A project is providing opportunities to girls in both the UK and Mexico. HANNAH DUNCAN chats to Girls United's ROMINA CALATAYUD and ABIGAIL INGRAM MORE
You may have heard, from those decrying a lack of opportunity for youngsters, a phrase along the lines of: “Inside that child’s brain may have been the cure for cancer”.
It is a sentiment designed to underscore the effects of funding cuts, programme removals or systemic biases on the potential talent pool, in any given field.
It also implies an innate knowledge of the biology and chemistry required to discover such a cure. Nobody is born with that knowledge. It is acquired and developed.
Similarly, nobody is born with the ability to swerve a ball into the top corner. If you’re never introduced to a football, your chances of bending it like Beckham are zero.
The context of the introduction, however, and subsequent encounters with the ball, will determine the number of free-kick goals that can be achieved.
People aren’t born with skills, but with the ability to develop skills. Our job as coaches is to facilitate that. We can provide information and encouragement, while creating the right environment to spark that fire. We must view our role not as instructors, but as environment architects.
The soccer equivalent of the cure for cancer example is: “That child could have scored the winning goal for England in the World Cup final”.
Yes, but only if we teach them.
We are all products of our environment, and it is our environment that affords us the opportunities which shape who we are.
We can break potential and how it is unlocked into three components – coaching, environment and opportunity.
The level of coaching a child receives can be crucial. But with the right environment and opportunities, players can still develop in spite of poor coaching.
Countries like Iceland cannot afford to waste potential – their population of around 350,000 is equivalent to the English city of Coventry.
“Our role as coaches is not as instructors but as environment architects…”
How well would England fare at tournaments if limited to such a population? Conversely, Mexico has a population of 127.6 million and regularly wastes talent.
A large, football-loving country will always have a handful of elite players emerge to carry their team to international tournaments. They can afford to waste so much potential talent, and still achieve success – Iceland can’t.
Iceland and Mexico could not be more different in their approach to football. Mexico is blinded by past success whereas Iceland has become a focus of intense study due to their highly effective coaching and talent ID philosophies.
Let’s bring it back to coaching in the female game. In terms of space, equipment and, sometimes, coaching talent, women are often left with the scraps from the male game. And, though the tide is changing, many relics remain – I have had exceptionally talented male colleagues refuse to work in women’s football.
Of course, I get that many wouldn’t want the misogynists involved, anyway. But how useful could their coaching talent be if they had different attitudes to female sport?
If the environment a child plays in is too exclusive, aggressive or dismissive, they will not grow as a player.
This can be extended to many areas of the game, such as placing an emphasis on winning over development, prohibitive club fees, cliquey teammates, and attitudes within wider society, too.
Is the girls’ team treated as a box-ticking exercise to appease a board, for example? If so, it becomes difficult for those players to succeed beyond the minimum. Girls typically have the most inconvenient training times compared to boys, and this can present issues for attendance.
For some women’s teams, forced to train after their male counterparts, 9pm is all that is available. Physically and mentally, players are either tired from work, or cautious about the next morning, which detracts from the development and preparation of players. These small issues soon add up if not addressed.
Many think it is different in the US – but how much opportunity is there to play, to progress and to earn?
Undoubtedly, participation rates in the US are impressive, and US Women’s National Team success is astounding – but if you consider that around 45% of the world’s registered female players are American, those achievements begin to diminish.
There are currently only 10 NWSL teams, with constant rebrands and relocations. The problems become worse when looking below.
In England, we are fortunate to have an entire women’s pyramid. Far from perfect, but improving each year. The opportunities are coming.
But having worked with male and female teenagers at relatively high levels, there is a huge difference in the opportunities afforded to them.
Let’s imagine a 16-year-old-boy and a 16-year-old-girl, both in their gender-equivalent academies. The boy’s coach will likely be UEFA B qualified as a minimum; the girl’s coach may be FA Level 2 (UEFA C).
The boy will have been scouted from thousands and the girl from hundreds. The boy’s team will have plenty of good competition nearby, while the girl’s team will likely contend with long-distance travel or vastly inferior opponents. The boy will likely not have to pay, whereas the girl will. These are obviously generalisations, but realistic.
“Many talented young girls were lost because pathways were not there…”
One thing is for sure – in many countries, a 16-year-old boy in an academy has a very good chance of making a living playing football. A 16-year-old girl in an academy, although potentially able to play at a high level, will struggle to make a living from the game.
This then impacts the amount of time, effort and resources that parents are willing to support their kids with. Boys at 16 are encouraged to go all out in an attempt to make it. Girls are often discouraged, and pushed down the academic route.
England has lost many talented young girls, because the support and pathways for them to become elite footballers were not there.
The chipping away of an individual’s potential starts from day one. Children become the messages they hear.
They are told they aren’t good enough, not the right body shape, don’t have it in them, can’t afford it, or that football is not for girls. Each one is a setback, or interference taking away from their potential.
What can we do about this? Specifically, men can stop viewing girls through that lens of them being smaller, or inferior, versions of boys. They’re simply girls and we should view them through the lens of past performance relative to themselves, not to any kind of arbitrary measure. Treat girls as footballers, not as girls who play football.
The only metrics we should be concerned with is participation and retention. Do they return next week? Do they have smiles upon arrival and departure? Is football chosen over other activities? This is the lighting of the fire. That’s our primary objective.