Joining a women's soccer team changed my life

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Maeve Marsden

Matildas teammates celebrate after a goal during a friendly with Vietnam earlier this year.

Matildas teammates celebrate after a goal during a friendly with Vietnam earlier this year. Photo: Getty Images

 On Saturday, the Matildas are playing Japan in the World Cup Quarter Finals, but I shan't be watching. My interest in watching women's soccer is about as high as my interest in watching any sport, played by any gender. But despite a lifelong unwillingness to watch people toss a ball around, I am a proud soccer player and community sport evangelist, and I'm here to tell you that sport changed my life.

I joined the Flying Bats Women's Football Club at 25. I'd just returned from a clichéd coming-of-age backpacking trip and I didn't want to fall back into my old routines. At my first training session I was genuinely petrified. For a woman who spent a childhood overweight and uncoordinated, the prospect of publicly displaying my flaws (and knees) was horrifying. But I persevered and, 6 years later, I want the rest of Australia to pay attention to the impact community sport can have on adults, especially women.

I haven't lost any weight since I started playing sport, but I have learnt to use my body in new ways. I remember distinctly a morning in 2010: I was late, trotting awkwardly for the bus, and I thought, "What are you doing? You can sprint now". I engaged the new leg muscles I'd discovered and powered towards the vehicle, leaping triumphantly aboard. The driver was a little perplexed.

Sophie Partridge, President of the Flying Bats, cheers on the team.

Sophie Partridge, President of the Flying Bats, cheers on the team. Photo: Kerry Fluhr

But community sport is so much more than just an opportunity to exercise. Clubs offer women new networks, diverse friendship opportunities, and that coveted goal of feminism: women's space.

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For those who come to sport late in life, the ability to change the way we relate to our bodies is wonderful. Society tells us that as we age women's bodies' spread, droop and fail. But that doesn't always describe the journey a body can take or the way we change that story with our choices.

Alison joined a local netball team at age 40 after not having played since I was 11. "It's a HUGE stress reliever [and] I'm fitter than I've ever been in my life," she said. 

Molly, 37, loves the physicality of playing. "I don't believe I have anger issues but I really like shoulder barging and tackling. There is a great acceptance of all skill levels, and often the older participants are the most respected."

Jen, 47, started playing soccer at 35 not having participated in team sports since high school. "The sport itself didn't matter - it could have been basketball or AFL or rugby," she says. "I did it to actively seek community. I think adult recreational sport for women often comes with an inherent diversity that professional or familial networks may not provide."

While fitness is a bonus, like Jen, most women I spoke to were eager to tell me about the friendships they'd made and support they'd found. Bevalee joined soccer and dragon-boating teams in 2009 after her partner passed away. "I imagined a small group of women kicking a ball around in a park. I never expected to find a group of 100 women and a team of warm, interesting people that I instantly connected with."

For Bevalee (a member of my club), it provided "a safe and exciting place where I was able to be open about being gay, with friends who acknowledged my relationship to Kelly and allowed me to grieve, heal and move forward."

While it is a ridiculous stereotype that sporty women are all lesbians, the Flying Bats, a club for same-sex attracted women (and their friends) offers an extra layer of community for many.

"When I turned up at my first training, this small town NZ girl heard angels descending from heaven singing queer pop songs," said my friend, who asked to be quoted as Tilda or Meryl but is called neither. "I had literally never seen so many queer women before in my life, and spent maybe the next year turning up to events and saying earnestly and wide eyed to nearby people 'this is just like CHRISTMAS'." 

She makes light of it, but being in a space dominated by women, queer or otherwise, is often something one hasn't experienced since school.

The joy of women's space isn't the only part of soccer that reminded me of my youth. It was fascinating to engage in learning as an adult, a time when we're meant to be capable, mature grown ups. We tell children that failing is ok, 'get back on the horse' and so on; but adults aren't always great at taking their own advice.

Shannon started playing Ultimate Frisbee a couple of years ago, and reckons in her first season she didn't touch the disc once during play. "Usually I quit things I'm not good at after the first setback," she tells me, but "I made myself keep coming back. It was a good way to work on that particular 'quitter' aspect of my personality, and learn to not care about looking like a total doof when I don't know what I'm doing. And it was really rewarding when I could feel myself getting better."

With such a wealth of positive social and health outcomes for participants, it's absurd we don't hear more about women's sport, recreational and otherwise. The masculine vision of Australia as a sporting nation tends not to include people like me, and unfortunately, is skewed against elite women athletes as well. But despite my inability to pay attention to a game I'm not playing in, I still see my fumbling efforts to kick the ball forming part of a building energy for women's sport, community, activism and celebration that includes those champions kicking goals over in Canada.

"Sport is one of the only parts of life where the following are socially sanctioned: women trying their hardest; women being unashamedly physical in a way that's not overtly sexual; and, most importantly, women being able to joyously tackle and be tackled," said Vicki, 53. "I was 26 when a dear friend began cajoling me to join her soccer team. That friend went on to be a Matilda and is now a member on the international FIFA executive."

Join community sport, ladies. You never know who you might meet!

Maeve Marsden is a freelance writer, director, producer and performer. She performs in feminist cabaret act, Lady Sings it Better, consults on education outreach campaigns and collaborates on various creative projects. She tweets @maevegobash