Have you heard the phrase ‘if you look good you feel good, and if you feel good you play good’?
When it comes to sport, historically athletes have always used competition as an opportunity to peacock. In the black community, a person’s hair is a huge part of this. It’s identity.
As a mixed-race woman with afro-textured hair, I love to express myself with versatility. Expressing myself through changing the colour, wearing braids, or simply embracing my natural hair… as an afro (it also helps that my mum is a hairdresser).
Each hairstyle represents a different aspect of who I am and what I believe in. I have made it part of my identity. I am proud of my crown.
When you feel your best there’s less doubt that can creep up. If all aspects of you feel great, there’s only one task at hand, to win the competition.
Here are five athletes who have made their hair their superpower and inspired a generation of young black people to do the same.
Olympic sprint legend Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is without doubt in the spotlight for her extensive list of titles on the track. The eight-time Olympic medallist became a global star when she took 100m gold for Jamaica at Beijing 2008. She is also the only person to win four 100m world titles and at the age of 34 ran the third fastest time in women’s 100m history – and she did this after having a baby – incredible.
Aside from her amazing achievements, Shelly-Ann takes the Caribbean wherever she goes: “The hair is the sunshine. Jamaica is hot. Doha is hot, so why not bring my sunshine.”
When I think of Shelly-Ann epic speed comes first, history-making comes second and a bright flash of colour, third. Rarely seen with the same hair colour, Shelly-Ann is a style icon in her own right.
Away from the track she has opened her own salon: “I want to be able to accentuate the beauty of any woman no matter what you choose to do with your hair and at the same time, nourish what you have underneath your wigs, extensions or braids.”
Not only does she switch it up regularly herself, she wants to empower other women to love and choose themselves, and her inspiration can come from wherever she competes: “I’m always looking for the brightest colour. Sometimes I get ideas from the country that I’m in.”
Takeaway: As Shelly-Ann once said herself: “Don’t quit on yourself, do not let people predict the heights you can soar.”
France and Manchester United footballer Paul Pogba is one of the world’s most marketable athletes because of his talents on the pitch. But also because of his charisma, social media engagement and positive outlook, and no doubt because he regularly switches his hair colour, fade and style in fashion.
Pogba is ever changing his haircuts and has to shut down speculation in regards to if his hair colour has hidden meanings, ‘Is Pogba leaving United?’, ‘What does the broken heart mean in his hair?’.
Meanwhile, the footballer is simply enjoying a new design: “The broken heart in my hair was because everyone is always commenting on my hair, I wanted to see how people would react. It was a laugh, no hidden meaning.”
Faith is an important anchor in his life and he chooses to not get tattoos, but still wants to express himself through art. There’s no colour or design that Pogba wouldn’t get – “hair is for changing” – and if he wants a Batman design on his fade because he watched it as a child, then Pogba will do just that.
Takeaway: I love that Pogba is not afraid to try something new, even with other people’s judgements.
Dennis Rodman is an NBA legend. To this day, people celebrate the 1990s Chicago Bulls for their titles and greatest players: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the full-of-life Rodman.
Rodman’s rebounds, all-round defence and supreme ability to knock the ball out of any opponent’s hand was unmatched.
The Hall of Famer was often misunderstood and teammates didn’t always know what Rodman persona they would get. “I wasn’t overly excited to get him [on my team] but it didn’t take me long to say yes, I knew what Dennis brought to the table” says Scottie Pippen.
Rodman was recognised around the world for his ever-changing hair in the ’90s, and still is to this day.
He talks openly about his hair, makeup and clothing, being his true self and not wanting to be an imposter: “I do this because I identify with this. I believe I have to express myself in the way I’m feeling.”
Rodman was very much before his time – styling a new design, colour and look whenever he wanted. I absolutely love the boldness to be 100% himself and not shy away from peer pressure or society – Dennis Rodman is a GOAT.
Takeaway: We are all uniquely different, embrace the difference.
“My hair brings so much happiness to other people and that makes me happy.”
Shaunagh Brown started playing rugby aged 25 and just two years later was competing in her first international for England. She is now a leading figure for country and her club, Harlequins, as well as acting as a highly-influential spokesperson for women’s rugby, tackling issues on women’s rights and black history.
She talked passionately to me about the long process of learning to love her afro, from her childhood when her mum would style her hair – not always a positive experience: “I used to not like my afro hair, it was a chore…not getting a comb through my hair, it was just there, it existed but that was it.”
It was people around Shaunagh that helped her see the other side of having an afro: “People would say how lovely my hair is, the curls, I always took the compliments. Cornrows changed my life, I’ve got to a point where I appreciate my hair and enjoy it.”
When speaking with Shaunagh I could feel the love and support of others that helped changed her mindset, to a point where she now uses her hair to educate: “People want to touch my hair out of curiosity and I recognise that I might be one of the only people who they’ve been close enough to for them to have that conversation with and learn.”
Shaunagh has said in the past that standing out and being the only mixed-race female in her team was unnerving. Earlier in her life she shied away from showing her South London roots in case of feeling different but in the last few years, the change Shaunagh is pushing is outstanding.
It’s great seeing her stand up for change and being forthright in merging different cultures together. Rugby might be Shaunagh’s career but her passion for others hasn’t stopped, it’s grown. Seeing natural, afro-textured hair on a rugby pitch is delightful, and I really hope young kids continue to look up to Shaunagh and take steps to play rugby, or any other sport.
Takeaway: Representation matters and it can be impactful on people without you knowing.
I could spend all day listing Venus Williams’ achievements and awards – this tennis player is a superwoman.
Most people know the Williams sisters both individually and as a duo. Venus is Serena’s older sister, but she is way more than just an older sister. A seven-time Grand Slam singles winner, four-time Olympic gold medallist and former world number one – and with degrees in fashion and business administration.
Although Venus is a fantastic athlete, she is also always a helping hand and teacher whenever she can be: “I was in a locker room once and had my hair in an Afro. One of the players from Europe asked me ‘how do you do that?’ and I said, ‘it grows like this’. She loved it. I didn’t take offense. People just don’t know. I love embracing my crazy curls.”
In 1999 in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, Venus had beads in her braids. When one bead slipped from the braid the umpire penalised a point for causing disturbance. I admire that Venus, right there, stuck up for herself and questioned how that was the case. Later the star said “I shouldn’t have to change, I like my hair”.
Takeaway: Life is about embracing who you are. The words and lessons you get taught from a young age can dictate and shape who you are when you are old.
I’m inspired by each athlete here. It’s not just the beautiful hairstyles, colours and ‘fros, it’s the message that comes with it.
Don’t be afraid to love yourself and to show the world who you are.