When in Barcelona: What I learned at the Sports Tomorrow Congress

Caroline Graham hansen attended Sports Tomorrow Congress at Camp Nou November 8th. Photo credit: Mia eriksson

There’s a lot going on within women’s football at the moment, we can all agree on that. When you’re at a game in any sort of capacity, you can just feel the spark. Recently, I had the honour of attending the Sports Tomorrow Congress. This was arranged by Barca Innovation Hub, a part of FC Barcelona.

One week completely dedicated to women’s sport. Obviously a lot of attention is being paid to women’s football, looking at where the congress took place. Camp Nou, Barcelona men’s home ground, hosted the event.

Sports Tomorrow Congress was a learning experience

Let me just tell you why I was there in the first place to get this story right from the start. During 2021, I took a course in Football Analysis. This was to gain better knowledge about the game and to become a better storyteller as a writer, photographer, and podcaster. 

While on the course, I was contacted by Matilda Thomas, who runs the BarcaInnovationHub’s social media channel, for an interview about what it was like to be a student with them. 

After a great talk, she suggested I come over and be one of their panelists at the Sports Tomorrow Congress in November. I said yes, maybe not entirely sure of what I had said yes to in the first place.

The congress included different tracks — business, medicine and physiotherapy, coaches, analytics, nutrition and performance, gastro sport, and technology.  The panel was about grassroots women’s football. The other participant was Maram Albutairi, a big profile within the women’s game in Saudi Arabia. She had played football herself and is now a coach, striving to develop the possibilities and conditions for girls and women to play football in Saudi Arabia.

It was a great learning experience for me. I took many things from the whole experience and I’ll just touch a few of them.

Women’s football to be mainstream by 2030

On the first morning of the congress, there was a lot of talk about how the women’s game will become a mainstream sport by 2030. This would surpass second division men’s sports in Europe, and only superseded by big name men’s football teams. This was said by the first panelist of the day, Ebru Koksal, non-executive director of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA). The PFA bring together footballers from the Premier League, the FA Women’s Super League and other English football leagues.

Markel Zubizarreta, FC Barcelona’s sporting director then spoke about their strategy. While talking about the evolution of the women’s football transfer market, he said “At FC Barcelona we prefer a core of homegrown players on the women’s team, or foreign players that stay with us long-term.”

He also mentioned that, a couple of years back, players like Ingrid Engen and Fridolina Rolfö wouldn’t have signed for them for the reasons they had done today. Now, they came here because of the football Barcelona play, not just for the club’s name and brand. 

How the transfer system is getting closer to the men’s

The session highlighted the differences between women’s football in Spain and Italy, and the need for all leagues to have the same regulations in order to compete on equal terms. Zubizarreta explained how the transfer system is getting closer to that of men’s football. This is shown in the player registration process, which is much more streamlined than in the past. Also, increasingly more common is the presence of professional agents for young female players.

I mean, we can talk about the way Barcelona have developed the women’s game forever. They are really shining right now and for anyone following the women’s game in depth or just lightly at the moment, we haven’t missed their great work. This tweet below really picks the right question to ask; What’s next?

Caroline Graham Hansen speaks on sports recovery

I could go on and on about what the experience at Sports Tomorrow Congress meant. However, one speaker I had been looking forward to was Caroline Graham Hansen at the medicine and physiotherapy track. Graham Hansen took us through the story of her career, from her beginnings in the football world to becoming a professional. She also addressed issues such as the importance of mental aspects in a recovery process, feeling safe and the significance of learning and understanding this process. She also discussed the need for more information about how the woman’s body works in order to be able to take care of herself and perform at the highest level.

“I grew up in a boy’s environment,” she said. “And for these reasons, I had a good amount of people around me that knew how to take care of young athletes. How to tell us what to do and make sure that we had everything we needed in terms of preventing injuries at a young age.

“I have had my injuries on the way, I think every footballer has,” Graham Hansen continued. “Very few of us go through a career without having any injuries at all. These are also experiences I’m somewhat grateful to have had because you learn a lot from them, even though it’s super hard at the time. It’s an insight on how to treat your body well. How to understand how your body works and how to optimize your recovery when you come back to the pitch.”

The mental part of sports recovery

Graham Hansen was then asked about what components she thought were the most important to think about to recover from an injury. And the answer was crystal clear.

“The mental part of it. That you feel safe, that you feel valued and seen. Because, often you are left alone to deal with the injury by yourself. Even if you have a team of physios around you at the time, you miss having the football team around you every day. That was the hardest thing for me not to have around.”

The time of the congress was when Graham Hansen was reported to have had cardiac health problems and had to undergo examinations for a heart condition. Therefore, it was great to see her appear on the stage; not just for talking about health issues in general. She shared her experiences from the early stages of her career and also talked about how she was as a person through tougher times.

“I’m a curious person in general. I tend to read a lot about what I have to understand how it’s going. I think it’s an individual part of the recovery process. Some just do what they are told and believe that’s enough, but then there’s me. The type of person that wants to understand why I do it in terms of, for example, the exercises I’m told to do during the recovery process.”

The female body and athleticism

Another thing that was extremely interesting was when Graham Hansen was asked about the menstrual cycle, and how that could affect the female body as an athlete.

“I think that there is a lot about the female body that we don’t know yet. Most of the studies have been done on men that are pro athletes regarding injuries. Our bodies are different, especially with our periods. I personally experience that my body doesn’t work at all, so it would be nice to actually have more information and more studies to prove and show why it doesn’t work, and what you can do during these periods to get your body to perform and work the way you want it.”

Following the Sports Tomorrow Congress, it was understood that Graham Hansen would be able to return to the training pitch after having a small surgery on her heart. 

I was grateful to have been able to listen to one of the world’s best players up close during a time of uncertainty for us that probably did not know as much about what she went through as herself. Hopefully we can enjoy her great footwork, her excellent ball control and dribblings for a long time ahead again!