Episode 6: Talking about equity in sport with Rebecca Tolkoff.

In this conversation Rebecca Tollkoff talks with me about hitting the wall, putting one foot in front of the other, and being mentally and physically confident to ‘Roar’ – loudly- in sport and in life. She talks about her work to promote whole-person confidence, giving people the tools to be safe through sport and her self-defense programme, and her time training Rwandan educators to train their students in self-defense and building confidence.

Resources from this episode

Train Your Roar website

Komera website

Rebecca’s instagram

Transcript of this episode


self defence, sport, gender equity, , inclusion, talk, lead, runners, workshops, person, safety, group


Rebecca Tolkoff, Margaret Flood

Margaret Flood  00:00

Welcome to talking about all things inclusion, a podcast where I get to meet and learn from people in the field of inclusion in its broadest sense that inspire me. I hope they inspire you to. Today I’m talking with Rebecca Tarkoff. Rebecca is the co founder of trainer roar, Rebecca Rebecca consults for community fitness startups, and teaches fitness classes and self defence classes for women. In her spare time, she coaches youth sports teams in her local area. She is passionate about gender equity and sports. She wants every woman to live feeling safe, free and strong in her own skin. Her most recent endeavour to achieve this goal is our training programme with Rwandan educators to teach self defence to their female students. Rebecca, as my landlady turned friend, you are the person I know longest from my stay in Boston. We’ve gotten to know each other virtually before I arrived. But we soon learned we have a lot in common. One thing being our desire for inclusion in all aspects of society where you didn’t get me into a class or on a track, I learned so much about inclusion and sport from listening to you talk so passionately about your project projects. That’s why I’m so delighted to be recording one of our conversations today to share your passion and insights into gender equity and sports and the work you were doing to contribute to this.

Rebecca Tolkoff  01:21

Thank you Mags. Thanks so much for having me. I’ve been very much looking forward to this conversation.

Margaret Flood  01:28

 Thanks, Rebecca. Rebecca, can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself your background? What is training, your roar? And what inspired you to develop the training programme in Rwanda?

Rebecca Tolkoff  01:40

Absolutely. First and foremost, I’m a mom of four teenagers, we’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I am also the daughter of a first and 10th generation American My dad’s a Holocaust survivor, and my mom is the daughter of American Revolution. So there’s a lot of history. In in my background, I started out studying history with some pre medical coursework as well, and pause my career to raise my family. I took up running with a group of women about 13 years ago. And that’s really been a source of inspiration and motivation ever since. When my kids were all in school, I became a fitness trainer and community entrepreneur, which brought me to a women’s running retreat, which is where I met the other founder of trainer roar, she led a safety and self defence workshop geared towards female runners. And we realised we came from the same part of the United States and I was very eager to have her come visit my community fitness business. Shortly after Trump got elected, we got very upset me too was very pervasive, and we saw a healthy venue for discontent. So we incorporated train your roar, LLC, also known as roar training, LLC. I’ve taken the role as networker and communications director and started doing a lot of outreach locally, as well as through social media. And I made some amazing connections. One of those was the director of Kamera. Kamera means to be strong and have courage. And it’s a programme based in Rwanda, to develop self confident young women through education, community development, and health and sport. The pandemic made it impossible for us to visit in person so we pivoted to virtual training, and in many ways that allowed us to reach a broader audience. We led a safety leadership training for the staff. And we hope to follow up with an in person visit in the coming year to do a bit more of the safety self defence technique. That’s a little bit about how we got started with Kamera.

Margaret Flood  03:51

That’s really interesting. I’m, I know from chatting to you that you talk about your running group as your tribe, and it really is a family and from learning about what you’ve described there as roar training, and that safety leadership training. It does have that family that tribe safety community aspect to it. Was that something that you had planned on from the outset? Or is that something that like emerged as you were building this training for young women, particularly the Rwandan projects?

