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Young girls abandoning sport links to gender inequality in youth teams

A ‘Go women’s sport’ banner hangs in a Northcote front yard. Photograph: Poppy Knight.

Annabelle ‘Belle’ Crisp has played football since she was in Auskick at eight years old. Now at age 17, the disparity between the girls’ and boys’ teams at her Melbourne private school has left her wondering whether she wants to continue.


“At Geelong games we had to drive ourselves out, and the boys got supplied these buses," said Crisp.

“You say you want to be an equal school but when it’s pitch black in Keysborough, we don’t get provided transport home… while the boys do,” she said, frustrated by her school giving the girls team second best grounds and transportation.


50% of Australian girls quit sports before they turn 17, according to Suncorp’s 2019 Youth Confidence Report.


It found this stemmed from the embedded disadvantages in youth girls’ programs.


Former AFL player and AFLW coach Nathan Burke said this is still a problem, even at the highest level.


“The main complaint that the girls have is access to facilities and resources,” he said. 


“A lot of clubs talk about the fact that they’re equal, but when it boils down to it if it was a choice for who gets the facility first and the resource first, the men will.”


Amelie Gilchrist, a 19-year-old training with the VFL on her path to professional football has thought about quitting multiple times, frustrated by her team regularly receiving secondary access and priority to the best facilities.


“Sometimes we would have training cancelled because the boys had a practice football match at the same time, and we had to go 45 minutes away to some other random ground that got lots of girls injured because it was shit,” Gilchrist said.


“The boys are playing at Marvel stadium and we’re playing out in woop-woop, every girl’s ground is the worst and windiest location ever, that affects the quality so much.”


Undesirable and neglected locations - with poor weather, and damaged, muddy, or hard fields - can massively impact the quality of play.


“Everyone talks about the quality of women’s footy being worse, and obviously that’s down to the skills and abilities, but it’s also down to the ground,” Gilchrist said.


“I think the best quality VFLW game we’ve ever played was at Marvel Stadium because it makes such a difference.”


The relationship between ground conditions and injury is evident in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport’s 2007 study, where of 402 injuries, 352 could be related to ground hardness.


Speaking to Crisp and Gilchrist, however, the issue that poses the greatest threat to them losing passion and motivation to play is the feeling of displacement and lack of belonging beside the boys’ teams.


“You go to school games where the boys are playing at the same time as the girls, and everyone’s watching the guys, not a single supporter for the girls. We could win and the guys could lose, and everyone would still stay over there,” said Crisp Belle.

Jodie Palmer (left) and her daughter Belle Crisp (right), talk about their sporting experience. Photograph: Poppy Knight

Gilchrist reflects on her time before VFL, where her first division team would also never gather a crowd.


“None of the boys came to any of our matches, even though our coach invited them, and then at their Grand Final, every single first’s girl was there, pretty much half the school was there, but nobody ever came for us,” she said.


Gilchrist said she was the “little sister following them around, wanting to be included.” 


A common tradition of club football is to light-heartedly fine team members small amounts of money for doing things that jeopardise the team: partying the night before a game, forgetting your mouth guard, arguing with the umpire.


Gilchrist said at her footy dinner, where the fines are read out to the club, the girls struggle to feel included in the community. 


“When the boys read out theirs, they all fall off their chairs laughing and howling and screaming, and the girls laugh along, but then when it's the girls turn the boys are dead silent,” Gilchrist said.


“We feel like we’re not funny and like we’re not wanted”.


Without recognition for skill and success, young girls’ motivation and passion for sport is compromised, which puts youth teams in jeopardy of rapidly losing players, amongst them being talented athletes, but also girls whose health and wellbeing thrives in community sport.

Annabelle Crisp’s mum, Jodie Palmer, who managed the youth girls’ team at Crisp’s club, said she struggled to get girls to sign up to play, despite their team winning the premiership in 2022, and the youth girls’ competition years prior.


“It was almost impossible to get enough girls to play,” Palmer said.


She created the senior women’s team to give the youth girls an opportunity to keep playing once they aged up but ended up joining the team herself.


“I wasn’t thinking of it as ‘me doing it for me,’ it was more for Belle and her mates, and then it became about me,” she said.


“We’re all motivated to be there, we want to be there, we enjoy each other’s company, we enjoy the physicality of it, it’s a really positive environment. I didn’t think I’d be playing for 4 years.”  


Palmer is passionate about the need for community sport in young girl’s lives.


“I think that getting stuck in just Uni or just work is dangerous, sport is a really good outlet for your mental health, and obviously physical health, and I think sometimes people lose sight of that,” she said.


Australian Sports Foundation are promoting community sport participation, researching its mental, physical, and social benefits.


According to their recent studies, participating in 150 minutes of high levels of activity can reduce cognitive decline by 38%, and lengthen lifespans by up to 7 years.


Members of community sport are shown to be 44% more likely to have mixed-ethnic social circles compared to non-participants, and through social exercise have heightened mental wellbeing.


The inequalities professional athletes face is rooted and reflected in how girls’ youth sport is treated, where disadvantaged and frustrated young girls lose their love for sport, both sabotaging the potential for their talents and aspirations, and posing a detriment to their physical and emotional wellbeing.



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