P.O.V.ey: Silencing the Critics

I’ve been playing football since I was 8-years-old, and in that time, I’ve thought about throwing in the towel more times than I can count. Being a girl or woman that plays a ‘manly’ sport can be a battle, but it’s definitely one that is worth the fight. I’m now 23, and have played for a load of teams, in different countries and at different levels. It’s never been adapting to new teams, or the language barrier or not making the starting 11 which has been what nearly put me off, but instead it’s been attitudes and opinions. Attitudes and opinions, not just of small-minded beer-belly blokes that like to make their voices heard at every opportunity, but also of those closest to me who didn’t understand why I’d chosen to play a sport traditionally played by men.

In this piece, I’m going to talk through a few of the moments that made me want to stop playing football, and why, all these years later they still stick with me. The positive thing is that I’m still here, still playing, and I’m now a voice trying to change the narrative, so whatever people say to you, keep your head up and prove them wrong. I knew before I sat down to write this that there were too many specific occasions to go into detail on every single one, partly because if I did, I would fill a book, not just a blog post, and secondly because I knew that dragging up some of these experiences would just make me angry all over again!

I think it’s super important to share these negative experiences as well as positive ones to change opinions about the women’s game, and to make it clear that it’s not okay to make someone feel like they shouldn’t play a sport that they love.

The start of the football journey

I don’t think that there were many primary schools who provided as many opportunities for girls to get involved with football as mine, and from what I have seen, these opportunities have only got better since I’ve grown up. One of the female teachers at the school had previously played for West Ham Ladies and was passionate about getting girls to play, no matter their ability. Also, despite the school having a really successful netball team, all the girls were encouraged to give football a try, and training was always organised so that they didn’t clash with each other.

As an 8-year-old girl, I didn’t really have any idea that people would have a problem with me playing football, but even at that age, some of the boys would make comments about how girls shouldn’t play. It’s quite a long time ago, but one such comment really does stick in my mind:

Girls shouldn’t play football!

It was something that I would hear many many times in the future, but on that specific occasion I thought, ‘well, you’re wrong’. You’ll also be pleased to hear that as the smug 8-year-old boy ran away laughing, I kicked a football at him, which hit him with a satisfying thud. Of course, I would never condone violence as a way to get back at someone, but on this occasion as an 8-year-old girl, having the skill to hit my critic with a pinpoint kick proved him wrong, and probably made him think twice about mouthing off to any other girl footballers.

GCSE’s, A Levels and fighting to play

I thought that secondary school would be a new opportunity, and I was pleasantly surprised at one of the open evenings that the school claimed to have a girls football team. Alas, by the time I got into the school, this was not the case, and for the next 7 years it was a constant battle between me and the PE department to play football.

It wasn’t until I had trials at Arsenal and Reading that they finally let me play football in PE, which was already 4 years into my time at the school. Finally, I thought, but I was also dreading it. As I was one of the first girls to play football with the boys, I thought that if I messed it up, I would be ruining the chances for future female footballers to be able to get involved. Luckily, I had a great group of guy friends who supported me through it, and although it was tough, it definitely benefited me in terms of confidence, and I proved to the school that it shouldn’t be a problem for girls to get involved.

Me and my fellow Sports Captain in the local paper. As you can see, a hockey stick was seen as a better choice than a football for the general public…

In Sixth Form, I was made Sports Captain (a prefect put in charge of sports at the school) and was determined to make a difference for other girls who wanted to get involved with football, or for that matter other sports which weren’t traditionally offered to girls. At the same time, I continued to play football recreationally with the boys, despite some sarcastic comments, from those who I managed to nutmeg, alongside playing and training with Wycombe Wanderers Ladies out of school hours. However, I never felt completely accepted, despite a majority of the boys I was playing with being my friends. I was still always questioning whether I was good enough in the back of my mind, and similarly, I thought the boys were probably thinking the same.

Shouldn’t you be playing netball?

