How you really keep girls playing soccer

This will rub some people the wrong way.

There’s another round, in what seems like a long series, of empowerment, ‘follow your dream’ types of programs and products coming our way. There are celebratory t-shirts for you to buy and a chance to interact with idols. This we are told will help keep girls playing soccer. This will motivate them to start playing if they aren’t already.

The Canadian women’s national team won the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics. Vancouver hosted the CONCACAF qualifying tournament the year before.  We hosted the U20 Women’s World Cup in 2014 and the full on Women’s World Cup in 2015 with the final being here in Vancouver. We then repeated as bronze medalists at the Rio Olympics this past summer. These were all exciting events. I bought tickets for the Women’s World Cup and also went to most of the Olympic qualifying tournament games. Those five years from 2011 to now have seen a tremendous rise in interest in the Canadian Women’s National Team as well as the U20’s.

And in every one of those years since 2011, enrolment in girls’ soccer in Vancouver has gone down.

But how can that be? They have role models. They flock to see their idols play in full stadiums against the best teams in the world. They buy jerseys and go to autograph sessions.

Here’s why. There’s a huge difference between sustenance and the occasional treat. Women’s soccer events, on and off the field, are treats. They make you feel good for a short period of time and you look forward to them but they do not sustain you. Sustenance requires a steady flow of the food necessary to make you stronger and smarter. The occasional snack for someone who is otherwise getting what they need nutritionally is totally fine and can be motivating but it does not keep them going long term.

You know what keeps girls playing soccer long term, what sustains them? Their parents and their coaches.

Parents who facilitate their play by providing time, money and an emotional investment in girls soccer. Parents who find the right club by asking the right questions of the right people. They register them, get them to training and games, encourage them to keep playing through periods of doubt, buy the necessary equipment, tell them that they really enjoy watching them play and show that they value team sports and what can be learned from them. They advocate for their daughter when necessary, help breed confidence in them by telling them its okay to take some chances and have them not work out all the time. They celebrate their victories and tell them that losing a game is just something you use to learn from and that teamwork is about respecting both the strengths and weaknesses of your teammates and being able to work with both. They put the same resources into their daughters’ sports needs as they do for their sons.

Some kids need more of this support than others regardless of whether they are a girl or a boy but at some point they will need the guidance of a parent to calm doubts and keep them playing. Those moments are crucial. They have to be recognized quickly and acted upon deftly.

As parents facilitate and support, coaches engender trust and respect in the pursuit of helping players get better at the game.

All players need to trust that their coach wants the best for them and respects them as a person as well as their ability to contribute to the team’s efforts regardless of the level of play. And once that bond is established, players hope their coach is committed to be with their team long term. Coaches who take players from their first years right through to U18 are absolute gems of people. To spend ten plus years working with a group of girls, showing them that you want to be part of their soccer experience from the time they enter grade school to the time they leave it, that you enjoy it and will stick it out through years of training sessions on wet, windswept fields; that you won’t walk away from them after 7-0 losses and won’t make the experience more about your ego than their enjoyment. These are the people keep girls playing soccer. These people provide the lifeblood that keeps girls playing. To suggest that the occasional sugary treat does is insulting to so many men and women I know that have worked within an age group that starts with helping to tie their shoelaces and ends with tears and hugs when the last U18 game is played.

I have no issue with the elite level women’s players generating products that provide little hits of excitement. They are more than entitled to leverage their abilities and success on the field to pursue options that I’m sure they genuinely feel are beneficial to young players. The issue is that we need parents, primarily, but also coaches, to recognize that this does not replace the long term efforts needed of them to keep girls playing the game.

The hits keep coming but, as already stated, the numbers keep dropping. The key is to get more parents to facilitate and more coaches to commit.

Parents have to get them to the field and coaches have to keep the field engaging. It’s a symbiotic relationship between parents and coaches. They either strengthen or weaken each other. Involved, supportive parents motivate coaches. Those coaches in turn resolve to create better team environments and the result is that a higher percentage of girls keep playing.

Conversely, parents who don’t support their daughters’ soccer and who abide by or are the cause of poor attendance at training and games make it easy for coaches to lose interest and walk away. Coaches who run poor sessions and create a culture of nonchalance despite the best efforts of parents on the team also cause attrition.

Everybody likes the simple solution. Everybody wants to believe that the latest fad diet that lets them eat their favourite foods all the time is going to make them lose weight and/or be healthier overall. The quick, easy fix will always have the ear of the public with their regularly crossed fingers and willing credit cards.

Keeping girls playing soccer does not have a simple solution. How could keeping young people engaged in a pursuit from age six to eighteen not require the care and cultivation of many motivated people throughout those twelve years? It’s a long term project. It needs as much dedication and resilience from parents and coaches as we ask of the players themselves.

You want your daughter to keep playing soccer? Focus on sustaining them with what they need over many years rather than placating them with what looks good short term.

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3 Responses to How you really keep girls playing soccer

  1. Frank L says:

    Great post – the only quibble I have is where you say, “This will rub some people the wrong way.” I dont see how any of what you say could rub people the wrong way. My daughter is in U12 rep in the Toronto area (indoor season now), and our club has a very strong group of committed coaches, players and parents. Rather than seeing it as a sacrifice or a chore, getting her to her practices and games has been incredibly rewarding when I see how much her skill level has increased, her confidence has grown, and see the dedication she and her teammates have to each other.

    • Gregor says:

      I was maybe too vague with the ‘rub people the wrong way’ comment. I think there’s some people out there that may read what I’m saying as a criticism of initiatives/programs that members of the CanWNT have undertaken. What I’m saying about those one day type events is they create a buzz and excitement but they don’t sustain players long term and parents shouldn’t count on them to keep their daughters playing. Supporting their team-based environment, as parents, is more likely to keep the playing. That in conjunction with caring, enthusiastic coaches will do more to keep girls playing.

      I’ll also just add (because I didn’t in the article) that I don’t think those playing at higher levels are, per capita, the ones we need to worry about quitting the game so much as lower level grassroots players.

  2. Frank L says:

    There’s nothing wrong with having the events (our club gets access to a lot of TFC games as well as WNT games) as long as they are a supplement to all of the things you mention in your post. Regarding your last point, the problem with keeping the girls engaged in the game at the house level is in part, a lack of quality coaching. I can only speak for my daughter’s club – at the house level, all of the coaches are parent volunteers, and I can attest (having coached one year) to the fact that there is no training other than being given a small pamphlet with some drills. My daughter was fortunate in her other years in house league that she had some very good coaches, but that is not the norm by any stretch.
    Anyway, I just want to say that I was very happy to come across your blog. I think it will help me put what I see on the field (practice or game) in perspective

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