Rebecca Tolkoff  04:31

Well, we I would say it emerged we started with some local training more in our town with Girl Scouts with elementary schools with some with some groups at my synagogue. And what we realised is emerging around the world were women who are getting empowered through physical exercise. And we both the co founder Julian I believe that you know, emotional or not motional strength or that grit and, and courage sometimes can come, at least for many people in the form of physical strength and courage. And so we always wanted women to feel physically safe as a way to better themselves in society and to be seen more as equals. And we see areas where women are emerging as equal members kind of internationally, at sort of the same thing is happening with their physicality. So we’re starting to see women in Nepal, or parts of Africa, become athletes, and the they’re becoming athletes in societies where that was never something that they were supposed to be. So hand in hand with that is becoming physically safe running, for example, as an activity you might be doing alone. And so you also need to feel safe in your community and in your streets, or roads, or woods, whatever, wherever you happen to be. But to answer your question, we these things have really evolved. We’ve started doing a similar to you, we started doing some interviews with different running leaders, there’s a woman who has really led, she’s a trailblazer, literally and figuratively, she started, she was one of the first Nepalese women to start trail running. And she’s now training women to trail run, and she has invited us, you know, when it’s possible to come and lead her group and she trains women to be trail runners, but she also teaches them English and how to lead you know, trekking groups and trekking tours around Nepal. So she’s uplifting their their position, they’ll be able to have a job and, and fend for themselves, and not be reliant on a husband or a wife or a father or an uncle. And as well as as becoming an athlete and playing a different role in society.

Margaret Flood  07:03

Rebecca use you said there are you made reference to women in different places around the world, common what they weren’t meant to be. And I know from our conversations, you are talking about that male perspective of where women are placed in society, and female equity within all aspects of society. And it seems that your your roar, training and sport and physical health in general, has just been one way of opening a door that this is the approach you’re taking to gender equity in general, but but you’re doing it through the medium of support of authority of sport, would that be correct?

Rebecca Tolkoff  07:49

Yeah, I like to think that as well. And it’s not for everyone, obviously. But it is it is something that spoke to me personally, and I like to share with for others who who might gain some of the same strength and and messages through that. But yes, it and it’s becoming I think even more interesting, because, you know, we’re sort of getting to a place where women are feeling more equal across the globe in many places. But now with you if you want to be truly inclusive, there are more challenges to that. And now that gender is more of a fluid identification or classification. And you’re seeing a little bit of that in the Olympics or in different with the swimmers recently, we see it in the running world where we have, it’s hard, you can’t just say you’re a man or a woman. There are many other other other types of classifications that need to have a place and also need to be included, and in a very equitable and fair way. And that’s that’s a real challenge to the norms.

Margaret Flood  08:48

It really is. And I think you’ve taken a really interesting approach because for me, when I would have thought about self defence for women, I would have thought about it as us being weaker physically, and having to protect ourselves against the dangers. I know, while I was living with you that I read an article where you had talked about women being attacked when they’re out running. But what you also seem to be seeing is that this physical strength and this healthy body healthy mindset around exercise in sport, is actually about building confidence that isn’t about feeling you need to protect yourself from someone or something stronger, but it’s actually about a whole person confidence in entering not just sport but an entering society in the world and opening those doors.

Rebecca Tolkoff  09:49

Absolutely, yeah, I love what you’re saying and that that’s exactly our highest. Our highest hope for it is that it’s not a place people come in fear. It’s a place where we might come next Some concerns but leave feeling more empowered. So we really focus on giving you tools, so that when you walk the earth, you feel safe. And you feel like you have the tools of within your own body and your own self to do that. And I think that what that does is it puts you in a lot of it puts you in a place where you’re going to open doors for yourself, you’re not going to wait for them to be open, you’re going to feel confident you’re welcome, and that you know how to enter a room with that feeling. And we want people to carry that with them all the time, no matter what your gender is, but you want to have someone feel like the the Earth is a safe place. Or at least you have the tools to know when you are or aren’t safe and what to do in those situations. We talk a lot about awareness and using your instincts, we talk a lot, especially with younger people who have grown up with a lot more technology where their head is somewhere else they might be looking at a an iPhone or, or they’re not quite present is to sort of bring people back to where they are and have the we do games where we have people try to remember details about where they just were to create that, that real presence. And to, to have them sort of get back in tune with their instincts.