In my penultimate year at the school, I was awarded ‘full colours’ which were a prize awarded to people who were high-achieving in sports. Before I became Sports Captain these were only given to students who played the sport for the school, but I had argued that there were people who couldn’t (or weren’t allowed!) to play the sport they loved. I think that this was one of my biggest achievements of my teenage years; not necessarily getting the prize itself, but paving the way for other female footballers excluded from the school set-up to still be recognised for their achievements.

It was certainly an uphill battle to get those hours playing in school time, but it was worth it, and it definitely helped me realise that I would have to fight to get into the teams I wanted to play for and to keep pushing women’s football. I also realised that being a player didn’t just mean putting on my boots and playing, but it also meant getting involved with the issues that surrounded the game. I can happily report that my school now has a girls football team in nearly every year and that they’re winning a lot of games! If only they’d listened a bit earlier…

University: Cliques, cleats and lad culture

I had it in my mind that university football would be the best years of my career so far, and that the sexist comments were a thing of school. Boy, was I wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy uni football. It’s great to be able to roll out of bed and go to training, and then finish lectures and pull on my boots again, but I did struggle with the cliques and lad culture. For whatever reason, there was a small minority of girls who would make comments about the players in the lower teams, despite preaching the need for a ‘family’ mentality. For someone who was used to critisism from the boys and support from the girls, this was a big shock to me.

In my second year, I bounced between the 1st XI and 2nd XI, and felt that the superiority complex of this small group was creating a really toxic environment. I never thought it would be other football girls that made me want to quit, but if it hadn’t been for a couple of close friends in other teams, I would have called it a day.

Something which I expected more was ‘lads’ making comments about women playing football. I thought that this would be less of a problem at a uni like Bath, which is renowned for it’s sport, but unfortunately, it was still something which I saw and heard a lot. One such occasion was when we shared a coach back from a fixture in Swansea with the men’s hockey team. They spent the journey making comments about the girls appearances, sexual jokes and how women who played football were all lesbians. Literally, a 3 hour journey of comments like this…

Girls who play football are all lesbians, right?

I do have a thick skin, but it really got to me that these men were making comments right to our faces, and didn’t stop. We were representing the university just like they were, we’d won our match (which they hadn’t) and we hadn’t made any comments to warrant their onslaught. I still get angry thinking about the situation, and sometimes tell myself that I should have said something at the time, but in reality it’s not worth trying to reason with a small-minded pack, no matter what they say.

What really hit me about the situation, was that no-one else made any effort to try and diffuse the situation. There was another sports team on the bus who sat quietly and accepted what was going on. Similarly there was coaching staff, who should have at least some control over their team, especially when they were making comments like they were. A lot of the football girls also seemed equally unfazed, which surprised me. I can understand not wanting to exacerbate the situation, as I said above, but most of them seemed to accept that these comments were an inevitability.

España: Sun, sea and sexist photographers

My time playing in Spain was amazing, and I would recommend it to anyone who gets the chance to go, but there seemed to be just as many women’s football critics in Spain as there are here. The club that I played for had one women’s team and over 15 boy’s and men’s teams, and we were always at the bottom of the chain. We’d have to warm up on the concrete next to the pitch or not at all if the men’s team game ran over, and the club would change our fixtures without consulting us. However, the worst instance of sexism was at a club photo-shoot.

Three of the women’s team, myself being one of them, were chosen to be part of the club photo-shoot for the new website. ‘Exciting’, I thought. The club want to showcase the women’s side and attract more players. However, arriving at the club, it was clear that the particular photographer they had chosen did not share my excitement. We arrived for our slot at 10am, and he refused to photograph us until nearly 11, as he condescendingly said that the pictures of the youth boys teams were ‘un poco más importante’ (A bit more important) before arguing with the club official that this was the case. Bearing in mind that we as a team paid exactly the same subs, and were generally much lower maintenance, I didn’t buy into his argument, as you can probably imagine.

