Ep. 51 - Fran Clarkson, England Lionesses' Physio
Ep. 51 - Fran Clarkson, England Lionesses' Physio

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Fran Clarkson is the Women's Pathway Lead Physiotherapist at the English Football Association, and recently stepped in as the interim Lead Physio for the England Lionesses.

She's an experienced practitioner in elite sport having worked with Derbyshire County Cricket Club, Trent Rockets, and the English Institute of Sport before moving to England Football.

Join Danno as he chats to Fran about her career so far, and how her faith impacts her work alongside the world's best players.

0:00 What does it mean to have your sport, work and faith connect?
1:25 Making the jump from elite cricket to professional football
5:29 Starting out as a physio in professional sport at Derbyshire Cricket
7:46 Learning to integrate faith and work in elite sport
10:04 Caring for world class players beyond on-field performance
12:04 Working with England Women's senior team for the first time
13:32 How did you first connect sport and faith as a young person?
16:56 Is your faith respected at work?
18:38 What is the importance of church for you?
22:26 What are the challenges of living as a Christian in your role?
25:32 Reflections on the privilege of working in elite sport as a Christian


Graham Daniels - Fran Clarkson - Derbyshire County Cricket Club Lead Physio Trend Rockets Women's physio in the hundred, recently appointed women's Pathway physiotherapy lead at the FA. But as we meet today, very, very recently, just appointed interim senior women's lead physio. Fran, welcome to the Christians in Sport Podcast.

Fran Clarkson - Thank you.

Graham Daniels - What does it mean for you to have your sport, work, and faith connected to play or to physio connected? That's always our starting question. What does that mean to you?

Fran Clarkson - I think what it means has looked a bit different over time 'cause I sort of grew up and played sport and that's probably when I first, you know, became a Christian and also through the support and work of Christians in sport was able to bring faith and sport together and I thought they were very separate. And so what that sort of means for me now is recognizing that every moment of every day, you know, I am living, I'm serving Jesus in the work that I do, in how I am, in how I conduct myself. And recognizing that he's given me very specific ability and desire and love for sport. Also a love for the career that I now work in, being a physio and so I can just bring all that together day to day in what I'm doing.

Graham Daniels - Good, so it's a great answer of course. And now into the specifics, that's a change, right? You've come here, it's a jump. You've gone from county cricket for quite a few years from county cricket to professional football. How did that happen?

Fran Clarkson - Yeah, I mean when people have asked me about the change in role, you know, there's, I've sort of said back to them, it's a change on many levels. So it's from professional male sport to professional women's sport, from adult to adolescent, from football to cricket. So yeah, like quite a lot of changes and my sport sort of growing up as well was more so cricket, did play a bit of football. But coming into the role here and getting the role as the Pathway leaders I did at the beginning of the year, I just saw it as an opportunity to continue to develop in the role that I have, my physiotherapy skills in elite sport and also be reminded that I really do enjoy like the Pathway, the talent Pathway, adolescent side of the work that you can do as a physio, you know, more developmental and sort of helping guide players on a bit of an earlier part of their journey. So yeah, quite different in a lot of ways, but really exciting role that I've been in now since the beginning of the year.

Graham Daniels - How tricky a decision was that because as you've just intimated, having spent quite a long time working with adult males and their sort of physical development is never quite complete, but it is pretty much on its way, in all levels you've changed niche here. Was it a tricky decision or was it an, what we might call a no brainer because of the nature of the job?

Fran Clarkson - I'd say both. I'd say there was definite tricky aspects to the decision and as with with any sort of decisions, you know, what I try and do in life in general, whether it's a big decision, a small decision because of my faith and trusting that God is in control of it all, he knows me, he knows, you know, the plan and purpose he has for me was when I, it felt like perhaps my time at Derbyshire was coming to an end. I was very settled in Derby, the city itself, friends, church, so didn't really feel I wanted to look too far away from Derby. This role comes up 25 minutes down the road, did seem like a big change but also great opportunity. So yeah, I was just, you know, just quite willing to say, Lord, if it is something that you have for me, it's the right thing to do. In fact, a friend said to me just yesterday, they were like, well at the end of the day a body's just a body, isn't it? And to some degree it is, but then there are obviously differences in male, female and age of athlete and things. So on one level it's just moving to another physio job but on a whole nother level it's much bigger in many facets of, you know, the organization being at the FA. So yeah, just felt a real peace, it was right to go for it and applied and interviewed and was offered the role, so yeah.