Margaret Flood  11:26

It’s actually not just a sense of physical confidence and strength. But it’s a mindset of confidence and strength. And then you want to talk about actually these strategies. And even this one, the instinctual one and being able to remember things that you see in your surroundings. Like that goes into every aspect of our life, like it goes into, if we’re students into like studying, if we’re working into our work life, like those skills that are being taught through sports, and through your self defence programmes actually generalise and permeate out into everything else that we do, again, whether we’re male, or were female,

Rebecca Tolkoff  12:09

or other. Yes, absolutely. And I think that that’s important is the mindset. That, to me is everything in life. And once you once you start to have that confidence, and whether it comes from physical or or other, I think that’s sort of a unique decision or kind of something unique to each person is where you find that confidence. So we certain people might be attracted to this, this type of physical confidence or athleticism, but certainly comes from lots of places. I do think that once you have that mindset, yes, you can apply it to everything to all aspects of your life. And it certainly has really changed my life as well. So it’s something that I hope to spread to whoever it is that you know, wants to listen.

Margaret Flood  13:02

Absolutely. And I love that you did add other to my male and female because you can’t actually talk about gender equity in two spheres anymore. And I know sometimes we forget to bring other spheres and other identities into our conversation. So I’m really glad that you did because that is a huge part of equity, as we are, I suppose as we are kind of just transversing our way and exploring the these new for us do gender pathways. They’ve been there for a lot of people for a lot of time, except that the status quo didn’t recognise them or didn’t acknowledge them. And this is something that I know you feel strongly about as well, that it’s not just male, female, that it is equity across genders for want of a better phrase.

Rebecca Tolkoff  13:49

Yeah, you could I guess we can really just say for humans, if we want to be very equitable. Yeah,

Margaret Flood  13:55

Rebecca. I’d love to go back to your Rwandan project. And just because I know this is a very altruistic project that you were doing at the moment. Having seen the more than hectic life, you lead, being a mom of four teenagers, going back to study yourself, having your job and then doing all of this sports, as an addition to then add something that is philanthropic and something that you were giving your time off with limited resources to do. Could you just share some of the experiences that you’ve had yourself by delivering this programme, but also some of the shared experiences that your students have brought back to you about it?

Rebecca Tolkoff  14:45

Yes, absolutely. So I would say I can speak for my co founder and I for Julia and I think we were so thrilled to see a group of women in a completely different part of the of the world Getting something from this training? You know, we have we developed it to share with many, and we were concerned a little bit about language differences. But what we found is that the spirit was translated through zoom, there was no question. And we also what we really enjoy and saw in these workshops was that moment in someone’s face when you can see that they’ve realised their power. And it’s what really keeps us motivated and makes us always willing to lead a workshop anytime, anyplace anywhere, because when you see that it’s the most rewarding thing in the world. And we were witnesses to that again, and it was a wonderful feeling for us. We got some really wonderful news from some of the camera staff, and through a blog were one of the women, the young women who took our training course, use some of our techniques and, and stood up to someone who was trying to pickpocket her in a, in an open market area. And rather than become a victim of a crime, she was loud, and she used her her voice. And she called for help, and she wouldn’t. She got him in a bit of a hold. And we were and and she felt so wonderful. And all the people around her were grateful that she had stood up for herself because it also meant that that pickpocket wouldn’t come back to the market to hurt or to try to steal from others. And I think he actually came and apologised to her later, which was also a really wonderful thing. He was also he also got in a bit of trouble. So we’ve got we got a really wonderful blog post from from Kamera about how they are already seeing and this was maybe a month after we finished the training. Yes, so I think the women felt very empowered. Yeah,

Margaret Flood  17:00

yeah, yeah. And it goes, it goes back to just, you know, roar. Like that was the first thing that this young person thought to do was actually use their voice and wasn’t even about the physical tactics that you you taught them, it was actually that first be loud. I love that you said it that way. Because be loud is only just about defending ourselves in a tricky situation. But you know, in terms of an equitable society, sometimes some groups need to be louder than others to actually be heard and be seen.