‘Los chicos son un poco mas importante, no?’

The boys are a little bit more important, don’t you think?

By this point, the three of us were already pretty miffed at the whole situation, and were WhatsApping the team with updates of the almost comically sexist photographer. The worst was to come. When he finally deemed it time to shoot us, he told us to pose ‘como modelas’ (like models). ‘Paint me like your French girls’ vibes, for sure. I guess this was a pretty harmless comment really, but we weren’t there to look like models, but to show that women and girls could play football for the club. I’ve thought about this more recently, as Casey Stoney spoke about her annoyance that female athletes are chosen for commercial sponsorships dependant on appearance, which is a kick in the teeth if we compare it to the men’s game… Bale isn’t everyone’s cup of tea appearance-wise, but he had no problem finding sponsors in Adidas, Nissan and Foot Locker. Anyway, a conversation for another day. In this instance it was just another example of this man’s small minded attitude to women playing football in Spain.

The nail in the coffin was one of his last comments as he did the shoot. He’d been really reluctant to do action shots or anything with us actually playing, which was weird in itself, but when a club official suggested we do some keepy-ups for a bit more variety of photo, he practically laughed in his face saying ‘pero, las chicas no pueden!’ (But girls can’t do them!) For Sabela, one of the other girls, this was the last straw. Sabela was one of the most skilful players on the team, and made a point of acing 5 minutes of freestyle keeps-ups, before turning to the photographer and saying ‘las chicas pueden hacer cualquier cosa que puedan hacer los chicos’.

‘Las chicas pueden hacer cualquier cosa que puedan hacer los chicos!’

Girls can do anything that boys can do!

Thankfully, it wiped the smirk off his face for a minute or so…

Safe to say, I decided not to include one of the photographs taken by that photographer!

15 years of criticism: What’s the message?

Firstly, the message is that despite 15 years of fighting to play, insults, comments about my appearance and questions over my sexuality, I still choose to play and involve myself in the women’s game. If, like me, you’ve had wobbles after a particularly nasty or closed-minded comment, just remember that if you quit, they’re winning and they’ll continue to make those comments to countless more people. You wouldn’t stop eating your favourite food because someone else says they don’t like it. The same applies here! It’s none of their business what you do or don’t like. The best thing we can do is to keep supporting each other, and the women’s game in general. The more people that see how great the WSL, Championship and FAWNL (and all the grassroots league), the better!

The women’s game is on the rise massively, and personally, I’m really excited to be part of this new era. Keep on supporting your teammates and silencing the critics, because at the end of the day, the more of us that get involved, the less criticism future generations of female footballers will have to face.

Join the conversation!

This has been difficult for me to write, but worth it! I hope that someone reads this and decides to carry on playing despite comments which put them off!

I know that I won’t be the only one who has dealt with these issues, and I’d love it if people would share their story with me, either anonymously via Direct Message to me personally (@LishaPovs), or by commenting on here or on Twitter. Let’s get the conversation going and show that no matter what people say, women’s football is here to stay for the long term!

P.O.V.ey: What’s the deal with pre-season?

Pre-season is like Marmite. Some players love it, others hate it. Personally, I’m a little bit on the fence about the whole affair. There’s definitely been pre-seasons which pushed me as a player, and certainly helped me in the season’s opening games, but other times, its felt like a bit of a waste of time. Taking into account the P.O.V from both sides of the Marmite/pre-season battle lines, I’ve written this read about my views on pre-season, and what I think players and coaches should do to really make it worthwhile.

Like my last article, I’ve decided to divide up the different areas of pre-season, so that I can try and think about each bit in more detail. I’ve shared my point of view, but I also had a think about the way my previous coaches, managers and fellow players saw certain aspects, to give a bit of a broader picture (and to not take sides!)

