Lucy Rushton admits there was a time when she probably didn’t think a career in performance analysis was an achievable dream.
But that certainly didn’t stop her from taking on the challenge of trying to prove herself within the traditionally male-dominated football industry.
“It was always the case for me that I would be applying for these kinds of roles. I was confident in my ability in the field and was excited about having the opportunity to use it to help a team,” Rushton said. “Football was my life. I knew my knowledge and passion for the game would stand me in good stead.”
Rushton’s love for the game and confidence in her abilities have been pivotal in reaching her once-unlikely goal and also in securing several analyst roles during what has become a decorated football career. Now the head of technical recruitment and analysis for 2018 MLS Cup champion Atlanta United, she’s the second standout we’re honouring during our series on women in sport to celebrate Women’s History Month.
“I’ve never felt like being a woman has hindered my progress in the field, or denied me opportunities,” Rushton said. “I maybe feel like I have to do a little bit more than maybe a male does to ‘prove myself’ and gain that trust and respect, but I’ve always seen that as a positive challenge.”
Rushton, who has a master’s degree in Sports Performance Analysis at the University of Wales Institute, built the foundation for her career ascension during an early stint as a part-time team analyst for England FA and a player recruitment analyst at Watford FC.
She then joined Reading FC in 2008, serving mostly as a first-team analyst over her almost eight-year tenure. It was there she experienced what she called the ‘ultimate highlight’ of her career, winning the ’11-12 English Championship season after the team had fallen in the play-off final a year earlier.
“It’s probably one of the most gruelling leagues in the world in terms of schedule, playing style, the sheer competitiveness of it and the types of places and conditions you play in,” Rushton said. “To win that league after four years of trying and the heartbreak of losing a play-off final was just incredible.
“It was more a feeling of relief at first, like a massive weight had been lifted. Then it hits you that you’ll be playing in the Premier League and against some of the best teams in the world. I think that’s the pinnacle for any professional in the game.”
Rushton continued to help turn clubs into winners in January of 2016 when she joined Atlanta United a year before their inaugural season and played a key role in the building and development of the club’s championship roster from the ground up. She explains the complexity of her role in two parts – both a subjective analysis of players and a more analytics-focused approach that consists of pouring over data in Opta’s platforms.
In part due to her work, Atlanta qualified for the MLS playoffs in its first year, becoming the third MLS expansion club to qualify for the playoffs. Further success came in 2018 as Atlanta set league attendance records and broke through to win the MLS Cup in only its second season.
“To achieve that in only our second year of existence as a team was special,” Rushton reflected. “I was always very proud of the team that had been put together and the part I’d played in that, but to go on and win a trophy just made it complete.”
When reflecting upon her role in sport, Rushton has noticed a change in perception when it comes to women seeking opportunities. She’s both encouraged by the number of women involved or employed professionally within the clubs and external fields, and believes it’s a trend that’s going to continue in a positive direction.
“Everywhere you look, there are examples of more women being actively engaged in the game – female commentators, female presenters/pundits, female columnists and sportswriters,” she added. “Ultimately this is only going to continue to make the presence of women in the game seem less obscure, and in doing so, encourage more women into the game.”
Rushton actively encourages women interested in a career in sports analysis to follow their dreams and believe in their knowledge, expertise and be confident when looking to pursue new opportunities. She also emphasises the importance of engaging with positive stories that are publicised in the media instead of the few examples of gender inequality in the game.
“Believe in yourself. Believe in your knowledge and expertise and be confident in pursuing opportunities,” Rushton said. “(Don’t) be put off by the actually very few negative examples of gender inequality in the game. These will also be publicised but are actually very rare. There are plenty more positive stories and examples to look at – actively choose to engage with these instead.”