Rebecca Tolkoff  17:36

Yes, and then something, I think, in certain parts of United States, and I don’t know if it’s the same in Ireland or Europe, but women have traditionally taught to be more soft spoken and quiet. And it does not serve us all the time. And so we find sometimes that while women in our workshops, really enjoy the physicality and the punching and kicking and, and some of the holes and grabs that we teach, the part that is harder to get people excited about is that using their voice and yelling, and so we practice, we practice yelling, we practice what we’re going to say. And then we we do it together at first, to try to get people more comfortable, but we’d really have had to spend a good bit of time sort of figuring out how to make people feel comfortable enough to yell with with that angry face with that intention of safety. Because it’s not like yeah, you know, it’s not a happy yeah, that’s a, it’s a pretty serious yell, and you want to send a message with your words. And that’s not comfortable for a lot of people. So yeah, I think using your voice is, is sometimes more challenging than using the physicality. Yeah,

Margaret Flood  18:49

I guess it’s something we don’t think of as being a chat challenge. For you, as the educator, I’m guessing you would have thought the challenge would have been teaching them how to use the physical strategies. And then you have to go in and you realise you have to actually start on building their confidence to actually just use their voice and as you said, use their angry face because you know, we are meant to be pretty a lot of the time.

Rebecca Tolkoff  19:15

Yeah, we’ve had to really, we actually taught a group of a girl scouts and one of them was a young budding actress. I think she was 11. And she was great, because she said, well, in acting class, when I play, you know, a bully or somebody, these are the types of things we have to do with our bodies. And I was like, if I could repeat exactly what you said and every and I tried to actually use some of those techniques to describe what we’re what we’re going for. That’s usually really helpful. But on the physicality piece, I want to add what we’re the type of self defence that we’re training people in is called Krav Maga and it’s a very accessible type of self defence. It’s a system it’s not a martial art. So it’s not you It’s not like taekwondo or karate. It’s, it’s a it’s a self defence system that was developed by early, I guess, right after the pogroms against the Jews by Amy LICHTENFELD. And he, he was a gymnast and a boxer. And he was noticing that his friends were getting beat up in the street. And so he developed this kind of self defence system that’s now used by the Israeli army, which then Israel has mandatory conscription. So it had to be something that was fairly simple to learn in terms of the, the, sort of the structure behind it. And it’s had to be accessible for all ages, all genders, all body types, all physical, you know, physical abilities. And so it’s worked really well, because it’s, it’s pretty accessible.

Margaret Flood  20:52

Yeah, I think in what you do, managing that uniqueness of body and mind is something that’s so important in building this confidence and in building this, this strength in mind and strength and body.

Rebecca Tolkoff  21:09

Absolutely, yes. And I think that, um, you know, I’ve done a little work, kind of through my public health work and rare disease as well, I’ve, I’ve found a similar type of strength in the rare disease community. And I think, you know, that’s something people are starting to starting to raise awareness for, at least in, in the United States and some of the emerging markets across across the globe. But people who are, you know, people really have to raise their voices also, in other areas to be heard. And so I like what you said about, sometimes a smaller group has to be extra loud, to be heard. And Rebecca,

Margaret Flood  21:48

one thing we haven’t talked about is your own sporting achievements, you are a phenomenal marathon runner, and have been very successful in a number of the New York and the Boston Marathon are two that I know of, although I think there may have been a few more. And I remember you talking to me about resilience being the hardest part of the marathon race, that it wasn’t actually the physical, it was the resilience. And I know resilience is something that again, I don’t know if it’s conscious or unconscious, but seems to thread through your your training as well. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Rebecca Tolkoff  22:26