As always, if you’re a player or a coach and have any other advice that you’d like to add, or even if you’d just like to declare whether you’re a pre-season lover or hater, either pop it in the comments or tweet me @LishaPovs, to get the conversation going!

The Fun of Fitness

I think that when a lot of people think of pre-season, they think fitness. Fair enough, fitness is a pretty important part of any footballers success, but in my opinion, pre-season shouldn’t just be about getting fit. The dreaded Bleep Test is not (in my humble opinion) going to help me score more goals. Nor will long-distance running help with the start/stop nature of a striker’s matchday experience.

Clubs that focus solely on fitness during pre-season are a conundrum to me. I’ve been to pre-seasons where we’ve done fitness session after fitness session, and barely touched a football. Conversely, I’ve played for a team whose pre-season was all ball-work focussed with no fitness in sight. I think that during pre-season, the ratio of fitness to ball work should be about 30% (fitness) to 70% (football).

Summer is also arguably the time that people are most motivated to go out and exercise themselves, and if it is made clear by the coaches that they expect players to be doing their own fitness, I think that’s fair. If I know that I won’t make it into the starting line-up without doing some running and gym work in my own time, then I will make the effort to do enough.

Verdict: Pre-season fitness is necessary, but should be made more of an individual responsibility. Don’t prioritise running over ball work. Strike the right balance! N.B. It’s completely okay to be absolutely knackered and red in the face during pre-season, we can’t all look like the model in the above photo! Do the amount of fitness that is right for you!

The mystical PSF

I like a pre-season friendly as much as the next person. It’s great to get back out on the pitch and test yourself against some different opposition, and especially after moving clubs, it’s also the perfect opportunity to start learning about how your teammates play, and what to expect from them for the coming season.

However, although I love a good PSF, I think that a lot of teams and players put too much emphasis on results, and not enough on development and trying new things. Pre-season is the only time that a player can try a new position, or a manager can give a new formation a go, without the fear of it going wrong and costing all-important points.

It was at some point in a pre-season friendly when I was 12 or 13 that I was moved from a right-back to a striker, and I’ve never looked back. Trying new things is definitely a good thing, both individually and as a team!

Going back to my previous verdict on fitness, pre-season friendlies can also build on what you’ve been working on in the off-season; your endurance, pace or maybe your strength and conditioning. It’s one thing to be able to run 10k without too much huffing and puffing, but it’s another thing to be able to run doggies when the ball is going end-to-end during a match.

Finally, as a player that’s moving to a new club (again!) I would have really valued playing in more pre-season friendlies. I played in one with Woodley United, who I have now signed with, but due to holidays and not having moved house yet, I haven’t been able to play any more. The PSF I took part in gave me a good idea of how my new teammates play, whether they like the ball at their feet or a cheeky through ball, if they can bash in a header from a high cross or like to slot in from a low one… You learn so much from 90 minutes with a new team. So, in that regard, pre-season friendlies can really help settle in, as well as to start the important process of gelling with your team, new and old signings alike.

Verdict: So, maybe pre-season friendly results aren’t the be all and end all, but it can help exponentially with fitness, and is perhaps the only time to try new things. You never know, you might be the next Rapinoe, but you’ve been playing in goal your whole life! Linking perfectly to my next point about pre-season, these friendlies, and pre-season in general, are also vital in building up team morale and welcoming new faces.

Teams that play together, stay together

No, for once, I’m not talking about playing football, I’m talking about the out-of-football social aspect. Having a team that is clique free and get on when they step off the pitch can have a massive impact on the success of the squad. Teams that focus on this aspect of team-building during pre-season are definitely an example to follow in my opinion.

Last season, I played for Almondsbury FC Women in Bristol. A great bunch of girls from lots of different backgrounds, but what made it a special team, was the team spirit (cheesy, I know). Gary, the manager, put in so much effort to make every single player welcome, and the team took part in boot-camp style team building this pre-season, alongside the more traditional training and friendlies. Although this might not be every players’ cup of tea, it’s nice to know that your teammates have your back, not just on the pitch.

