I used to think that you had to be a certain type of person to play team sports: athletic, tall and, well, really good at sports. That was before my friend convinced me to join a grassroots women's football team based in north London, in 2017. I’ve learned so much since then – and not just about improving my footwork. I play in a 5-a-side league and there’s nothing like repeatedly losing double figures to nil to teach you about resilience. It’s also helped me get fitter and appreciate what my body can do, in an environment that’s way more encouraging than an intense HIIT class at the gym.
That’s why I got so excited about this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup™ – it feels like a huge moment for women’s sport. According to the FA, football is now the top participation sport for girls and women in England and I’m hopeful that the tournament has inspired even more women and girls to get into playing football.
Playing football can be as much about your mindset off the pitch as what you do on it. That’s something Scotland player Kim Little learned when she suffered an injury a month before the Euros in 2017. Rather than focusing on the crushing disappointment of not being able to represent Scotland in the tournament, she thought about it in a positive way. "I saw the journey as being a positive one, learning from a situation I’d never been in before," she explains. "Although I’d rather have not been out for 10 months, it has made me a better player and person."
England player Lucy Bronze has also faced career-threatening injuries. She was told aged 20 that her career might not last longer than three or four years after she had multiple knee surgeries. Thankfully, that turned out not to be true – she’s now 27 and England manager Phil Neville has described her as "the best player in the world". "Getting injured a lot made me push myself even harder," says Bronze. Recovering from injuries isn't the only way football has made her more resilient. She says she’s faced criticism as a female footballer throughout her life, which has only made her stronger. When she was 12 she was told she shouldn’t play football with the boys, in case she got hurt. "I think I was more likely to hurt them!" she says. Bouncing back from criticism is something she still deals with now. "Every time you make a mistake as a female footballer, you get told to give up and that you don’t belong," she says. "But this is also the time you get the most support by the people who believe in and respect you."
There are obviously plenty of physical benefits from playing football, but it's more than just kicking a ball around. A study commissioned by UEFA found that playing football helps increase teenage girls’ confidence more than any other sport. According to the research, 80% of teenage female footballers said that playing made them feel more confident, while 58% said that football had helped them overcome a lack of self-confidence. Growing in confidence through being on the football pitch is something Kim Little has experienced firsthand. "Being surrounded by my teammates and coaches who I learn something from every day and who inspire and motivate me, allows me to be confident and know that I am capable of doing whatever I put my mind to."
Being a role model
Whether you play with a local grassroots team or you’re representing your country in an international competition like the FIFA Women’s World Cup™, women’s football needs to be more visible at all levels. It’s not just about inspiring more women and girls to play football (though that's important too); it’s helping break down the barriers so that the sport isn’t viewed as a men’s game anymore. That kind of mindset can have an impact that goes way beyond the game. "It’s really nice to be a part of women’s football throughout this time of rapid growth, interest and visibility," says Kim Little. "I hope that any young girl or woman who watches me play is in some way inspired to do what they love and know that they can be whatever they want to be."
England player Nikita Parris feels the same. That’s why she set up an academy for young girls in Toxteth in Liverpool, where she grew up. "Sport is a great engineer to allow people to progress in whatever they choose. I thought by setting up the academy in Toxteth, it will give people an opportunity to decide what their future holds." She believes playing sport has the power to help break down barriers when it comes to gender equality. "The women’s game has just shot up. The FIFA Women’s World Cup™ will push the game on even further," she says. "People say there’s a glass ceiling but I don’t believe it. I think sport can smash that glass ceiling."