Former national soccer player aims to break the ‘grass ceiling’ for girls
Carrie Serwetnyk scores with her scheme to get girls into the game.
By Aileen Lalor, Special to the Sun
May 25, 2015
At the UK equivalent of elementary school in the late 1980s, playgrounds had a boys’ side and a girls’ side separated by a line painted on the concrete.
It was my experience that the girls would play chase and hopscotch and skipping. The boys played soccer, every break and lunchtime. Lunchtime supervisors would police the border, telling any girl who wanted to join the soccer game that it was just too boisterous.
Fast-forward to 2015, and soccer is the most played sport among all Canadian children — and around half of the registered players in Canada are girls and women.
Canada’s national men’s team has failed to qualify for a World Cup since 1986, while the women’s team has participated in every tournament since 1995. This summer, the FIFA Women’s World Cup comes to Canada, with games taking place in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton.
Enter Carrie Serwetnyk, a former national soccer player and the first woman to enter Canada’s Soccer Hall of Fame.
In October 2014, she set up Equal Play Girls Soccer Leadership Program, a non-profit organization to encourage elementary school girls in Vancouver to play soccer.
But girls and women are playing soccer — and playing it well — so why is there a need for an organization like Equal Play?
Serwetnyk says that there’s an issue with leadership — she refers to this as the, “grass ceiling”.
She says that there are female volunteer coaches and referees at school and club level, but only a tiny number of women in paid roles such as coach or technical director.
There’s also a disparity between men’s and women’s soccer in terms of status and funding. The Women’s World Cup will not be played on grass but on artificial turf — a cheaper surface that increases risk of injury. Serwetnyk believes that if Canada’s bid to host the Men’s World Cup in 2026 is successful, “they’ll absolutely be playing on real grass”.
Darren Mitzel, Principal of David Livingstone Elementary School, says that high levels of female participation aren’t reflected in his playground.
“I look outside at recess and lunchtime and it’s just boys playing soccer. The girls rarely join in at all,” he says.
Serwetnyk has observed a difference in atmosphere when boys and girls play together.
“Boys dominate, girls aren’t allowed in, and they don’t necessarily have the confidence to step up, especially if they haven’t played before and they feel like they’re not very good. Boys are often cussing and criticizing girls. To them it’s part of the fun to say ‘you guys suck, you’re not good enough,’ but there’s other, deeper insults too that might be directed at a girl’s body — they’re fat, they’re slow, they’re not coordinated. All it takes is for a girl to believe that one day, and that’s it,” she says.
A 2007 report by The Tucker Center at the University of Minnesota, Developing Physically Active Girls, looked into the subject. It found that girls’ participation in sports drops steeply when they hit adolescence. Girls are twice as likely to drop out of sports as boys, for many reasons from cultural expectations to self-consciousness about their developing bodies and reluctance to get sweaty and dishevelled.
It might seem like that’s not important — some girls are into sport and are naturally athletic, and some aren’t. But there are obvious reasons to encourage physical activity: it reduces health problems associated with obesity and can lessen stress, leading to improved mental health. Children who participate in sports often do better academically than those who don’t.
There are also some factors that are particular to girls. A 2002 report for the Population Council called Letting Girls Play said that often teenage girls can view their bodies as sexual resources for men rather than sources of strength for themselves, and that sport can empower them and given them a sense of ownership of their bodies.
Leave it to the teenage years to get girls hooked and it’s too late — you need to catch them while they’re at elementary school and still engaged by PE classes, curious about their bodies and receptive to health information, the Letting Girls Play report says.
Serwetnyk’s Equal Play Girls Soccer Leadership Program is one session a week for seven weeks, and is themed around the World Cup, with girls from Grades 4 to 7 setting up their own mini tournament.
The program is held in schools at lunchtimes so that any girl who wants to can participate, and there’s no cost either to the school or the parents.
Money to support the program comes from the sale of a pendant (available at equalplayfc.com), which was designed by Corrine Hunt, co-creator of the 2010 Olympic medal. The pendant has a soccer ball on one side and an eagle on the other.
“I chose the eagle because I imagine the kind of freedom it has, and the kind of freedom girls have through soccer,” says Hunt.
There are also corporate sponsors including Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart organization. Telus donated a ball for every child.
To date, more than 700 girls at 23 schools have been through Equal Play Girls Soccer Leadership Program. The Vancouver Schools Board is in the process of signing a partnership agreement in order to support it in more schools.
Graham Bruce Elementary School ran it recently, with more than 30 girls participating.
“There was a real mix of abilities, from girls who had never really played to regular club players, and there was such a positive atmosphere. Carrie was very skilled at arranging things so that the girls with more experience were coaches or leaders so they still learned something. It also allowed the less experienced girls to come to a setting where they could take risks and not feel intimidated,” principal Lani Morden says.
Mitzel, whose school also ran the program, says the fact that all were welcome and able to participate made a huge difference.
“It didn’t matter what you were wearing, your ability or where you came from. The mixed age groups were great too: Kids who might be shy with their peers could feel confident with younger kids,” he says.
Did girls worry about being sweaty and dishevelled? Not that he saw. “You would see them there in the rain and snow, playing on. They didn’t care about their appearance or getting covered in mud,” he says.
Ziya Bhatti, 13, and Juliana Revis, 11, are Grade 6 pupils at Graham Bruce Elementary School. Both had played little soccer before they joined the program.
Says Revis: “Most of the time, when you play with the boys, they team up to get the girls out of the game.”
“I felt more comfortable around the girls. In gym class I feel like I have to be fast and perfect because the boys are very competitive. I felt like this was just for fun,” says Bhatti.
The program has gained some high-powered supporters, including Councillor Adriane Carr, who says: “There are a lot of social norms for girls that aren’t healthy — the trend for extreme thinness and the shame around having a healthy and strong body. Anything we can do to change those norms is positive. It’s also good to have non-judgmental, female-only spaces — socially safe areas where girls don’t feel like they’re competing for physical prowess.” Carr has a personal motivation for getting involved. “My father, Ivan John Carr, was a semi-professional soccer player, who played on Vancouver City Football Club’s Dominion Cup-winning team in 1950. He loved the sport and I was always surrounded by it. I never got the opportunity to play myself, but I’d have champed at the bit,” she says.
Serwetnyk hopes that interest in women’s soccer will increase because of the World Cup. Ultimately, she says, she’d like to bring in other ex-professional players and extend the program across Canada.
“The idea is that (the girls who participate) they continue afterwards for life and learn to love the game. Playing soccer might also help them make better decisions about their bodies, what they eat, who their friends are and what they do after school. Most children — even the ones who are good at sport — are not going to be professional athletes. The point is that they feel good and realize it’s fun to move in your body.”
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