Pre-season should be the time that the team gets to know each other, and that the coaching team and captain work to quash any tensions, lone-ranger ideologies or moaners within the team. From my experience, teams that spend time together off the pitch, and who know each others strengths aside from football, are more likely to be successful in their season. Also, and very importantly, this kind of team is much more healthy to be part of than a ‘team’ of individuals who want nothing to do with each other outside of the sport.

Verdict: Team bonding is something that, in my experience, is overlooked during pre-season, but can be vital. Creating an environment where everyone supports each other and gets on will boost morale on match-days, encourage attendance at training, and will just make the club a more enjoyable and welcoming place to be. So, any coaches out there, follow in Gary’s footsteps and book a team boot-camp, go on a team night-out or host a BBQ, you’ll be surprised what a difference an afternoon can make to team relationships!

So, pre-season, what’s the deal?

Pre-season has the potential to be like the Marmite debate; love/hate, but it doesn’t have to be. With a bit of individual fitness work, some enjoyable, low pressure pre-season friendlies as well as some emphasis on creating a supportive team environment, pre-season can be enjoyable!

As always, tweet me @LishaPovs with your thoughts/ opinions on the issue, and any advice you have as to what has or hasn’t worked for you during pre-season! I’m always interested to hear what you have to say, and if it helps other players and coaches, that’s a bonus!

P.O.V.ey: New beginnings

Not sure of your next move? Struggling to find a team that fits? Have a look at my point of view on making a new start in the grassroots game!

It’s that time of year again: pre-season. It’s the perfect opportunity to get fit get to know new teammates and look ahead to what the coming season has in store. However, for the fourth year running, I miss out on all that. My pre-season will instead be spent trying to find a team with the right fit. A bit of context at this point; I havenn’t always been serial mover and shaker in grassroots women’s football! I was at Wycombe Wanderers Ladies FC from the age of 14 until I was 19 and left for university, and even then, I would still return intermittently when they were struggling for numbers. However, for the last few years, things have been up in the air.

I’m sure a lot of players may have faced the same issue as me if they have decided to leave home to go to college or university; rebuilding your confidence within the university football setup and potentially joining a local team on the side is a pretty daunting prospect, especially if you have been with the same team since youth football. For me, I had to contend with not only this scenario in my first year at the University of Bath, but as part of my degree I had to spend a year abroad, which meant finding two more suitable teams to play for in both Spain and Russia!

Now, as I am writing this, I am in this predicament again, searching for a team for the coming season. In September, I will be moving back homewards, which means joining yet another team, and one which I probably played against when I was 16. Having had my fair share of team trials, open training, and newbie nerves, I feel like I’m in a pretty good position to give advice to any of you struggling to find a new club or team to join this season.

Here’s my 4-step guide to finding a new beginning this season!

1. Do your research

Make sure you know what you’re looking for, and whether the team fits the bill!

Arguably the most important step before you even consider going for an open training session or a trial is to do your research. Firstly, try and find some general information about the team as well as where it fits into the larger picture within the club and league. Is it a standalone team? Is it linked to a men’s side? How involved is the club with the women’s setup? These might seem like relatively unimportant questions, but unfortunately a lot of women’s teams do struggle financially, and clubs can be quick to cut them loose when things get tough. If the club seems supportive of the women’s team e.g., they feature them on their website and social media, they use the same ground or training facilities, and there’s a ‘one club’ mentality, that can be a good sign. Of course, appearances on social media can be deceptive, so don’t base your decision purely on whether the team play at a nice stadium or get shout-outs on Insta.

It’s not just the club and the team itself that you should look at though. Having a look at the league is also a good shout. Have a glance at where the prospective team has placed in the last few seasons, whether they’ve had to drop any games due to insufficient player numbers and also have a look at teams which you’ll be playing against. I normally look for a team which isn’t comfortably winning every game, but similarly isn’t losing convincingly week in week out. You can easily find the information on the league website or on FA Full Time.