Okay, I’ll try to piece it all together. Yes, I am a I’m a distance runner. I, as my kids can attest, I really can’t dance them, I will trip over myself, and I enjoy it, but I’m not good at it. But I’m pretty good at putting one foot in front of the other and running in a straight line for some reason. I find that a little bit meditative. But you’re right, the I think the marathon is a great distance to sort of use as an analogy for resilience. Because you cannot train for 20 You cannot fuel and train properly for 26 Miles your body, no matter what is going to run out of energy. Somewhere they call it hitting the wall, you’ve heard of it. And I think that’s a great analogy for for life’s challenge. This is very often you hit a wall. And it’s what you do after that, I think that makes or breaks the experience. And, you know, obviously, sometimes you get injured, you need a break, you’re done. But the last six miles of a marathon are just when the heart comes out. And I think running those was, you know, a great trainer for life’s challenges that that hit at different times. And you’re really not in control when those funds hit, but you can usually call upon, you know, that physical experience and you know, you can do it, you just have to, you just have to kind of keep going so thank you for your your kudos, I’m not an exceptionally fast runner. But I do enjoy it. And I the spirit of the marathon is really what keeps getting me back and just each person is on, you know, each person running those races is on a journey in that moment, which is paralleling you’re your own. And sometimes you might, you know, feed off each other run with a buddy for a little bit, but everyone is just doing it really, I think to to show them themselves that they can and then hopefully that will come in handy at a later date.

Margaret Flood  24:23

 I love what you said you said it’s just about putting one front one foot in front of the other. And we could apply that to pretty much everything in our lives. And I absolutely love that. And just going back to the the equity and we’ve talked an awful lot about gender, but there is also the equitable disadvantage and sports. But again, you talked about, excuse me, you talked about again, the Rwandan programme where they didn’t have resources, it didn’t have the materials and you and your partner are literally on your feet and In front of a group of people via zoom, have to figure out how you’re going to teach this to a group of people who didn’t have the resources that may be a group of your American students who were paying to do your course may have. Do you see that kind of inequity a lot in sport? Or was this something new to you with this programme?

Rebecca Tolkoff  25:22

I mean, I think you see it in everything that, you know, we have in the United States, when we bring our fancy punch pads to class, we tell people to wear their sneakers, we tell them to wear their, you know, leggings, and you might go somewhere wear leggings is not an something that exists, there are no punch pads, you have to make do with mattresses or pillows or chairs. Maybe just a yoga mat is all you can find. We’re not necessarily you know, equipped, but if you can, you know, it’s pretty much you figure it out, you’ve kind of figured out how to how to do that. But I think in a way, that’s just a metaphor for the tools that each person brings to their life and their kind of their set of experiences. And you pivot and you make do and you can figure it out. And you know, we were in a group setting so we could communicate a little bit about it and see what works for everyone. And then a little bit, we had to just be like, let’s let’s not use the punch the chair, be careful of each other and make sure everyone was safe in the class, too. It’s a little bit more challenging on Zoom. But we ended up having a good time with it. And I think making the best of that situation. Yes. And it’s incredible what you can do with with not that much.

Margaret Flood  26:38

I think that is one of the lovely advantages of sport, is that, okay? So you, you may not have the money to go pay for a class or a gym, but you can get out there and you can run, you can dance, even if your feet don’t go the right way, you know, you can go to a local basketball court or whatever it is, that there are those opportunities outside of those paid venues to go to build this confidence and build the strength physically and in mind.

Rebecca Tolkoff  27:09

You know, I have to say, I didn’t realise how lucky I was being able to go off on the Boston marathon course. And I didn’t realise that the wheelchair start was unique to Boston until I was much, much, much older. And we’ve actually there’s actually a new category that came after the bombing. And that those were another sort of a para runner. We have blind runners, we have pair of runners, we have wheelchairs, and then, you know, two legged runners as well, in the Boston Marathon and I that’s what I think makes it the best event ever is just opening it to anyone who wants to give it a go, no matter what. I don’t know if I mentioned that. There’s also a rowing event because they did a little teaching of rowing as well. And we have a yearly event in Boston, called the crash bees don’t exactly know why they’re called Crash bees. But everyone gets on an erg. And the ERG is a rowing machine you know you use  inside, it’s got a little wheel and handles and a slightly chair.

Rebecca Tolkoff  28:16

But when you go to the crash B event, there are a lot of different categories. So yes, we have age categories, gender categories, but there are also different different categories of abilities. So people who throw with their upper body, people who are just using their lower body, people who are, you know, there’s lots of ways to modify that machine or to modify that exercise, so it’s accessible to all. And, you know, I recently actually, I sprained my ankle a couple of weeks ago running and but I got on the ERG, and I was like, I know how to use this plug in so many ways know that I would have previously you know, thought, Oh, I can’t get on the rower, but I totally could. So I think there’s something for everyone to learn about, about just figuring out how to make something open to all.

