In recognition of International Women’s Day, we shine the spotlight on Paula Timpson, a Senior Physiotherapist here at London Irish.
Paula has been at the Club for six years, joining initially in January 2017, and has had a fantastic career to date. Paula has become an integral part of the medical team here at Hazelwood, with her role developing a lot since her arrival in Sunbury-on-Thames.
“When I first joined, my role was a bit more focused on working with the Academy. In that time, much like some of the players in our senior team now, I have progressed through the age groups and now work predominately with the first team.
“We manage the Academy and first team players in a similar way, so from a medical standpoint, there isn’t a distinct cut off between departments. I have quite a varied role that can include working with guys that have long term injuries and managing players on a day-to-day basis.”
Paula has a vast amount of experience in sport, with her career pathway taking her on a unique direction to end up here at London Irish, including an intense first involvement in rugby, as she went on to explain.
“I qualified in 2010 after training in Glasgow and went on to work in the NHS for 18 months. While working for the NHS, I also did weekend work in amateur rugby. In my first time covering a rugby match, someone broke their neck! I was really lucky at the time to be working alongside the Glasgow Warriors Team Doctor at the time. If I’m honest, I had no idea what I was doing, but he helped manage the situation. I was new graduate and hadn’t seen anything like that before! Luckily it didn’t put me off working in rugby, but it was a baptism of fire!"
From there, Paula took her first step into the elite sport environment, working with future Olympic medallists in the lead up to the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
“I went to work for the Scottish Institute of Sport and in private practice in Stirling. I worked with the multi-sport athletes in the lead up to the Commonwealth Games in 2014. I got the chance to work with swimmers like Duncan Scott and Ross Murdoch who have gone on to win Olympic medals.
“It was a completely different experience to working in a team sport, but it was brilliant. I worked with the curling team that have gone on to win gold at the Olympics as well. That was a role based in Stirling at the university, so I split my role between doing a few days with the athletes and a few days in private practice. That was my first insight into professional sport.
“From there, I did a ski season for a bit of a ‘time out’, but I still helped with skiing injuries and sports massage. When I came back, I started working at the Glasgow Warriors Academy, along with Derrick Spiers who is part of the S&C team here at Irish now. I also started doing my Sports Physio masters at Bath University, so I did distance learning over the course of three years.
“I then took the opportunity to come down to London Irish to work with a different team. Brian O’Leary (Head of Performance) had a really good reputation and I wanted to come and learn. I also wanted to come and try an environment that was a bit more integrated that maybe it was at Glasgow. I finished my masters alongside working at Irish and I’ve been here ever since!”
Starting her career in the NHS was a great starting point for Paula’s career and, on reflection, she discussed why she thinks she ended up working in elite sport.
“I loved working for the NHS. It’s rewarding in a different way because small things can make a big difference to someone’s life. But for me, I am a very sporty and a competitive person. My career trajectory was always likely to be down the professional sport route because I knew that was always something that I wanted to do. It is hard to just go straight into professional sport straight from your undergraduate qualification, so I had to gain experience.
“There was a lot of weekend work on top of your day-to-day job to gain that experience, and I’m just lucky that I’ve been mentored by some really great people. They gave me the chance to gain the practical experience to go along with my qualifications. In rugby, there are such a variety of injuries that you can come across. So, there is always something different happening! I think a lot of people presume that the pitch side stuff that people see is the main aspect of my role, but it’s such a small part of it. The stuff we get on with back at Hazelwood, the programming, sport science, integration of Strength & Conditioning, the planning, and the management to get the guys ready for the weekend is such a big part of our role. Traditionally, I think what we do as a department is probably very different to what people see and think.”
The passion from Paula is clear to see when it comes to her career. Paula and the other members of the medical team play a crucial part in the running of the Club, and while that could be seen as a pressure-orientated department, Paula embraces the challenges.
“The players put a huge amount of trust in us as a medical team and I really respect that. They trust us to look after their bodies, which is their career and how they make their living. My motivation is to get them back on the pitch as quickly and as safely as possible.