2. Choose the right level for you

Find a level where you feel comfortable, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push yourself!

Leading on nicely from the issue of different leagues, choosing the right level that you want to be playing at is also key. Having played at all sorts of levels, I have a pretty good idea of where I’m comfortable, what level I need to be at to push myself, and what’s probably a no-go area at the moment. Over the past year, I played in the Segunda Division Catalana in Spain, the FA Women’s National League South West, the Southern Region Women’s Football League and with a Russian beach football team that boasts about 80% of the national representative side. I can freely admit that I was pushed out of my comfort zone, and I would say that the benefits and drawbacks probably presented themselves in equal measure. For example, in the FA WNL, I definitely improved technically, but often found myself on the bench for long periods during matches. In Russia, apart from the language barrier, I was training with high-performance players who played like a well-oiled machine and knew each others moves inside-out, often leaving me feeling lost, but at the same time, the baptism of fire has really encouraged me to improve and aim for that same level as them in the future.

Learning from my past experiences, this season I’ve decided to head for the Southern Region Women’s Football League Premier Division. It’s a league that I know well, and boasts some great teams. AFC Bournemouth, Oxford City, Abingdon United and my old club Wycombe are some of the teams that will be going toe-to-toe this year. It’s a challenging league, with some stand out players, so I’m excited for the season.

This Sunday I tried out at a club in this league, but I will write about how that went in another post.

3. Think about travel

Have a think about how far you are willing to travel for training and matches.

When you’re not a professional, finding a team that’s close and convenient is a really important factor. Especially for those of us who juggle full-time work with football training, the idea of a long drive or journey after the 9 till 5 grind is not an attractive one. If you’re having to drive a long way or get public transport to training and matches, it might have a knock-on effect on your ability to give it your all in training, and subsequently how you perform in matches.

In my experience, choosing a closer club is the best option. Although you might be tempted to go further afield for a more prestigious club or for a higher league, sometimes the best thing to do is to stay close to home and then work from there. If you think you can manage the travel, then go for it, but it’s better to start close and then move further afield, then to start at a club that’s miles away and burn yourself out for a season.

Another travel related tip to take note of! If you’re joining a regional league where away matches are likely to be a bit of a trek, it’s definitely worth asking about whether they take a team bus or lift share. I’ve played for a lot of teams where they didn’t really consider this, and it meant that there were 11 players all driving to fixtures in 11 different cars. Travelling together not only makes sense (money-wise and for the environment!) but it’s also a nice way to build team relationships if you’re a newbie.

4. Make sure you enjoy it!

At the end of the day, enjoying your football is the most important thing!

You’re probably thinking that this is a bit of an obvious point to make, but I can’t stress it enough! At grassroots level, enjoying your football is the most important thing. Of course, you might enjoy football in challenging environments, or like a relaxed lower level club better, but wherever you end up, make sure that you are happy.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been to train with a few different clubs, and for me, it’s just as much about the attitude of the coaches and players, and how you’re welcomed into the team, as it is about the football itself. 15 years of football has taught me that I play best when I have supportive teammates and coaching staff backing me up. When you go and try out for teams, get a feel for the atmosphere and encouragement from other players, as in my experience, you’re more likely to be happy when you’re supported.

Sometimes, even if you’ve been with a club for years and loved it, you might really not enjoy the next season. That’s completely natural! Teams change as new players come in and old ones leave. Don’t be scared to make a change just because that club is all you know. That change might kick-start something amazing!

So, if you’re looking for a new beginning, don’t be afraid to go for it! Have a think about what’s best for you and go and take some teams for a spin. When you find a team where you feel happy and can’t wait to play with, you’ve hit the jackpot! If you’re a player who’s been on the move like I have, or who has just swapped teams, feel free to add any more advice in the comments or tweet me @LishaPovs!