. You think, when you go in for a tackle, “Is it going to happen again?”
When you were at Doncaster, and now at United, did you have support from these clubs in terms of looking after your mental health?
We never really had that at Doncaster but at United we have that now, which is great. We have a psychologist, Lorna, so if anything ever happened you have someone to go and talk to. She asks the players if anything were ever to happen in terms of injury, what would they want to be put in place.
My friend Martha [Harris, defender] unfortunately got a little injury recently, and she had spoken to Lorna quite a while back about what she would want put in place. Now, she’s got everything in place and finding it so much better: she’s got a programme, she knows what she’s doing every single day, and knows who she will be with and at what time. That’s really helping her.
I think we have such good support around us, if anything like an injury does happen. We won’t find ourselves in a bad place.
You continued on your path towards a career in football while also studying for a degree at university. How did you find a balance between playing on top form and studying hard?
It was actually really hard because, at the time, I was playing for Doncaster while also playing for the university team. I would train for the university team on Monday, train for Doncaster on Tuesday, play at university on Wednesday, and then train for Doncaster again on Thursday and Saturday before playing a match with them on Sunday. Then I had all of my university work on top. Any time where I didn’t have lectures, I would make sure that I was catching up with studying.
The university were so understanding, and because they knew that I was playing for both teams, they would help with support or extra extensions on my coursework. That took the pressure and stress out of of it all a bit more.
What would be your advice to girls who dream of a career in football?
As a young girl wanting to play, I think the main thing to start with is to fully enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it when you’re younger, there’s no point making yourself unhappy and carrying it on. You will get the best out of yourself – and other people will get the best out of you – if you are dedicated and motivated to be the best you can be and do well. I think that will take you quite far.
If you do make it far, I think the main thing is to not be distracted. You can get to an age where other things can come into your life, like always going out with friends. Sometimes you can’t do both, and when I was growing up I never really used to go out. The only thing I wanted to do was play football. If you’re willing to make those sacrifices, I think you are going to go far and get the best out of yourself.
Have you always been a disciplined person?
Yeah, I’ve always wanted to be the best that I can be. When I was starting out, I trained so hard and never missed a gym session. Then when I went to university, I went out with friends quite a bit more but not always. I think I had a nice balance where I could still do well at Doncaster but still enjoy myself at university.
Now that I’ve come to Manchester United, I would say that we hardly ever go out. We get a weekend off maybe every 10 or 11 weeks, and that’s when we’ll go out but never as much. We also still go out for meals together as friends, but we don’t have to drink to have a good time which is nice.
Now that United have been promoted to the Women’s Super League, what is the team mentality like going into this new season in the top tier?
We are so excited. Last season was really good, and it was amazing to be the first team at the top of the league, but I think sometimes we weren’t really challenged when playing some of the other teams. We know this year that every single game is going to be a challenge and it’s going to be harder.
I think we are all fighting for our places in the team now because there are a lot of players in each position, and I think that brings everyone’s game up a bit more. We are just so excited to show what we are capable of.
Do you expect to see any increase in league attendance numbers now that the Women’s World Cup has dominated the summer and peaked an interest in the women’s game?
Yeah, I think we’ll get good attendance off the back of the World Cup. Everyone I’ve spoken to – dads, brothers – were all saying how much they enjoyed watching not just England but every game of the tournament.
The quality of the football was great and I think that – for the Super League and women’s football as a whole – it will be exciting because more people will watch more games. With our opening game being the first female Manchester derby, I think people will also want to see what it’s all about. Hopefully we can bring all the excitement of the World Cup into the league, people will enjoy the first few games, and it will make them want to come back all the time.
What kind of television, films, and music do you enjoy off the pitch?
I love stuff like ‘Love Island’ and ‘The Only Way is Essex’! Actually, my favourite type of programmes – which no one usually puts me down for – are those ambulance programmes, so like ‘Ambulance’ and ’24 Hours in A&E.’ I watch all of those.
In terms of music, I just love going to festivals. Any festivals that I can get to, I will go to! I’m more of a House person – I love that type of music. I’ve done festivals like Parklife, Bestival, Creamfields. Luckily, most festivals are on during summer when we’re off season and that works out great.
What does ace mental health mean for you?
Ace mental health for me means being both physically and mentally healthy.
There’s no point in your body being healthy if your mind isn’t healthy too, because you won’t be in the right place.
What are your personal goals going into the new season?
I think my goal is just to secure a starting eleven place and perform consistently throughout the season. I want to always be improving and never be going backwards. Always on the up.
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