Important to Women in Sport is sharing the voices of women and girls. Our ‘Mum on the Sidelines’ offers a real, authentic and often funny observation of what is stopping girls from taking part in sport by exploring the everyday inequalities that occur on the sidelines and ask you to share yours too. Our mum from the sidelines writes…
Haha, was that a typo, and you meant 3 months.
No, I really mean 3 years.
When we moved hemispheres, I naively assumed our children could slot seamlessly into sports clubs, we’d meet some new families, they’d make new friends, and we’d all skip happily off into the sunset with our shin pads on, cricket bats in hand.
We scraped through for my son, eventually finding great cricket, football and squash clubs. It took a few phone calls, a few false starts but a little bit of persistence, and we nailed it.
For my two girls, it has been another story entirely.
Post settling the children into school, one of the first things on my to-do list was to get the kids into local sports clubs. I’d always been active as a youngster, and this has continued in my adult life. I really felt (still do) that playing sport gives children so many lifelong skills: resilience; friendships (often some outside of school which can help kids have an outlet if things get rocky at school); commitment to others; and the obvious athletic skills like balance, ball handling, timing, fitness etc. I could fill a page just listing the advantages – I suspect though you all know them too.
I REALLY wanted to find sporting activities for all the children, including my girls.
I turned to my trusty friend Google and some local Facebook groups and made a shortlist. I also asked around at school and neighbours, sent lots of emails and spent hours waiting ‘on hold’ telephone calls to speak to anyone who could help me find a place for my daughter all outside my working hours.
As an Aussie who grew up near water her whole life, I also insisted on swimming.
Swimming was easy. Tick. Your mummy children, is an organisational whizz!
I then turned to football. I’m not exaggerating when I say I researched and got in touch with six clubs. Most had no provision for girls of that age (at the time they were 5 & 7) and a few pointed me to some Wildcats sessions. We tried a few of these, and my daughters hung back and didn’t really get involved. They felt intimidated and confused. Then one day, as we were walking past a group of boys playing football in an organised competitive environment, one of my girls blithely said, ‘mummy, why do boys get to play football in teams but I can only go to the training sessions?’
I felt the wind sucked out of me. I looked around, and she was right. A group of similar aged boys to her were all gritting it out on the football pitch.
I wonder if this was her first realisation that girls get different opportunities to boys.
On the one hand, the Wildcats (run by the FA) has been a great initiative to give girls opportunities to play and learn football in a supportive and safe environment. On the other, as my daughter pointed out, this is different to what boys get, and in her mind, it is an inferior product. There was no team dynamic, no matches, no camaraderie, no uniform, and no kudos. It kind of fell flat for her.
Amidst the tussle of backyard football with her brother, my eldest daughter was also often found doing cartwheels and hanging upside down on her pull up bar, which she had asked for as a birthday present. She is a pocket rocket – strong, bendy and springy (all my genes!), and she had been bugging me to try gymnastics.
Again, I pounded my keyboard to flex the Google muscle and asked around. I found a few gymnastics clubs. Not all of them were super close, and by then, my ‘mums taxi’ mileage was accruing, and I couldn’t face travelling too far. I tried the closest one. Spoiler alert, there is a bit of a clue in the title. They very politely wrote back and told me there was a 3-year waiting list. I was stunned and quite outraged.
A few months ago, the allotted time ticked over, and we were contacted– they had a place! My daughter’s gymnastics ship had sailed. Gymnastics had taken too long.
As a netballer myself, I thought I would have this one in the bag. I rolled up my sleeves, whipped out my phone and looked up netball for girls. Turns out netball for primary aged girls is about as hard to get into as Centre Court on Wimbledon finals day. Not so across the world in places like Australia, where we had come from, where girls (and boys) from year 1 will take the court to play ‘team’ netball – I say team netball because I think it’s important to make the demarcation between skills and drill session (e.g. Football Wildcats) and playing as a team. My social media was pinging with evidence of their peers back in Oz playing netball every Saturday, with a uniform and a team to boot. I was confused, my daughters were confused (and sad).
Mummy had failed. Again. Although I’m signed up to do my level 2 coaching qualification just so I can facilitate some girls getting to play before they hit high school. Such is my passion.
Thankfully, there is a happy end to the story. We discovered that our local cricket club (the one we found easily for my son) has a thriving girls programme, and now both girls are enjoying making new friends and learning the very tricky art of bowling. For my older daughter, they are just starting to play festivals and friendlies against other teams. For the record, this is different to the boys who play matches more consistently, earlier. It has been noted by the small females in my life. I’ve run out of justifications for their big, enquiring minds. Little steps girls, little steps…
We also have both girls at the local dance school, and instead of gymnastics, they are enjoying ‘acro’.
It shouldn’t have been this hard. I’m pretty tenacious, and I’m prepared to do lots of research and contact lots of people in the name of getting my children active. Many parents don’t have the emotional energy or time to make that investment. We really need to make things easier for girls to get active, be sporty and find and try lots of different sports. It’s not OK to assume schools have it covered or to blame pitch availability or a shortage of coaches as the problem. We crack these issues for boys, so we need to fix it for the girls more urgently.
So, I have these bits of advice for the FA, England Netball, British Gymnastics and ECB – all of which I have very recent experience with from a grassroots perspective, as a mum who just wants her daughters to play:
– To the FA. Girls are just as good as boys, so offer them the same opportunities. Competitive, team-based football for girls should start when the boys start. Or you will lose them to other sports. Skills and drills is fine, but it is not the same. Girls know this; parents do too.
– To England Netball. Look across the pond to the other side of the world. Girls in Australia can play competitive, team netball from year 1. The requirement for a level 2 coaching qualification for all junior teams is excessive and limits the capacity of the grassroots clubs. What are some other models, insurance options etc, that might open up opportunities?
– To British Gymnastics. Look at how clubs with full waitlists and lack of capacity signpost to other clubs and/or back to the NGB to help with finding clubs that might suit the type of gymnastics sought.
– To the ECB. So far, you have come out on top in providing good access to cricket for both my son and my daughters. I like the fact that my son often has girls a few years older playing in his division. He learns that girls rock! However, consider how long you leave girls in a holding pattern of not playing games (perhaps this is club specific). But keep an eye on parity between what the boys get vs the girls. The new Hundred also looks set to be inspiring and captivating for families to enjoy.
Together, let’s make sure girls don’t miss out on the lifelong benefits of sport and exercise because there aren’t the opportunities out there, even when over-focused, almost obsessed parents put their all into campaigning to get them access to sport. We urgently need a stronger foundation for gender equality in sport. Otherwise, its ‘sooooooooo unfair’ (so says the 7 year old). Hard to argue with her logic, isn’t it?