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A Win for All: BMO Girls Play ON! and the Collective Effort to Redefine Soccer Norms

By Staff, 12/04/23, 9:30AM EST


In its first year, BMO Girls Play ON! garnered the support of diverse leaders in the Ontario Soccer community. In this story, some of the program’s male allies discuss the importance of the initiative and the crucial role they can play in promoting the growth and empowerment of girls and women.

Play. Inspire. Unite.

You can’t be what you can’t see. That’s why, for young women in sports, leadership programs like BMO Girls Play ON! can be incredibly powerful.

This past summer, a girl who had lost her passion for soccer rediscovered it while working with younger players at the event. Another, realizing the absence of a female soccer Coach in her life, vowed to be that mentor for the next generation. One was told by a group of younger girls that she was “their hero.”

Everyone who came out for BMO Girls Play ON! left with something valuable, whether it was a budding friendship, newfound aspirations or improved confidence. This female-centric event, however, was brought to life with the help of numerous male supporters.

The allies came in different forms – Club staff, Coaches, Learning Facilitators, volunteers, parents and more. Though many played key roles in bringing the program to their community, these men were happy to take a step back and ensure that, at BMO Girls Play ON!, the spotlight stayed on young women and girls.

In its first year of operation, BMO Girls Play ON! is a one-day program designed around keeping self-identifying women and girls involved in the game of soccer, long-term. In the morning, U16 and U17 girls attended a Coaching Clinic where they learned the basic skills towards a FUNdamentals coaching certification. In the afternoon, dozens of U7 and U8 girls showed up for a 3v3 Festival, led by the newly trained Coaches. This program was initiated by Ontario Soccer on behalf of their Premier Partner BMO Bank of Montreal - a proud partner and supporter of gender equity.

The Problem Personified

Of the five BMO Girls Play ON! events held in the summer of 2023, only one of the Coaching Clinics was led by female Learning Facilitators, a.k.a the “Coaches of the Coaches."

Learning Facilitator Chris Loucks was one of the most devoted male supporters of the program, leading the Coaching Clinics in Newmarket, London and Kingston. With each group, he took time to explain why an all-girls program was being led by Learning Facilitators of the opposite gender. 

“We had to bring in male leaders because we didn’t have enough female Coach Developers available,” Chris explained. “Which really leads into part of the reason for needing BMO Girls Play ON! - to help young women get into Coaching, so down the road, they can lead this program and become the Learning Facilitators themselves.”

His sentiment was echoed by James Sewell, Head Coach of Newmarket United Soccer Club, who said, “I guess that just completely highlights the actual problem.”

Girls trickling out of the game is a trend James has noticed throughout his time as a soccer Coach. At some age levels, there’s triple the number of boys to girls who sign up to play.

“Where are all the girls? Why are they not playing soccer?” James asked rhetorically, before saying, “We can’t control all of the things, but we can control some of the things, like filling the gap with a female Coach. A female role model is so important.”

Build it and they will come

Newmarket United was the first-ever host of BMO Girls Play ON!, but James says it didn’t take much convincing for the program to fill up. They had 52 girls and 16 Coaches come out from their own Club and others in surrounding areas like Aurora, Stouffville and Richmond Hill.

Things played out similarly at each location, with girls coming from near and far to participate in the program. Over in London, Chris Eveleigh - who joined Chris Loucks as a Learning Facilitator at the event – was blown away by the sense of community that was created so quickly among girls from different Clubs. Any potential rivalries that may have existed between opposing teams were left at the door as the girls wholeheartedly embraced their time together at BMO Girls Play ON!

For James, this event was a brilliant way of bringing various age groups from his own Club together, strengthening the network within Newmarket United SC. Besides the U7s, U8s, U16s, and U17s, he said a group of U13 Girls volunteered at the event, and a few athletes from the all-abilities program also came out for the day. Seeing how many girls were eager to attend the one-day program, James said he was inspired to start up similar initiatives within the Newmarket United SC community that can happen year-round.

There are countless benefits to keeping girls and young women involved in organized sports like increased confidence and leadership skills. That’s why events like BMO Girls Play ON! are so important - piquing the interest of young girls who may be starting their sports journeys, and helping older girls see new ways of being involved in soccer as they approach adulthood.

Recognizing that people evolve slowly, James described BMO Girls Play ON! as “part of a journey” for the Coaching participants. As a Head Coach, he believes that Clubs ought to offer long-term support and opportunities for young women to explore Coaching soccer. Developing young female leaders requires time, energy, and resources, but the results are well worth the investment.

The future is female

With gender equity at the forefront of soccer in Canada, some exciting things are on the horizon for girls and women in the sport. Project 8, Canada's new professional women's soccer league, is slated to start in 2025, and with Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team recently qualifying for Paris 2024, the squad’s fanbase seems to be growing by the day. This type of representation is key for young athletes who may dream of competing at an elite level, as well as those who need to transition into areas outside of playing for a number of reasons.

“We recognize that there is an issue with respect to the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in the sport of soccer, and it can be felt at all levels, from grassroots and up. Girls and women bring invaluable benefits to our game in so many ways, and that’s why we’re doing BMO Girls Play ON! and making other intentional shifts across our organization,” said Johnny Misley, CEO.

“Some of these shifts include the hiring of our new Manager of Match Official Development, who is determined to attract and retain more female Match Officials than ever before. And just last year, we were proud to present our Lifetime Membership Award to two deserving women - Joyce Stewart and Sandy Arrowsmith. These individuals are prime examples of what a girl or woman can achieve when she decides to stay involved in the game and take on leadership roles.” Misley adds, “We are impressed how many girls and women play soccer at all levels in Ontario. It is time we now focus on matching these participation levels with female leaders and thanks to our partnership with BMO, we can change that.”

As our soccer society continues working for gender equality, small efforts at the grassroots level can make a big difference for girls and young women in the sport. For example, Chris Loucks has noticed that his female athletes are far more interested in watching tapes of pro women instead of pro men, because “anything a male could do, a female could do too.” Showing the same respect and admiration for male and female players sets an example for future generations.

Another way male allies can support girls and young women in soccer is to spend time understanding each player as a person – her motivations, passions, stressors and pressures. Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do, and knowing what those are can help form stronger connections and more positive relationships. Wonderful things happen when young women feel safe, supported, and seen by the people around them.

That idea is one of the pillars behind BMO Girls Play ON! “In a world that is traditionally dominated by men, this program empowers young women to take the lead in a fun and comfortable environment while providing younger girls with a whole cohort of positive female role models,” said Bjorn Osieck, Senior Director, Business at Ontario Soccer. “With support from male allies in the Ontario Soccer community, initiatives like BMO Girls Play ON! can be a catalyst for gender equity, sowing the seeds for a future where girls confidently take the lead, both on and off the field. Ontario Soccer is a staunch believer of women in the game of soccer and we look forward to continuing to find innovative new ways to attract, retain and develop women in the game of soccer in Ontario.”