A week after listening to Clare Balding speak at the magnificent Senedd (Welsh National Assembly) as part of Sport Wales’ powerful new movement to empower more women and girls in sport, Watch Her Go (Amdani in Welsh), it seems that the words of Clare has very much embedded into my bones. I simply can’t shake off her passion and her energy for women in sport, for closing the gap for equality and for giving women and girls the same opportunities as men.
As a society, we culturally just ‘accept’ that ‘that’s just the way it is’ because it’s easier. But it’s the brave and ambitious ones who, over the decades, have decided to change the expectation. There are thousands of heroines in our society who strive for excellence, who push for better and battle for being bigger and bolder than ever before. And the whole panel at the Watch Her Go evening are ambassadors for their sport, but also, all the women and girls who they represent too.
Leah Wilkinson spoke courageously and honestly about what hockey means to her and how the life lessons you learn from the pitch weave into your every day lives. A shocking statement she made was the fact that the Welsh women have to pay to play for their country – about £1000 a year. Our hockey representatives who play on the world stage are teachers and police officers, business owners and mums. It’s real. And this very point is why we should stop comparing men’s sport to women’s – it’s comparable. Yes, the fundamental rules of the game is the same, the pitches played on, the kit worn – but the difference is that women’s sport is our sport. The athletes are our friends, we are inspired because we literally play with the girls who play for our country. They’re not put on some ridiculous pedestal, representing achievable theatrics like we see dominating men’s sport in the media. Our girls and women are our champions that play sport with true grit, true determination and true heart.
I’m glad – women’s sport isn’t the same as the men’s – but just because it’s different doesn’t mean we take our foot off the pedal and accept that’s the way it is. We all have an important role to play, because we owe it to our future girls who are just finding their love for sport, we can’t have them miss out. There are still ridiculous barriers in place, and, as powerfully put by Annemarie Phelps, who also spoke with fierce majesty and honesty:
Let’s work out how we can smash through the barriers, and not sneak under them.
Many girls drop off playing sport at around 14-17 for a number of factors. Self-esteem is a huge issue, especially at this age, and I remember how hockey was such a driving force of positivity during my teenage years. Clare Balding mentioned in her speech how if we could bottle up the feelings we get from playing sport and sell it to girls who are struggling with self-esteem issues, that are exaggerated to extremes thanks to good old social media, then the problem would be halved. The irony is, the girls who need to experience the closeness, the bond, the feeling of success from overcoming struggles together in a team, are the ones who are turning their backs on the very thing that could transform their lives. It transformed mine, and continues to do so every training session, every bruise, every game.
I, myself, let women’s sport down. I stopped writing. I stopped pushing and encouraging through the power of words. I stopped ‘being the change you want to see in the world’ – because quite simply, that’s what it takes. I let other distractions get in the way and I feel horribly responsible for that. For women’s sport to continue to evolve we all need to ‘just do it’, as Nike states. At the risk of sounding ridiculously romantic to the point of being delusional, that is quite simply what needs to happen. We need to continue to play, to train, to create new teams, be on those committees, plan socials, wear your team’s hoody on a Saturday morning whilst heading to the gym or to the next match – be seen.
Sitting in that room full of inspiring sport stars, the sport makers and the policy creators, I felt honoured to know that we’re all wanting the same thing – more. And that is the next chapter for our women playing our sport.
Why do we ever do what we do? Because we love it. Why do I stand in goal and let balls be smashed in my direction? For myself? No, for those 10 girls in front of me, the others waiting to come on the pitch, and for the coach on the sideline, because we’re an ‘us’ that’s worth it. The same when I play rugby – it’s another ‘us’ that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, and that’s worth protecting.
As Clare Balding stated:
We have an opportunity to turn women’s sport into what we want men’s sport to be.
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