Graham Daniels - I mean when you do drive into St George's Park, it is a pretty remarkable setup, isn't it? And you see the investment that there is in professional football. Is that quite an eye-opener?

Fran Clarkson - Yeah, definitely. I'd only visited this site once before as an external sort of visitor and yeah, the first few times I was driving in here at the beginning of the year and I will definitely continue to try and keep this, to not take it for granted. Like I rethought again, seeing it through the eyes of you guys coming in, you know, as sort of visitors it, I don't take for granted, you know, just what a privilege it is to work for such a leading, you know, sport governing body and with the FA yeah, just, I sort of feel really proud and privileged that I have been able to come and be a part of this organization and what they sort of stand for and how they're trying to develop the game as a whole. And then obviously particularly in sort of the women's side, which we know very recently has sort of boomed and exploded and yeah.

Graham Daniels - Let me just before we come onto the women's side and the two roles are the role you're about to begin as well now at this point in the year after coming here earlier in the year. Just take us back for a moment then in terms of your faith, your Christian perspective and your work at Derbyshire in cricket, how do they tie together, how is that in the changing room? How is that with the staff? What are the perceptions of faith engaged in sport did you learn?

Fran Clarkson - So the role at Derbyshire was my first full-time role in professional sports, so that role in a sense was quite a big, I guess landmark if you like, on my progression as a physio. So yeah, there was a lot to just take on board and consider and certainly at the time, so of the 18 counties there was only one other county that had a lead female physio. Derbyshire itself had a female physios in the past, but, so I guess I just had to consider, you know, it's a new role. I'm new into elite sport full time and yeah, it was just being sensitive to recognizing that ultimately you're being employed for the skill set that you bring technically, so your skills as a physiotherapist, what that means in terms of looking after the squad, the players, but also as with any other role as well, you're also bringing who you are as a person, how you interact with players and staff and yeah, the whole time through my sort of experience in five years there, I think it was, if not six, funnily enough, you know, the male, female, it was never really an issue. They were a really respectful group of staff and players and I almost really never really noticed it like having played sport, you're used to the banter maybe not being so used to the male banter of a dressing room playing female sport, but again, you know, they were great. Sometimes they'd be the usual like, oh, can't say that, Fran's in here, but you know, they were great, great group of guys who were always very respectful, you know, saw me as the professional sort of physiotherapist that I am and yeah, you know, just built really good relationships with them and the varying sort of staff teams over the years.

Graham Daniels - Now that you've segued into women's professional football game then looking back on your five or six years at Derby, what did you learn about the integration of your fundamental worldview, almost your Christian faith and its integration into elite sport? What were the lessons that you gained from that period?

Fran Clarkson - I think if you like being at the, in my role working in elite sport in the cricket and being at what you might call the sharper end of elite sport, winning, losing, a lot resting on that, being part of the team, back room team, but equally having a direct, indirect influence on what happens with team results. I think certainly one thing that it helped for me perhaps personally and internally, I think the faith that I have in first and foremost that I know my identity is in Jesus Christ and what he's done for me. And by that I mean you know, I don't need to worry about performance or ability 'cause I know that I am fully accepted by him. And so in relation to that and then performance and what happened with the squad and the backroom staff, internally, I felt that I could potentially stay quite level, of course be disappointed, one particularly stands out when we made finals day for the first time in the club's history and then lost the semifinal. You know, of course there's disappointment, you love the sport, you love the players and the team and all the work that's gone into it but equally to be able to reflect and know for myself deep down, although not a player, know that the result wasn't everything, you know, And I think for me being able to have a sort of a foundation like that, knowing that my skills and ability are not what define me, I think then hopefully what that helps me bring as a person in both the staff and the player team is hopefully bring that kind of sort of level and central yeah, emphasis and feeling and therefore be able to have, you know, sort of quite considered and sort of rational discussions, you know, down the line when there's reviews and that kind of thing.

Graham Daniels - You certainly, you've engaged with elite sport both in cricket and in the women's professional football game now at a time when mental wellbeing, holistic care is absolutely pivotal to the thinking. And as we think about what's going on here with the England setup and the elite player performance plan, it's concern for the holistic welfare of young players, particularly is at the heart of the English Football Association. Have you noticed in your nine months or so here, have you noticed an emphasis on that wider care than just putting your shirt on and playing?

