An investigation into the 'make or break' age group for women in sport.
It’s the American stereotype: boy fails class but coach sees potential, boy plays football match and scout offers scholarship. All of a sudden, the problem is solved. Dreams come true – right? We’ve seen it in every 2000 to 2015 teen movie and have grown up with the mentality that sport can be anyone’s saviour. But what about the underlying theme in all of these films? Oh - that’s right – it’s always the troubled jock who gets noticed. Gender inequality in sport is something movie makers seem to love. Unfortunately, this isn’t just the case on screens: it’s a real-life issue creating a ‘black hole’ in women’s sport. The thing is girls begin dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys by age 14. Which makes me wonder: What is it about this particular age group that sparks a rush to withdraw from activities they grew up loving?
Well, the media tend to favour stories that focus on women who have already passed the ‘make or break’ phase. It’s all about image. So, while the stocks are short on success, we still have a duty to give these kids false hope. But why does one number make all the difference? What is it about a girl’s 14th birthday that marks the end of their sporting journey? I simply had to know. So, I made it my mission to seek out what really happens to female athletes in that early to mid-teen stage. Kodah, Eli, Jasmine, Julianna (aged 13), and Jenna (aged 17), all have one thing in common: a passion for sport. Coming into the interviews, I wanted honesty, and that’s what I got.
IF YOU HAD TO GIVE ME YOUR TOP TWO OR THREE SPORTS, WHAT WOULD THEY BE?
KODAH: Netball, Touch and Rugby.
ELI: Yeh, I like Netball and probably Volleyball.
JENNA: Growing up probably Athletics, but now definitely AFL.
JASMINE: [um] Netball is my favourite. Maybe Touch and Basketball just for fun as well.
JULIANNA: Netball and Volleyball, but mainly Netball.
DO YOU WANT TO EVENTUALLY PLAY PROFESSIONALLY IN THOSE SPORTS?
JENNA: Not Athletics because there’s basically no funding and you really don’t see women going into that professionally. AFL though is getting a lot of promotion recently, so that would be where I go.
JASMINE: Netball, yes.
KODAH: I think I want to play Netball professionally when I’m older.
ELI: I would like to try and play pro Netball, but I couldn’t do Volleyball because it is clogging my schedule with school and training already.
SO, SAY AT [NETBALL], IS THERE A LOT OF COMPETITION IN YOUR AGE GROUP?
JASMINE: Well at my last trial for Underwood Park there were heaps of really good players who missed out on the team. I think there was 50 people in my age group.
JULIANNA: There was lots of competition and I think people felt nervous.
WHAT IS THE [AFL] DRAFTING PROCESS LIKE?
JENNA: My last draft was for Gold Coast Suns in 2020 and there were about 50 girls, definitely more than the year before.
DO YOU THINK AT YOUR AGE, THERE’S ONLY ‘ONE SHOT’ WHEN IT COMES TO MAKING A TEAM?
KODAH: I think making teams in the past helps, it can be unfair. It takes away other people’s chances, like if the selectors know you played better on other days. It happened to me once and I was lucky that the selector had coached me before, but it definitely worked against others. I do think it’s very obvious now that Netball and trials and stuff are so political. It’s all about who you know.
JASMINE: I do think you get a second chance, but more like the year after. Because trials are just one day. I knew the selectors at my last trial from old clubs and school teams, but I don’t think that helped.
JULIANNA: I don’t know. My last trial I knew the selectors because they coached my older sister. I think the girls that missed out were just not confident and trials are about how you turn up on the day.
JENNA: Drafts never have a second chance. People fly from different states and automatically get picked, which is fair because there are basically no girls from those regional areas. But if you don’t get drafted, then you have to just drop back to club because no one knows you.
It’s really f-ing biased [oh sorry can I swear]? But yes – it is always who you know. Siblings, family and friends of the coach, but in AFL the worst part is when teams are selected with girls that they know only because of the development pathways. They think kind of like “oh that’s so-and-so.” It’s really discouraging.
IF THERE WAS AN AGE THAT MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE, WHAT WOULD IT BE RIGHT NOW?
KODAH: Well, there’s so many pathways to get noticed but everyone starts playing at that 13/ 14-year mark so all of a sudden it gets harder to play.
JASMINE: I don’t know if it gets harder, or if people stop giving it a shot. They think that it doesn’t matter how well they play since there’s so many other good athletes to choose from.
JENNA: I know the main age for girls to start being drafted and move into the AFLW is around 15 to 18. The thing is, in the years I’ve been part of the academies, I’ve only seen a few people actually make it. Probably not even a whole team [of 15]. It’s weird because the major league wants players who are a little bit older, but by then most girls have been discouraged and forced to quit after not being drafted earlier.
JULIANNA: I think the hardest age is 14 or 15 because there’s more coaching and you really have to make a name in your sport. The girls who get selected in that age end up being the same ones in older teams. It’s unfair.
ELI: I’m thinking of taking a year off [Netball] to focus of training, but I think coming back the year after will be really hard because all the other girls will be more developed.
So, maybe it’s just coincidence, but with the stigma of ‘girl and boy’ sports still lingering, it’s clear many young females tend to rely on sports which favour giving them the option of going pro. The one thing not up for debate, is the ‘one-shot’ culture around selections, and brutal ‘name for fame’ mentality that swarms representative sport. Talent is being overlooked, leaving young athletes to dwell on whether their hard work is really worth it. Yes, it’s inequality; it’s a lack of exposure; it’s sexism. But more recently, it’s the nature of this ‘make or break’ age group which is closing doors on our next generation of women in sport.