Professionals help girls kick against sport stereotypes

A pioneering scheme is proving that, given the right chances and role models, they can hold their own with the boys

The accusation "You throw like a girl" remains among the most stinging of insults male competitors sling at each other. Why remains a mystery as all the evidence at the Hertfordshire Sports Village is that girls can indeed throw – and catch, kick and score goals.

Under the expert eye of top coaches and players from Arsenal Ladies Football Club, Saracens Women's Rugby Club and Hertfordshire Mavericks Netball Club, girls as young as a seven experienced first hand what it is like to play elite sport.

The pioneering "Girls Get Sporty" scheme aims to celebrate women's sporting achievements and increase female participation, in line with The Independent on Sunday's campaign to increase awareness of women's sport. Girls aged up to 15 are given the chance to try out new sports and receive training and advice from professional sportswomen.

One of them is event organiser Karen Atkinson, the former England netball captain and head coach of Hertfordshire Mavericks, who is convinced that positive role models will inspire others to participate and succeed. Ms Atkinson, who took up netball as a child, progressed through the ranks to represent her county and region, which brought her into contact with other successful women in sport.

"Having positive role models and getting to meet them made me want to achieve what they had," says Ms Atkinson, who went on to play for England, winning bronze medals in three Commonwealth Games. "Once you get into being active, it's addictive," she adds.

Although women in sport are receiving more recognition, Ms Atkinson believes it is still considered by too many to be a man's world. "Events like the Olympics might celebrate female achievements and bring women to the forefront, but only momentarily," she says. She adds that only by encouraging girls to participate in a variety of sports from a young age can gender equality be achieved.

Hannah Gallagher, a flanker for England and Saracens Women's Rugby Club, says that events like Girls Get Sporty will help make sports more accessible.

"My dad used to coach at the local rugby club and my brother trained there, so I was playing from a very young age," says Ms Gallagher. "However, there were no opportunities at school to play, and I would have really liked to. I was the only girl in the rugby team until I was 12 years old, when I found a girls' team to join.

"The two teams were very different: the girls were far less skilled, but that was because they were only just learning how to play, aged 12, whereas the boys had been living and breathing rugby for years. Events like this are great for teaching girls that, actually, sports like rugby aren't just for boys."

The England and Arsenal Ladies forward Kelly Smith says she wished a similar initiative had existed when she was young. "I joined a boys' team and I was a better player than any of them. I got kicked off, though, because some of the parents of boys in the opposition teams complained at there being a girl on the field. My dad had to sit me down and tell me I wasn't allowed to play any more."

Although Ms Smith believes that women's football is in a very strong position now, many of the children at Girls Get Sporty echoed the stories of the professionals.

Sophie, Beth, Lea and Ruby, who play for Stevenage Borough Juniors Football Club, all have older brothers who enjoy football, which piqued the girls' interest. They joined the club after petitioning their parents to let them play as well. They realise, though, that, had they not had male siblings, they may not have had the chance.

"I wish I'd had the confidence to ask to play football when I was younger," says Beth, aged nine. "My brother started much earlier than me. If I had begun at the age he was, I think I would have been even better than I am now."

Ruby, also nine, says: "Some people think girls don't play sport and boys are better – maybe because they don't ever see girls doing it. I'd like to see more women's football on TV as it would encourage girls."

Ms Gallagher agrees: "When I hear people say things like, 'Women aren't as good at sport as men because they're not as strong,' I find it frustrating; we're just as skilled. People should come and watch us play and then they can make up their own minds."

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