Fran Clarkson - Yeah, I would definitely say that I have, and I've really enjoyed so far my sort of integration working with, so although I look after the Pathway sort of group and practitioners, I was predominantly, I've been with like the eighteens and nineteens and I've had a real sense from the beginning from the staff team, the coaching team and the other practitioners within that team, there is a real obvious and genuine concern and care for the welfare of the players. So we work off long list of players that coaches are looking at and who could come into the squad and you know, and who might get selected for various camps and things. So as with any sport, you're gonna have players that particularly are being looked at as maybe stronger or more potential or maybe it's still to develop. But what I've been really conscious of is, yes, at this age group or the age groups you want to have success, you are playing to win, but it definitely doesn't appear that it's at all costs. And I, from work colleagues and and friends here at work, you know, I do get a a real sense that there is genuine concern for all players wherever they might sit in a squad and there's a real sort of desire to ensure that we're investing as much as we can in in each player, you know, whether that's on camp or or off camp when they're back at clubs and clubs are doing the same. And it's definitely developing I think and the, you know, just the way that the women's game has progressed, that kind of support hopefully then becomes more the norm as you go, you know, lower down through sort of club systems and academies and things like that.

Graham Daniels - Yeah, that's very encouraging to hear and it certainly seems to be the hallmark of what's going on in the Football Association of these last, certainly this last decade. As you've been here now around a nine month period, it, was it a surprise to be asked to step in initially just to go with the senior women's team just a month or two ago when they went overseas to play? You're invited to join them for that. Tell us the story behind that.

Fran Clarkson - Yeah, so as again, you know, in many organizations you have sort of, I'm trying to think of the word now, but you have sort of a backup or a contingency plan if staff are not available or things need to be shifted around. And it happened that, yeah, two camps ago when they were finishing off their World Cup qualification games, I was just asked to come and take the place of a physio that couldn't cover that camp a little bit often it's done on, you know, in a sense as Pathway lead, I sort of sit as the next, I suppose like cab off the rank really.

Graham Daniels - Yeah.

Fran Clarkson - You know, but I, you know, I'm was genuinely, yeah, really pleased that they considered that they wanted me to come in and help and just support the other two sort of physiotherapists who already work with that squad. So yeah, that was a great opportunity, yeah, a couple of months ago.

Graham Daniels - And of course much of that work is, doesn't come out in a podcast because that's a professional aspect of your life that you deal with in the room. But I think it's okay for me to ask you, I've asked you about the continuity and the development of younger players through the England Pathway and the way there's a holistic desire to care for them. I'm assuming though it's, you've just been once and you're going again now, so you are now interim interim responsibility for the senior team, in your early observances, do you see a high degree of that continuity?

Fran Clarkson - Yeah, you know, I definitely do and that's also hopefully gonna be another benefit of this next few months in this role is the things that I hopefully, you know, experience now for a longer period of time. The ways the team, sort of the staff team work and things that I see within that environment is only gonna benefit as I go back to Pathway or you know, speak to Pathway colleagues through this period of time so that we can ensure, you know, that as we support and develop those players at the younger age groups, we've got that much closer awareness and we've sort of seen the inner workings of what are we expecting of our senior lionesses and how do we help and support these younger players through. And a really good example of that was another colleague had to step in during the Euros to cover for a bit of illness. She's one of our physical performance coaches and what I thought was really great for her was, so she's worked at the FA for a few years now and it just so happens, you know, that three or four of the current senior squad were players that she'd worked with down in the Pathway, you know, so I think for her to experience, you know, just I suppose probably some pride and just real, yeah, a great encouragement of work that's been done. Obviously not just here, they're with their clubs, but yeah, just to see just the working through of some of those players who have gone on to and currently are senior lionesses I think that was great and that's what we're hoping, you know, to try and encourage more of is how do we support these young athletes to, in all facets, to become those senior lionesses.

Graham Daniels - Fran you're giving us a tremendous insight into the life of an elite level physiotherapist. I wanna take you back now to where we started this interview and you talked about your own integration of faith and sport as a younger person when you were playing cricket, really that's when that was. Give us a snapshot of that story from inside out, what was going on there in those days?

