How Chyloe Kurdas is getting girls to play football

By Sarah Spain, espnW February 20, 2015

Former Australian Rules Football player Chyloe Kurdas doesn’t consider herself a rebel. She just wants to change the world.

Kurdas was drawn to ARF — a physical, contact sport that’s a bit like rugby and football — at a young age, playing with the boys at recess and honing her kicking skills after school with a boy in her neighborhood. When she was growing up, it was almost unheard of for girls to want to play ARF, though.

“I’m really connected to addressing inequalities wherever they might be — gender, race, sexuality,” says Kurdas, 39, now a coach and sport administrator in Melbourne, Australia. “I can’t put my finger on why I came out thinking the world should be equal and fair. I guess I was just born that way.”

So Kurdas decided to get more girls involved in the sport, and began opening up football academies specifically for girls as part of her job at AFL Victoria. In 2012, when she joined the Global Sports Mentoring Program — an empowerment initiative of the U.S. Department of State and espnW — her Australian Rules Football Academy in Melbourne served 60 girls. She now has six academies across Australia serving more than 200 young footballers.

I caught up with Kurdas to chat about her inspirations, motivations and aspirations as she continues to foster the growth of women’s ARF in her home state of Victoria.

Sarah Spain: Who or what inspired your passion for sports?

Chyloe Kurdas: My grandmother and my grandfather were both really avid sport fans, particularly my grandmother, my mum’s mum. She was my role model, you know, around how much she loved her sport. It was a great way for us to bond and connect. We would sit there and watch the cricket all summer and talk about football all winter. She bought me my first cricket bat and a plastic football from the shop, so I guess that’s probably where it started.

SS: How did you get involved with the very male-dominated Australian Rules Football?

CK: I did karate for about 14 years, from the time I was 8. And then in school I did every sport you could possibly play. I didn’t really start playing ARF [competitively] until I was 21. You know girls do play against the boys now until they’re 14; that’s quite normal. We have about 1,000 girls across my state that do that. But it was something that was incredibly unheard of when I was young, and it would’ve taken a lot of social courage, I think, to be able to do that at the time.

[But back then] I played in school with the boys in recess and lunchtime and after school. And luckily I had a next-door neighbor who liked his footie. He was the same age as me and the same class, so we spent all weekends and after school playing.

When I was 20, one of my best friends at the time, she’d been playing ARF in a women’s league. To be honest, I’m quite a shy and introverted person, even though sometimes people don’t believe that. I watched my friend play, just eight teams at the time, for a whole year. I was too shy to invite myself to play, which is a common thing for girls — they don’t feel like they belong in something where they have to be invited, rather than just put yourself forward. Over summer she said, “Why don’t you come and play?” … I jumped in and I think I missed only 10 trainings in the time since.

SS: How did your interest in playing ARF turn into a desire to open your own academies?

CK: When I got my job eight years ago at AFL Victoria, which is the equivalent, I guess, of a state branch of the NFL or USA Football, I was hired to develop the game for females. What we needed to do was to invest in future generations, so I needed to work to help those community leagues grow more teams in the Victoria area. From two competitions, now we have about 22 competitions. We had 10 teams, now we’ve got about 140 teams.

My job was to grow new teams, new clubs and find new teenage players for those competitions. From that, I identified that there needed to be a high-performance component to that as well to track and retain the first-class athletes to our sport, to build a much better-quality program in the future.

I set up an academy in 2008 for about 20 of the best girls from our state at the time. We had about 300 girls playing; now we’ve got about 180 to 200 in the academy, six academies, and there are about 2,300 girls across the whole state playing. In eight years we’ve been able to build this massive network of girls playing and they’re all being coached by incredibly talented, high-performance coaches. …

The aim is in about five years’ time they’ll play full-time in the academy program, a yearlong competition. We anticipate these girls will be the future national team players, for the women’s national team we don’t yet have.

SS: You called yourself “shy” but you also recognize a deep desire to enact change.

CK: I noticed very early on the inequalities that women experience, not just in sport but throughout everything. Sport is a great way to start to address that imbalance. I’m not gonna wallow in what I didn’t have — it’s just my time in history and just where I’m at. But I certainly have the ability in this time in history to create change for the future, to ensure that girls don’t miss out in the future in the way that I did in the past.

[America’s] Title IX is a great example of what you can achieve when you choose to invest equally in both genders and what sort of doors become opened. It’s also a really good lesson that you’re not going to get sustained cultural change in one electoral cycle. You actually have to invest in it for quite a period of time.

SS: What sorts of challenges have you faced in trying to increase opportunities for girls to play and excel in ARF?

CK: Any time you’re working around cultural change, the No. 1 thing is you’ve got to try to convince people that it’s good for them, that it’s a real positive thing and a really exciting journey that we’re all gonna go on. Our sport is over 150 years old and it’s only been in the last 11 years that we’ve really invested in girls’ participation. You’ve gotta find the right people to spread your message to the hearts and minds of the men, because the men have been the leaders in the football community. So the biggest challenge is to get those men on our side, to sell the message for us. That’s been a bit of a challenge.

But once a lot of men see women playing, or their daughters playing, they fall in love with it. Men have become some of our biggest advocates. Ironically, they’re the biggest inspiration for our girls to take up the game, because they’re the ones who are playing football professionally on television. They’re inspired because they see their dads play, their brothers play.

SS: Do you still come across people who think it’s taboo for a woman to play ARF?

CK: Less and less. it’s the fastest-growing segment of Australian football. … More girls and women are coming to the game and that’s been a consistent pattern for the last 10, 11 years. I keep thinking it’ll putter out and then it spikes again.

That’s a journey families are really excited about. The idea that their daughters could play in a future professional league where the men’s pro teams will have women’s pro teams… They can see a future for their daughters in the game.

SS: What aspect of your ARF academies makes you the most proud?

CK: The academy has a motto of “Developing great footballers and outstanding people.” … We provide spaces for them to grow through a really strong leadership development program. I’ve seen some amazing young women growing through the academy, that’s something that I’m extremely proud of.

One of the best quotes a parent ever said to me about her daughter playing football, because it’s a tackle sport, was she loved the fact that her daughter played a sport that requires her to have courage. I think from the game itself, we can use that to be able to ensure that the courage they learn carries them really well in the rest of their lives.

Little girls are taught to be very careful with their bodies and little boys are not. The thing the girls are most worried about is tackling, but once we teach them how, then they say it’s their favorite thing about the game. It’s really the first space in their whole life that they’ve been given permission to see their body as a tool of strength. It’s about what their body does, not what their body looks like. …

[In] our sport, we’re very lucky. We have 18 people per team on the field, so you can be tall, short, fat, skinny, fast, slow and there’s a role that you can play that’s equally as important as anyone else on the field. It provides for all body shapes and sizes. We can celebrate throughout our sport what your body does.

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