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You've got the right to play

As England's Lionesses prepare for the World Cup knock-out stage, The FA's senior development manager blogs on how it's helping girls to feel like football is a game for them.

4th August 2023

by Donna McIvor
Senior development manager. Football Association

Nobody should grow up thinking there’s something they can’t do. So why do girls in this country still think football can’t be for them?

Fair enough if you are a girl and you don’t like it. You may prefer another sport, or you may not like sport at all. And that’s absolutely fine, of course.

But what I hate to think is that there are girls out there who’d like to play football and don’t feel safe doing it. Or even worse, never thought they could even try!

That’s exactly why we created Squad Girls’ Football – to give girls aged 12-14 the chance to try football in a safe environment, where they feel free from judgement and pressure and where having fun (and not the score or her personal performance) is key.

More than football

We first launched the Squad Girls’ Football programme as part of the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 tournament with 250 providers.

The idea is for girls to turn up and participate in the activities they choose. Always having a range of different fun games on offer during a session negates the worry that they may have to take part in something they don’t wish to.

What’s more, all the activities at Squad Girls’ Football sessions are designed to meet their needs and help develop core skills both on and off the pitch, such as building confidence.

Launching the programme after the England Senior Women’s team had won the UEFA Women’s EURO tournament meant we were targeting an audience that was incredibly excited about women’s and girls’ football.

The success of the tournament and the timing of the launch enabled the programme to thrive in the momentum of the team.

"What I hate to think is that there are girls out there who’d like to play football and don’t feel safe doing it. Or even worse, never thought they could even try!"

Those women provided the inspiration for many girls to start playing, but beyond that – they became true role models for a generation that is increasingly willing to try the game. And yet, the beauty of the programme goes beyond that.

We all know that in teenage years, friends become family and the importance of peers in their everyday lives’ skyrockets.

So, it’s great to see girls already enjoying the space that Squad Girls’ Football provides amd encouraging others to take part.

They support and cheer each other on during the sessions, offering another opportunity for them to see their friends, bond over a shared interest and spend valuable time together.

I also love to hear mums and dads proudly highlighting how their daughters have become more confident and resilient as a result of joining our sessions.

They’re learning valuable new skills and it’s clear to see that they love developing their abilities.

They like the structure and the social element of the programme (they can come with friends or meet new people there), they also thrive by having their voices heard and by the autonomy encouraged in each session.

Big kudos to our coaches and volunteers for being key in creating and promoting that environment.

Currently, this workforce is predominantly male, but all coaches and volunteers are trained to understand and help the girls, focusing on the specific challenges of the early teenage years, like the discomfort caused by periods while exercising.

What we want is to normalise that feeling by providing sanitary products and actively listening, so the girls feel safe to keep playing in the way they feel most comfortable.

But how do we get girls into the programme in the first place? There are different ways in which girls get to our Squad Girls’ Football programme - some come from our Weetabix Wildcats programme, others from our curriculum and extra-curriculum programmes within schools.

Some used to play but stopped because of the pandemic and some just want to try something new.

What we want for the future

Now, with the visibility provided by the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer, we want to focus on those who’ve never played before.

The support from our partners is fundamental and Sport England has been key along the way - but the hard work doesn’t stop here.

We want to keep learning about what motivates girls around the country and what they like and need so we can get them to enjoy the sport as a way of getting healthier and happier.

We’re joining the 'party atmosphere' that big sports events can provide by supporting FIFA World Cup viewing parties nationwide, so people get together to watch the games and play.

Once again, it’s all about creating an environment where girls enjoy the sport as an element of their everyday lives, where they can have fun and are given the opportunity to get involved in football in a way that suits them.

A group of teenage girls gather in a huddle at an indoor football session

We want to recruit more Squad Girls’ Football providers, aiming to increase from 500 to 800 around the country.

Regardless of ability, disability, impairment, or any health conditions they may have, we want to encourage more and more girls to have the opportunity to play football.

We also want to improve our understanding and communications to reach all girls nationwide and encourage them to try the sport.

And we want to attract girls from all backgrounds and make the sessions accessible, so if they want to try, they can.

And what if a girl wants more?

If she feels comfortable playing in a more competitive environment, if she has talent or potential, we’ll also be there for her through our Discover My Talent programme.

This is aimed at 12-16-year-old girls all over the country who want to take their footballing abilities to the next level and have aspirations to be a Lioness of the future.

Some may become Lionesses, some won’t. The aim isn’t to make that happen, as every girl will be on a different part of their journey and have their own ambitions. But if they like football and if they possess some of our future Lioness characteristics (which include a love for learning and a love of the game), we’ll find them.

That’s the goal. Discover My Talent is about taking the opportunity to find talent because we know talent can be found anywhere.

Across both programmes, the purpose is clear: for girls to play football and to be given an opportunity to play at whatever level they feel comfortable at and in an environment that’s nurturing, supportive and safe.

I dream of the day when I pass by a park, and I see girls playing football among themselves or with boys, being active and having fun.

Because if that happens and no-one who wants to play is left behind, we will have succeeded.

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