Fran Clarkson - Yeah, so I was, you know, very fortunate to grow up in a Christian home so I would've always gone to church. So always had an awareness of the Bible, going to church, you know, stories and sort of understanding those kind of things and also played sport from a young age. So played cricket, played women's cricket, played sort of growing up age groups at Yorkshire, went to uni, moved to Birmingham, played for Warwickshire. But prior to sort of uni years, I sort of reached a real crunch point where I hadn't yet sort of committed personally to follow Jesus and everything that he represents and offers me, I hadn't made that commitment because I felt like sports and faith were separate. I felt that I loved my sport particularly as well growing up, it was very often on Sundays. So I had this sort of, almost this in my mind and obvious, well if you are playing sport on a Sunday, you're not going to church. So that means you're not a Christian, with a sort of wrong understanding at that point of what being a Christian was, I thought you go to church. But then through involvement with Christians in sport, hearing some of the, you know, the talks and the explanation of just who Jesus is, what he'd done for me. And the fact that this word that we use quite a lot, you know, in Christian circles, worship, the fact that, you know, I understood for the first time probably in my later teenage years, that actually it's not just that going to church and singing hymns or reading my Bible, that that's what makes me a Christian or that's the only way of worship. But to understand that when you see Jesus for who he is, for what he's done for you in dying on the cross in my place and offering me life to the full, my worship back to him is my whole life. It's everything I do, it's everything I think, it's not just church on a Sunday. And that opened up a real like thankfulness in me because I almost felt like God was being a spoiled sport saying like, I'll give you this desire for sport, I'll give you some talent, you know, yet you can't do that because it's gonna take you away from church and Christian activities. And actually to have that just made so plainly clear that God created me, he didn't make a mistake, you know, I am who I am and he knows me and he knows my desires and the things that I love to do. And that was just an amazing, yeah, moment to realize that actually it's everything. So in everything I do, whether I am in church, singing his praises, you know, meeting with friends or and hearing his word or you know, I was out on the pitch playing my heart out, being alongside teammates, you know, there's no difference in his eyes if you're doing it for him and in sort of thankfulness to what he's given you.

Graham Daniels - Do you find your faith's been respected? Because inevitably you end up in conversations like that natural intuitive, talking about each other's lives, private lives. Is there a respect, is it unexpected when people find out you have a faith? Give us a couple of examples. You don't need to name people of course, but it's really lovely hearing of mutual respect in conversations about how you view life.

Fran Clarkson - Yeah, no, I've, you know, so far I've had nothing but respect, which is great. And yeah, it was interesting. One conversation I do remember with a colleague earlier on this year, I think it was a cold evening here in February or March, raining, we were on a training camp, we were just watching pitch side as the players were training and I can't remember how it came about, but in the conversation there was opportunity, I think it was like, "Oh are you religious or spiritual or this, that, the other?" And I said, yes, I'm a Christian. And there was maybe a little bit of surprise but almost more a response as to like, ah, you know, that must, I talked about the fact to go try and go to church on the weekends, every weekend unless I'm working and I'm not able to be there. And sort of a recognition actually from my friend to be like, that must feel like a, in her words, a really nice sort of reset for the week. So she had from her own experience, just an understanding of, you know, that by going there and meeting with other people, sort of, that was her sort of trying to understand what it must feel like to have a faith from that point of view. So yeah, it was great.

Graham Daniels - Well hold on there, that's really interesting. I suspect to many people listening to us now, I've never thought of it as the reset, but when your life is consumed by sport, you really have gotta be on it all the time. Sleep, diet, rest, performance, train. There's so little chance to actually go outside that bubble. Your family, but anything else

Fran Clarkson - Yeah.

Graham Daniels - With people who aren't engaged in your family life or your sports life, where does anyone go to have different experiences of time.

Fran Clarkson - Yeah.

Graham Daniels - So pin that down a bit more, than church.

Fran Clarkson - Yeah.

Graham Daniels - We say church. Tell us about that community and why it's helpful to you as a human being.

