Our XLR8 coach Saskia reflects on some of her experiences within football.
I first started playing football because I wanted to be just like my big brother. My first competition was the 2013 winter season of PSSA. When all my friends trickled over to the line for netball trials, I followed my brother’s friends to football. I remember being the only girl there. For the first half hour, I wasn’t passed the ball once. Eventually the supervising teacher noticed that I hadn’t touched the ball and gave it to me to start at kick off. I passed the ball off and once again didn’t receive it back. I wanted to make the team more than anything so I chased the boy down who had the ball and went to get it off him. He took a shot. It hit me – he didn’t score.
The next week at sports, my teacher called out that I had been selected for the Junior Division 2 B team. I went home excited to tell my brother who responded: “I made the A’s when I was in year 3”.
I loved everything about PSSA. I got a jersey, we got to play other schools and I got to run really fast and stop goals. Sure, none of the boys sat with me on the bus, but I had the game to look forward to. With the start of the season, I learnt quickly that my teammates wouldn’t give me the ball, I would have to take it off the other team if I wanted it. I would pass the ball when the boys called for it. When I called, they didn’t. The boys were already a team, a family, without even trying. I wanted that. I was never just going to be accepted into the group when they were throwing around “you kick like a girl” as an insult. I had to prove myself- earn my spot as part of the team, the guys always just belonged.
Some boys from the year above asked if I was a boy. I said no. They asked why I was playing on a boys team. I said “there’s no girls team”. They replied “You could’ve just played netball”.
The next season, I traded in my gymnastics leotard for football boots on Saturday mornings so that I could play for a club. Once again, I was the only girl on the team, but I didn’t care. In the first few sessions I worked hard to establish myself as a proficient player who was worthy of the ball.
Back at school, I had managed to convince one of my friends to come to the first football trial with me. After pointing out that we basically never got the ball and would probably split up if we got in, she headed back to netball trials the following week. After trials, I was promoted to the Division 2 A team. Some boys from the year below started sitting with me on the bus and passing to me in games. For the first time since I started playing football, I had a taste of the community and family that I had only ever seen within the boys on a team. Still, I felt ostracised by the rest of the team.
In Year 5, when it came to the second winter trials I let my friends convince me to trial for netball. What was the point of trying to be part of a sport that didn’t want me when I had a whole netball team actively pursuing me to join their team? It was fun to hang out with my friends at the netball trials but I felt a bit like I was caught in the middle of a rondo with an invisible ball.
After trials, my classroom teacher at the time who also happened to be the senior football coach, approached me asking about why I didn’t come to the second trial. He expressed how excited he had been that we had a few girls show up to the trials and that they’d love to have me back and want to support me with my football. That conversation gave me enough confidence to stick with football and see where I can go with it. I think the problem was that along the way I let myself believe that I wasn’t as good as the boys and that I was out of place. By letting myself believe that I was a burden to my team enabled them to treat me like one. I entered the season with a changed mindset, believing that I could be a valuable asset to the team and proved that I was. We won some games, we lost some, we were a team.
Throughout just the start of my football journey, I’ve experienced what a difference it makes to have a coach that supports and pushes players. I’ve found that often, players need a tap on the shoulder to take advantage of opportunities that open up for them or someone to help them along. Football is a team sport. Being on a football team is a unique opportunity to collaborate and grow with a community who often share the same passion as you. It’s important that we take advantage of the fact we have a family within our teams – rather than cutting out players that aren’t as strong or are different – we can engage and drive them forward with us. It’s the same within our families at home. We should believe in and support ambitious young players in every way that we can.
We are all products of our environment. As I’ve gotten older and started coaching, I’m realising that I can help shape the environment that young players experience. It is the parents, coaches, clubs and teammates that shape a young footballer’s attitudes about the sport and about themselves. We have a responsibility to the children, to ourselves and to the future of football to do everything in our power to lift up young players rather than break them down or put limits on them.
It’s paramount that we all do everything we can to create an inclusive and empowering environment for female players, particularly when they first start playing and are beginning to fall in love with the game. According to Suncorp’s 2019 Australian Youth Confidence Report, 50% of girls are quitting sport by the age of 17, compared to 30% of boys the same age. The significant underrepresentation of females in football retention rates can be turned around by an engagement of the football community in achieving equality throughout all aspects of football. From player attitudes to the allocation of resources by clubs, every decision we make as members of the football community shapes Australia’s football culture.
Let’s make football a home for our sisters, mothers, daughters, nieces, aunts and grandmothers. For our partners, our teachers and our colleagues. For us.
International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.
The #IWD2021 campaign theme is #ChooseToChallengeA challenged world is an alert world. Individually, we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day.
We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world.
Female football in NSFA is proudly supported by Harvey Norman.