By Maddy Boston –
Last week I was invited to tag along as the Mighty Girls and SALT staff held a football festival to celebrate National Children’s Day. The day began early at 6:00am with climbing into the back of the SALT truck with 15 of the Might Girls, all dressed in their matching purple uniforms. After driving through rural Cambodian countryside for two hours, we pulled into a schoolyard where hundreds of young kids, both boys and girls, were eagerly waiting for us. Seeing them all standing together before beginning to play was entertaining. Messi jerseys bumped against school uniforms that brushed against pajamas; cleats stood next to sneakers that lined up behind flips flops and bare feet. The outfits of course didn’t matter, and only added to the “everyone’s invited, just come play” vibe that made the day so enjoyable.
When all the equipment was unloaded, the Mighty Girls jumped into action. I apparently missed the conversation where they learned what to do; perhaps there wasn’t one and they’re just little professionals, because their leadership skills were immediate and seamless. They spread out into four groups to conduct four different soccer drills: one focused on dribbling, another on passing, another on shooting, and one on movement off the ball. A fifth was dedicated to educating the local kids on their rights as Cambodian citizens, and gathered in a circle under the shade of a tree. Each of the soccer drills was a competitive game, which quickly caused the little kids to squeal with uncontained excitement when their team got a point or won a round. Every single kid was smiling; it didn’t matter if they could dribble two steps without the ball bouncing away from them, or if they managed to get any points in the last drill.
My favorite part was watching this one group do the passing station game. Here two teams lined up and competed to see which team could get the most points by passing a ball to knock off another ball balanced on a cone some 5 meters away. The team closest to me had about 5 boys and 2 girls. It quickly became apparent that one of the girls was the best at knocking off the ball, thus gaining her team points. As the clock wound down and their team began to lose, the boys started asking the girl to cut them in line so she could earn them more points. She racked up point after point, each time causing all the boys and the other girl to throw their hands up and cheer. By the end everyone was laughing and frantically trying to get more balls so the one girl could carry their team to the win. It worked- their team ended up beating the other line. Seeing her surprised, sheepish expression, as the older boys on her team yelled and patted her on the back, was awesome.
I wanted to volunteer at SALT because I’m interested in sport for development, specifically how soccer can be used as a tool to address gender issues in communities around the world. I’m motivated by a lifetime of playing soccer myself, recognizing the immense ways it’s shaped who I am today, and wanting to share the experience of playing with girls who might not otherwise have the option. Stories like that one of the girl in the passing drill are just little examples of what sports can do in communities on a larger scale. Sport is not only an activity for fun, competition and play, but also a space through which other social barriers can potentially be overcome. The barriers that stand in the way of girls participating in sport are more complex than their gender, and include multiple discriminations that cross race, class, religion, ability, sexuality, and more; gender is just one piece of the puzzle. But the fact remains girls are more than twice as more likely to drop out of sports by adolescence, and are overwhelmingly underrepresented in sports leadership positions across the globe.
This is important. Playing sports and doing other physical activity has been proven to have a positive impact on overall physical and mental health. Statistics have shown physical activity reduces the rate of young people engaging in dangerous behavior, such as unsafe sex and drug use. Furthermore, through sports girls experience better mental health, more confidence, improved teamwork and communication skills, increased graduation rates, and refined leadership skills that can lead to better opportunities in school and in the workplace.
Looking at 400 responses from a EY Women Athletics Business Network and espnW survey that made the connection between women athletes and leadership, 74% said a background in sports can help accelerate a women’s career; 66% believe that athletes make excellent candidates for jobs because they’ve developed a strong work ethic, can be a team player, and have the determination to be a great employee; and 75% stated that competitiveness is an asset to their leadership style in the workplace. Considering the financial and cultural implications of having more successful women represented in the workplace, the impact of this alone is enormous.
Even when girls have access to good sports programs that provide a platform for them to succeed, it’s important for them to see positive role models in their every day life that motivate them to stick with the game. SALT has a great local staff, and many are girls that have come up through the Mighty Girls program themselves. They’re examples of what the girls can be if they work hard and stick with the program. Even though I’m only here for a short time, I am excited to add my story to what the girls will see as possible. Already the questions have come asking what it’s like to play soccer at university in America, how many soccer field do I have in my town, what types of clothes do I wear when I play…The questions are simple but they’re not insignificant. The girls are thirsty to learn how women and soccer works in other countries. They’re excited to be part of this sport that connects them to each other, but also to other girls around the world. And they should be; it’s a powerful thing.
I’m excited to see what Mighty things these girls accomplish in the future, and am really proud to be part of their story.