Matildas score win for girls’ participation in community sport

Posted on 15 Aug 2023

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Sunshine JSC Soccer girls
Picture: Mike Borzillo.

The Matildas’ round ball heroics have captured the imagination of junior female soccer players across the nation – which is good news for grass roots community sports clubs.

James Waters has seen first-hand the massive impact the Matildas’ record-breaking World Cup run has had on young girls passionate about soccer.

As coach of an under-11 girls’ team that includes his own daughter Noni, James says the ‘Tillies’ are all the girls are talking about right now.

“About two weeks ago we had a game and the other team’s goalkeeper yelled out ‘C’mon girls, let’s be Matildas’ but I thought ‘Our girls want to be Matildas too!’

“That’s what it’s been like for the past four weeks. It’s just going off.”

James took on the challenge to form a junior girls’ soccer team at his local club Sunshine Heights JSC in the western suburbs of Melbourne in 2019 after coaching his son’s side.

“Noni would only play if I coached, because that’s what I had done for her brother,” said James.

Ten year old junior girls soccer player Noni Mykyta: "I'm going to be a Matilda and be super cool."

Despite father and daughter’s enthusiasm for the task at hand, they could only recruit four girls.

Fast forward to 2023, and with ‘Matildas’ the word on everyone’s lips, James is confident of fielding three full teams comprised of enthusiastic young players next year.

“We’ve increased numbers massively over the past two years,” he said.

While old-fashioned community networking techniques such as word-of-mouth, Facebook posts, and posters in supermarkets advertising for players have played an important part, James says girls watching older versions of themselves playing for their country has proved a powerful motivator.

Not-for-profit advocacy body Women Sport Australia (WSA) President Gen Dohrmann also acknowledged the enormous halo effect the Matildas have had on women’s sport.

A Sunshine Heights JSC player in action. Picture: Mike Borzillo.

“The impact that we are currently seeing with the Matildas’ success during the FIFA Women's World Cup is setting a new benchmark for women's sport in Australia,” she said.

Ms Dohrmann acknowledged that fan support for the nation’s other women’s sporting teams, such as Netball World Cup winners the Diamonds, has been growing, but the Matildas’ phenomena had taken things to the next level.

“The impact of the FIFA Women's World Cup being hosted by Australia and New Zealand coupled with the Matildas’ success has seen a breakthrough for women's sport into mainstream audiences,” she said.

“To see men and boys wearing Matildas’ supporter gear and talking about the Matildas’ games is heralding a new era for women's sport.”

Ms Dohrmann believes the flow on effect for junior sport at the community level will be significant.

Women Sport Australia president Gen Dohrmann.

“I anticipate that we will see an influx of young girls (and boys) joining community soccer teams,” she said.

“An event like this (World Cup) being played in Australia shines a light on the talent and community connection through sport and it is to be expected that interest in participation will increase.

“The Matildas have done a wonderful job in creating role-models in their athletes and I think we're going to have not only little girls but also little boys wanting to become the next Sam Kerr or Ellie Carpenter.”

“I anticipate that we will see an influx of young girls (and boys) joining community soccer teams.”
Women Sport Australia President Gen Dohrmann on the impact the Matildas success will have on community sporting clubs.

James said this newfound confidence among young girls keen to play team sport is on display in the school yard.

Until recently, he said his daughter and her friends would shy away from playing soccer at lunchtime because they were not invited to join in by the boys.

“Over the past three or four weeks things have changed where our daughter will now go to the PE teacher and ask for a soccer ball and start kicking it around and asking the boys to make room for the girls to play their own game,” said James.

He said the Kicking Goals series of kid’s books - based on the exploits of a girl excluded from playing AFL footy who throws herself into soccer - released by Matildas captain and star striker Sam Kerr have also made a major impression on her young fans.

Sunshine soccer girls Matildas
A sight to behold in green and gold: Members of the Sunshine Heights junior girls soccer team watch the Matildas in action.

“I think the growth started off in our team around the time Sam Kerr started playing overseas and began releasing those books,” he said.

“Reading about a girl their own age coming up and playing like that and looking for role models has been huge. The kids just eat them up. They just love it.”

Those sentiments are confirmed by James’s daughter Noni, aged 10 who described the Matildas’ efforts so far as “10 out of 10.”

“It's so exciting. I love them so much. They are my role models. I want to be just like Sammy, Raso, Fowler, Mini, Foordie and Ellie.”

One day, she hopes to follow in their footsteps.

“One hundred per cent. I'm going to be a Matilda and be super cool.”

Noni said she loves playing soccer because it’s fun and challenges her to learn new skills.

“You create new friendships. I hope lots more girls join the club next year.”

WSA’s Gen Dohrmann praised clubs that have put measures in place to provide equal opportunities to develop their female sports programs. 

“Often the biggest thing that works against women's sport at a local level is historical traditions,” said Ms Dohrmann.

Coach James Waters (centre rear) and daughter Noni (bottom left) with members of the Sunshine Heights JSC junior girls soccer team.
Coach James Waters (centre rear) and daughter Noni (bottom left) with fellow members of the Sunshine Heights junior girls soccer team.

“Men and boys have been afforded decades of participation in sport where they have had access to everything that they require, including the best training venues, change-room facilities, custom uniforms, and priority scheduling of matches.

“Women's sport is a newer development and clubs that have been traditionally male domains are not resourced or focused on being able to provide females with the same opportunities as their male counterparts.”

There is also hope that a welcome side-effect of the ongoing love affair with the Matildas may be an increase in adult volunteers stepping forward to help at their local sporting club.

“We are hopeful that the entire Australian population will be inspired by the Matildas, so not only will we see an influx of new participants but also a new generation of volunteers – specifically, Mums and Dads who have watched Matildas games with their kids and are now encouraging their kids to get involved in soccer programs,” Ms Dohrmann said.

“We would encourage soccer clubs that now is the time to recruit volunteers – the sport is front of mind, and there’s the opportunity to give back as a volunteer around the club and support the next generation by getting involved.” 

Perhaps the last word should go to Noni, and her response when asked if girls are just as good as the boys at soccer.

“No, girls are better.”

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