I’ve spent the latest winter soccer season coaching an under 16 girls team. It has been the best decision I’ve made in a long time.
The kids are more than alright.
Ranging from grade 5 to grade 10, my under 16 “youth girls” team was killer. Not for the games we won or the trophies. But because of the diversity in ages, skills and experience all drawn together by a love of football and each other.
Something that is on my mind though is how do we keep girls in the game for the long run. Beyond a season or two. To see them climbing through “the ranks” and long into seniors.
THE STEPS ARE TOO BIG
The trouble is, there aren’t enough “ranks” to jump through.
Speaking of the North-West, which is what I know best, there’s simply school soccer, youth girls then seniors. Seniors is usually the one team in Northern Championship, if you’re lucky there is a ressies team and Women’s Super League, the state competition on offer.
The leap from under 12’s to under 16’s is steep. The leap from under 16’s to women’s can be even steeper to those new to the game.
Why is that important to me? Because I was one of those kids who loved the game but stopped playing after grade 10.
I’m not saying my decision was based on competition structure. I was already playing women’s as that was the only option.
But the decision to remain in the game shouldn’t be made harder because of the leap between the rungs of youth football through to seniors.
There needs to be a restructure.
Based purely on observation, there is a huge gap in development between grade 8 and 9. It’s girls to women.
Ideally 11-14 year olds wouldn’t be playing against 15-16 year olds.
I’ll admit, it was a blessing having a good group of older girls, mixing and helping the younger girls. But that was luck, not by choice.
Choice would mean there was somewhere for the 11-14 year olds to go before playing against girls who are just about fully developed women at 15-16. The reality is that after school soccer there is nowhere to go unless you’re prepared to play against the “bigger” girls.
Those younger players should be able to challenge and improve themselves against their peers.
At the other end, there are girls who have just started in the game or are still not quite at the skill level to mix it with the seniors. Sure summer does wonders, especially if it’s spent with a football at their feet.
But the reality exists. Instead of mixing it on a Friday night with their peers, they’re playing in a women’s competition that has higher standards and sometimes a massive drop in actual playing time if you don’t make the “cut” of the starting XI.
This all during a time where they more often change schools and are navigating the awkward stage between being an adult and still being a kid.
Instead of keeping soccer a constant during that stage, it’s pulling the rug from under their feet.
School, youth girls, seniors; the current competition structure doesn’t work.
MY SOLUTION: CHANGE YOUTH FOOTBALL
Under 14’s that encourages those in their final year of school soccer, in grade 6, to join their club and learn the ropes. It would give responsibility and leadership to the grade 7/8 girls. It would make the leap out of school soccer much smoother and less daunting.
Under 18’s needs to happen. I know, many of you will go “but Molly, that’s called seniors”. And look, for many teams that is kind of true.
There are two reasons under 18’s would improve the overall quality.
Firstly, there are players in between who need this step. Having an under 18’s sitting both underneath and together with seniors means we aren’t just keeping the ‘cream of the crop’. Instead we are keeping the new players joining because their mates at school are playing. We are catering to the majority, not just the talented.
Secondly, this is a time for game development, learning tactics and analysis. The more game time the better. If a player can play a youth match and would usually play a senior match too, that’s a positive.
Eventually, with an established under 18’s, there will be a direct feeder to the championship or WSL.
The jump to seniors won’t be daunting and there’s more chance of players remaining in the game. Being forced to join seniors when they’re considered adults by most standards. Not because there is nowhere else to go to play with their peers.
There’s few ways the competitions could happen. It could remain regional or statewide. Could run on a Friday night with u14 at 6pm and u16 at 8pm. Could run on separate days with u18’s more in line with seniors.
There’s a lot of variables. But I’ve rattled on for more than enough. So maybe that can just be a chat if you’re interested and you catch me at a football ground at some point.
My success won’t be measured by how many games the team I coached has won. It needs to be judged on how many girls remain in the game.