“It’s exciting to be a part of someone’s journey back to full fitness. You might get a player who has had to have surgery and can’t walk, which seems like such a large jump to get them back to the level that they were at or even above what they used to be. It can be daunting and can be an arduous phycological process for the players. That’s then part of our job to give them clear goals to reach and work with them to reach them.
“We also provide, as well as the medical support, the motivation to keep going. Everyone’s favourite question is ‘when can I get back running again?’, and our job is to get them to that stage, but in a timely and safe manner. We also manage the integration back into training to make sure that we reduce the risk of re-injuring themselves. We have to make sure that we tick all the boxes and make sure that they are actually ready to return safely. We want to get these players back to a performance level, not just back to a functioning level.”
Paula plays a part in most of the London Irish players journeys to getting on the pitch in the green journey, and that’s what resonates with her the most.
“It’s massive to play a part in the journey, it’s the reason that I do the job and it’s what motivates me. You're part of a journey for someone to achieve their goals. That can be different goals, like coming through the Academy to make their first team debut.
“Watching Tarek Haffar make his debut was a huge moment for me. I’ve been a small part, but still a part, of his process and progress through the Club. Then you have goals for more established players like Henry Arundell returning from injury to be ready for international rugby. It’s incredible, and it gives you the reason as to why I’m doing my job.
“Because I’ve been involved in the Academy and senior setup, I’ve seen their journey as people, not just players. These players might feel miles away from making their debuts, but we know that every little step takes them that bit closer, and I’ve been lucky enough to see that up close and personal. My main motivation is helping the players to give them the opportunity to realise their dream.”
Anyone within the Club knows that Paula has a strong friendship with another member of the medical team. Gaby Halloran, Academy Physiotherapist, and Paula have worked closely for many years and the latter jumped at the chance to explain why she has so much respect for her colleague.
“Gaby started at the Club six months after me, and when she joined, I was the only female in the rugby staff. Since then, we’ve become very close friends. I really respect her as a physio, her knowledge and her expertise add so much to our team.
“We are very lucky to have someone who is as capable and great as Gabby.”
At the time of this interview, the Club sits fifth in the Gallagher Premiership, with play-off places up for grabs, and just over a week away from another Premiership Rugby Cup final. Paula has worked for the Club in the Greene King IPA Championship, so is delighted to now see the Club fighting for honours in the top tier of English rugby.
“It’s so great to know that, for all the players and staff who are such great people, there has been so much hard work that has gone into getting the Club to this point.
“To see the Academy players coming through, playing their part, and getting the results that they deserve is fantastic. It’s so lovely for the people that have been at the Club for a while to be getting the results that we are getting.”
(Credit: Peter Tarry/The Times)
For Paula, International Women’s Day is important for many reasons, as she alluded to.
“I work in a job that can be prominently male dominated. For example, at matches, the support staff and officials can often be all males. So, I think it is important to shine the spotlight on females that work in elite sports, especially in men’s sport.
“There are examples now, through referees and other female physios, and I think that is great. It’s important to highlight them to show the next generation that it is possible and that there are places available for them.”
To finish off the interview, Paula was tasked with coming up with a female role model that she has come across during her career in sport. Although she has come across some fantastic female role models, one stood out.
“One person that sticks out to me is Jade Konkel-Roberts, I was her physio in the Glasgow Warriors Academy. She was the first female rugby player in Scotland to receive a professional contract with the Scottish Rugby Union.
“She’s a brilliant person first and foremost, but her work ethic, determination, and effort that she had to put in to even be considered for a professional contract was just amazing. She set the path for other women to do the same, and I know how much it meant to her.
“She worked part-time in a nursing home at the time and had to go the extra mile to get the same contract that the male athletes had. It was a big step in the right direction for Scottish Rugby and it was down to her. She now has 50 caps for Scotland and plays for Harlequins, so she’s gone on to have a very successful career and be a massive inspiration to the next generation of female rugby players.”