Girls acquiring skills – a real pathway?

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Getting underway to little fanfare on the last Sunday in March, the Girls Skill Acquisition Program season, commonly known as GSAP to those on the inside, burst into life in sunny conditions at Christie Park in Sydney’s North Western Suburbs. With the local club and landlords NWS Koalas on one field and matchday tenants Gladesville Ravens on the other, this was a great opportunity to see just how prepared these youthful teams were for an exciting season ahead.

The SAP program, covering mixed competitions and girls only competitions, is much maligned. The idea is simple. A syllabus is followed by every participating club where training sessions focus on one of four core skills. Working from basic concepts through to more comprehensive skills, the sessions look at running with the ball, striking the ball, 1 v 1 and first touch. Training takes place two or even three days a week, with a game scheduled on Sunday mornings, typically as a pre-cursor to the National Premier League games later in the day. This is a big commitment for the players, and is often harshly considered as a money-making venture – the cost of playing a GSAP season can be upwards of $1,500, a large step up from the local grass roots competition fees. Players from families with no means of paying such fees are therefore not even attracted to trials, meaning that a sizeable portion of the football community is potentially overlooked.

The commitment from the coaching staff and from the parents is also major. To fit all of the age groups into training slots on limited fields, some GSAP age groups may begin midweek training at 4.30pm – a real shift in working patterns and a great deal of travelling to training when the traffic is at its fiercest. Coaches may be players themselves, working a full day, training their GSAP squads and then heading off to training. Two or three nights a week.

Today’s visitors on the Gladesville side of the park are Football South Coast, and with the first games kicking off at 8:30, and a typical one-hour arrival prior to the game, the Wollongong based players would have been out of the door before 6:30 that morning. The first two games take place simultaneously – this is small-sided football that fits on a field well within the boundaries of half a football field. The Under 10s and Under 11s do battle before an army of parents rush to the field to clear one half while the Under 12s play in the other half. Another flurry of activity then sees the box-to-box field marked out for the Under 13s and that’s where the action resembles very much a full game.

The yellow-clad South Coast team look the livelier of the two teams as the game gets underway in increasingly hot conditions. The earlier games have all finished with typically high scoring results, but this one is poised like a real game of real football. Ravens take a good lead, with their ace striker Billie on the spot to coolly finish, but they are pegged back and South Coast equalise. There are passages of football that are straight from the training ground, the appearance of one-touch passing late in the game confirms that we are seeing intelligent football from well-drilled players. Both teams use the wings well, the goalkeepers are both busy and the playing out from the back is as good as anything you would see in the W-League. The players try valiantly in the beaming sunshine to get the ball into goal-scoring positions on the beautiful synthetic surface. A group of NPL Under 14s players walk past, heads buried in their phones. One of them walks into a pole, which gets a laugh from the side lines. You forget that these are young girls just like any other girls of the same age, and not yet elite sports people.

A one-all draw is the right result at the end, the players all bump hands Covid-style, and before the players are off the field, the army of parent helpers is back to remove the goals and open out the field for the first of the NPLW games.

Has this shown us that GSAP is a pathway to success? Not yet. The players have learned their skills on the small field from Under 10s to Under 12s and are now transitioning to NPL football in the final age group of GSAP in the Under 13s. The GSAP program at Gladesville Ravens is only in its fifth season, and it will be another year or two before the first graduates reach first grade age. Has the program benefited the club and strengthened the depth of the NPL squads? Again, we don’t know yet.

What we do know is that a dedicated Girls Skill Acquisition Program can only be healthy for the future of women’s football in Australia. Think of it as a scaled back version of the Australian Institute of Sport, where golden generations of sports have come through and given us so much joy in the past.

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