Fran Clarkson - Do you know, it's funny 'cause it also opened my eyes to be like, when she said it, I was like, oh yeah, it is actually, it massively is. And yeah, so going to church, I go to a church in Derby and it genuinely feels like they are my extended family. Now that's not to say well like in family, you don't always get on with everybody, do you? But you know, when I walk through the doors there and you've got from babies up to 80, 90 year old people. But because we all have a united love for Jesus, a united just gratitude for you know, what he has given us in giving us that new life, you have that just the deepest connection that you could ever really have with another human being. And then on top of that, in that church environment on a Sunday you meet, you sing you know, sometimes people will say, won't they like singing at a football match? You're singing for your team, you're worshiping, your praising because it, there's something that means so much to you. On a Sunday morning, you know, the words that you're singing are just thankfulness to God for who he is and what he's done for you in Jesus. So there's that and you're doing it with others around you. And then you know, someone from the front will just speak from a passage or a section or verses from the Bible, which is Christians we believe is God's words and it's alive and it's him speaking to us today. So what that will generally do on a Sunday, it does remind me to potentially lift my eyes up and knock down in the, you know, I've been in work all week and perhaps the different challenges and things that are going on or maybe challenges in private life and just things that can be all consuming in, on many levels and it just reminds me, it is a bit of a reset of, you know, God is my creator, he's made me and he's saved me. And yes, that might not change certain scenarios if they're difficult scenarios or what have you, but it just reminds me and brings me back to focus on just the joy that it is to know that I am a child of God, that regardless of what happens in life that doesn't change, that is certain and secure and that I have a hope of eternal life, you know, which can't fail to sort of bring you back to a central, just thankfulness and a humility saying, you know, thank you that you have done that, that you've saved me and my life now is free to live for him and then you've got that community around you that if things are difficult, you know, if life is a bit tough, there's definitely just great friends and people that walk alongside you and are there for you and yeah, it's great.

Graham Daniels - So we've talked, Fran, at length really about your own faith, your professional development, your passion for the job and your confidence that God who made you has put you in this skill set. What are the challenges then, are the real challenges of having a faith in this elite environment? Or what have you learned so far about that challenge?

Fran Clarkson - I think probably one of the challenges, and I don't know if it's specifically faith related necessarily, but it certainly, the difficult sort of scenario that I'll describe definitely comes back to the sort of foundations of my faith and therefore how I would want to act in certain circumstances. So as physio, you are obviously a medical professional, you're looking after players, you are also not just player facing, you're also coach facing and other wider staff. And you can often be seen a bit differently by the players. They might sort of chat to you a little bit more or a little bit more openly and then you're trying to give them sort of information from yourself on a professional level. You also are then expected to give sort of reports back to the wider staff. You've also got, just generally in any medical sort of profession, you are also bound, you know, legally by confidentiality. So there's lots of different layers of being wise in the information that you can share wise in the information of how you share what you can. I think, so probably it's bringing those kind of aspects together, it's being able to show integrity, trustworthiness and this is both ways that, you know, a coach knows that you are going to give them the information that they need that's gonna help them make an informed decision for the player in the squad. But that players are also aware that, you know, they can trust you in the information that will be shared. It can be quite difficult. And players are different in the relationship, that you have with them. Again, that's just, just life in general. Some might share more with you, some might not, but I'd say one of the underlying things, which is a bit of a cliche, but certainly something that I've heard people say before in terms of building the, perhaps most of the player relationship is that nobody cares how much you know as a professional until they know that you care. So I think that's always a, yeah, it can be a challenge because you certainly want to be supporting them, fulfilling your role, giving them everything they need to recover from any injury or illness and then just make sure that they know that any conversations you sort of have with wider staff team, are the things sort of need to be known and will benefit all in that kind of sense.

Graham Daniels - We started out by asking you what does it mean for your sport work and faith to be connected. If you were writing a letter to young Fran Clarkson when she was in a first day training to be a physio, what would you be saying with the life experience you've had so far about the privilege of the job as a Christian person?

Fran Clarkson - I think I probably would come back to the side of things that is more about character and who you are as a person. I think starting out doing my studies and going through my early career as a physio, I very much thought, you know, to get to wherever that end goal might be, it's all about going on all these courses, having the latest, you know, treatment skill, knowing all the different journals and was very much focused on like, you know, my ability or my technical skills. And of course they are significantly important. You have to be able to assess and treat and work those things out. But more so as the years have gone on, it's become much more apparent that actually again, just going back to what I just said, they won't care what you know in terms of physio knowledge, the latest gadget for rehab until they know that you care. And I think that's just been such an important part of all my work, you know, from NHS through to elite sport and it is a privilege to be in a profession that is a caring profession. So I think it's building those relationships, it's showing people that I work with and of course I don't get it right all the time, but that I, you know, I have that integrity and honesty and sort of openness and that I have a genuine desire sort of why I do the work that I do, I want to be able to, you know, help them to improve performance through using the skills that I have when they're injured, ill, and that that really is, you know, what motivates me in the work that I do.

Graham Daniels - Frank Clarkson, thank you very much indeed.

Fran Clarkson - You're welcome.

Graham Daniels - Pleasure.

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