Margaret Flood  29:09

Absolutely. And it goes back to not creating something for just one type of person. But if we’re creative in the way we design things, then everyone gets to benefit and enjoy it as well. And even for I was really lucky in that Martin was changed this year. So it was September instead of April. So as we both agree, I’m not a sporty person at all, but I got to be a participant on the sides and I got to observe us and like there was such a party atmosphere like people came out with their chairs and their picnics. And I like I know you were like up at the crack of dawn to be there. Like it’s a whole day event for everyone. Not just for the athletes like supporting moment acknowledging their hard work to getting there is a significant part of the Boston Marathon anyway,

Rebecca Tolkoff  29:59

up salutely Yeah, and it is a very much a statewide celebration we we made up a holiday, I think just so everyone could take, you know, Patriots Day and we can only kind of take off from work. So basically it’s so we can observe the marathon

Margaret Flood  30:16

Ah making up a holiday for the marathon. I like it. I mean, that’s something that I wouldn’t mind them doing over a year at all. Rebecca, we’re coming to the end of our conversation. And thank you so much for spending time chatting with me, and reiterating a lot of things that we would have chatted on about ourselves, but I just really wanted to be able to share it with other people. So in the spirit of sharing, are there any resources for further independent learning on sports on self defence on equity that you would like to share with us all tonight?

Rebecca Tolkoff  30:48

Oh, sure. Thank you for that invitation. I do a lot of of social media posting about equity in sport and the emergence of I called sports women ship on my Instagram account. And it’s called Becca’s fitness mind, all one word. And you can also follow information about self defence workshops and trainings. Also on Instagram on roar training, LLC. And there, you’ll see the mention on each so if you choose one, you’ll find the other and vice versa. And then in terms, we also have a website http://www.or Training llc.com. And we have our workshops, we have a whole section of her series where we talk about the under told or untold stories of women and running, as well as general safety blogs, and different events that we take part in, such as our runner Safety Awareness Week, which is a yearly event and is spreading to more and more cities, actually each time we do it. Oh, fantastic.

Margaret Flood  31:53

Um, Rebecca, you were telling me about a site for the Rwandan project as well.

Rebecca Tolkoff  32:01

Oh, you can, you can follow Kamera as well. And that is their programme directly. We do some social media together. But I there, they do some amazing projects, and it’s k o m e ra Kamera

Margaret Flood  32:15

Super. Rebecca, I’m going to put all of these links at the end of our transcript for this. So people listening don’t need to worry about scribbling them down, they’ll all be there for that good. Do you have any final words or piece of advice that you would like to share with everyone?

Rebecca Tolkoff  32:35

With everyone, I would say, to, I liked about when we got to that point about putting one’s one foot in front of the other. And I’ve thought a lot about steps towards goals and is you can really only do one thing at one time. And to just remember to keep moving in the direction towards your goal and keep that as keep that in the forefront of your mind. And in terms of inclusion, I think thinking when you create something new to keep that as one of the major or most important aspects of any project or programme or sport or education, what it pretty much all aspects of society. I think that really has the most lasting value. But I was hoping you were also going to ask me about you because although we didn’t get you into a safety workshop, the next time we have a virtual one, I’m hoping you’ll join us.

Margaret Flood  33:32

And everybody listening this is Rebecca’s perseverance. So to be fair, my walking and I went out and observe the sports. But Rebecca has been trying to get me into a class since I arrived in Boston. So I promise I will at some stage. Get one but you’re gonna have to like work me off to Rebecca, on that note before you get me to 100% Commission. I’d say goodbye to everyone. Thank you so much for joining myself from Rebecca. We’re talking about all things inclusion, and I hope that you will all join me again soon. Thank you again, Rebecca, for sharing with us today.

Rebecca Tolkoff  34:19

Thank you Mags. I really appreciate being on here. It’s great to see you. Great to talk to you

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