We’ve all seen the leaf twirlers or cloud-gazers at kid’s sports. Their parent’s despair on the sidelines, hands clenched in hair, faces contorted in disbelief as the ball sails past their whimsical child who, lost in their own little world, is enjoying the outdoors and the sunshine (half their luck). Just this weekend, the coach of my son’s under 9s team had to remind one of his players to “stop looking at the puddle and pay attention to the game,” and don’t get me started on “the floss” as an on-pitch move. That’s not my daughter though. She’s been playing soccer since she was five and has always been one of those kids who takes sport seriously. She gets in the centre of the action. What she sometimes lacks in technical skill she makes up in sheer tenacity and that’s a valuable attribute in a team member. Skills can be taught, bravery is harder to come by.
Sadly, however, she’s never been able to find a team in which she truly fits. For three seasons she had been the only girl in her team, and while I wouldn’t say she was bullied in an overt way, she was certainly excluded from the camaraderie, fun, and friendship which should come with being part of a team. The sense of belonging and inclusion inherent in the shared experience of training, winning, and losing together just wasn’t there.
Come Sunday mornings she’d work hard to get herself into a good field position. She’d read the play, see her team mate making a run up the outside and she’d run forward, ready for the cross in front of an open goal. She’d call for the pass but nine out of ten times (that’s a generous statistic) her team mates would prefer to take on three or four defenders and be dispossessed rather than take a chance on her. As the seasons progressed she became increasingly demoralised. Stomping off the pitch at the end of each game, barely containing her tears.
This year we decided things needed to change. We were going to find an all-girls team for her to join, one that preferably played in an all-girls league. Early in the New Year our club contacted us. It was happening. They were putting a junior female team together and invited our daughter to come down and join. Even though it was an under 13s team (very different from under 9s) we were confident that as a tall, moderately experienced player, she would be fine. Even better, there was going to be a female coach.
She was delighted. She came away from the first training session buzzing. The other players knew her name and even complimented her for being a fast runner.
They actually talked to me.
By the time the season was ready to start the team didn’t have enough players and the club made the decision to open it up as a mixed team and therefore play in the mixed league. Fine we thought. The team is still more than half girls and it’s about friendship after all.
This team had some amazing female players. Girls that were tough and fearless, that threw their bodies into the game and took on male players twice their size. We didn’t have a great season in terms of results but we were happy that our daughter was making friends, improving her skills, and refusing to be daunted by playing against boys three years older than her. It was impressive.
Until that is, the last two matches of the season.
Before I launch into what happened with our players let me add a side-note here. We lost our female coach at about the half-way mark because of, you guessed it, bullying by some of the parents. Sigh. I firmly believe it is our job, as parents of junior players, to support that elusive person who has volunteered their time, mental energy, and Sunday sleep-ins to help our kids enjoy their sport—the coach. This coach copped it from every direction and I’m not surprised she moved on. So, the bullying came from the top-down.
Back to the kids.
In the second-last match of the season, our star defender, a girl in a specialist soccer programme at high school broke down crying at half-time. She didn’t want to go back out there. Her mum mentioned that she’d been having a tough time at school because she was being bullied by the boys in the soccer programme. As a result, her confidence had been slowly eroded over the course of season. Compounding the discrimination and harassment she was receiving at school it turned out that one of the boys in her own team, a boy she had spent the last five months training and playing with, had also been bullying her, telling her that: girls are useless. They shouldn’t play soccer.
(Between you and me, this boy is not much chop on the pitch. I’d take the girl over three of him.)
For the final game of the season the team faced a rival club who delighted in sledging and ridiculing their opponents. Some of our kids gave up entirely, many ended the game in tears. As the coach debriefed the group and thanked them for their hard work all season, he encouraged them to put the other team out of their thoughts. Let it go. It’s done. Walk away.
Then one of the girls said this:
These boys bully me at school. Now they are bullying me at soccer.
How can she walk away? Come Monday morning it would all be back again.
So, the season ended on a devastating low. From the hope at the beginning of the year that these girls would enjoy their sport, make friends, and fit in at last they had to keep fighting against discrimination. They experienced and witnessed it at all levels. From the other teams (all boys), from a parent group that bullied the female coach out of her role and, worst of all, from the members of their own team.
So, what am I getting at?
So much focus is put on trying to boost girls’ confidence within sport. We all talk about how important sport is for girls’ physical and mental health. The Australian Government’s “Girls, Make Your Move” campaign is just one example. We continuously send girls the message that they need to try, they need to join in, they need to stop being intimidated by boys. The message is that they need to take responsibility for stopping the bullying and the discrimination. But when do we tell the boys some honest truths?
They aren’t always the best or most talented members of the team.
They aren’t the ones who get to decide who is included and who isn’t.
They need to change their attitude to include and encourage girls into sport.
They need to accept that the girls have just as much right to be there as they do.
Many girls are trying. I’m so proud that my little ten-year-old refuses to be intimidated by thirteen-year-old boys. I’m proud of the talented girls at my Taekwon-Do club that compete hard and love and care for each other. But how many times can someone be excluded, belittled, and discriminated against before it’s too hard to keep going? This started when my daughter was five, at ten I’m exhausted on her behalf.
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