When ten-year-old Leoni Ashton first joined her local football club in Crewe, one boy on the all-male team told her she would “just be on the bench”.
It’s an experience that will be familiar to many young girls entering traditionally male-dominated sports. They’re told that “only boys” can play. They’re told that they won’t be good enough. But many are fighting back against these stereotypes, and now more than ever, the idea of “boys’ sports” or “girls’ sports” is fast becoming an outdated concept.
Leoni for instance was determined not to let the hurtful comment discourage her. Instead, she told NationalWorld: “I just used it to motivate me. I know some people don’t think girls should play football. But there’s no reason why girls can’t - and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.”
Inspired by the summer success of England’s Lionesses, who in a huge moment for women’s sport were crowned the champions of the 2022 Women’s Euros, Leoni now plays for both the boys’ football team in Crewe, and the Stoke City Girls FC Under 11s.
In the future, she wants to play for the Lionesses - but before then, she hopes more girls will get involved in the sport. “There are girls at school who want to play football, but they won’t because there are lots of boys taking over the teams. I want them to have the opportunity to play too. It’s only fair.”
'Girls can still beat boys'
Maybel Brooks, 10, has a similar attitude to Leoni. The young athlete from Chelmsford, Essex, doesn’t care if she is judged for playing golf - a sport which notoriously falls behind in gender equality, with both a huge gender pay gap and no women’s equivalent of the most famous tournament, the Masters.
But in spite of this, Maybel insisted to NationalWorld that golf is “absolutely not” a boys’ sport. “People say boys are stronger than girls and so can do better,” she said. “But girls can still beat boys.”
And the ten-year-old has been a testament to her own words. Maybel was recently crowned the 2022 British Junior Masters Champion, and is currently an ambassador for American Golf. The role involves championing inclusivity and diversity within the sport, and encouraging greater female participation. “I would want to tell all girls to just go out there and give it a go,” she said. “I think if you try, you can do anything.”
Maybel wants to compete in the Masters Championships when she’s older, which she hopes, by then, will be open to women. “I think women should be paid the same too,” she added. “It should be equal.”
'She doesn’t realise how good she is'
Ellie Chambers, 11, admitted that when she first started playing cricket, she was “nervous” to join a team “because there were only boys.” She explained to NationalWorld: “I got quite upset, because I was so nervous. But I’m so glad I still gave it a go.”
The youngster from Cheshire first became interested in the sport when she watched her older brother play at Sandbach Cricket Club. While she stood on the side of the field, one of the club’s bartenders came over and offered to bowl some balls at her - and things took off from there.
Now, Ellie plays for Sandbach herself - and was recently selected to attend the Cheshire County Cricket Excellence course. “Cricket should be a sport for boys and girls,” Ellie told NationalWorld. “I think if more girls were encouraged to play, they would really enjoy it.”
“Sometimes,” she continued, “I feel left out if I’m the only girl there, but in general, the boys on my team are great. My captain cheers me on a lot. ‘Go on, Ellie!’, he tells me.”
Mike Chambers, Ellie’s father, said: “Something about Ellie is she does put herself down. She is playing in a male-dominated sport, and she’s playing with boys, but she doesn’t realise how good she actually is.”
He told a story of a time when Ellie was playing for the Under 9s, but was asked to play a match with the Under 11 all-boy team, who were, “naturally bigger and more powerful than her.” But she stepped up and bowled five boys out in a row - and the opposing team only got one run.
“People have bets on her playing for England,” Mike said, while one of Ellie’s coaches added: “She has both the ability and the attitude to play at the very highest level. It’s not if, but when for her.”
We’d recommend keeping an eye on Leoni, Maybel and Ellie. You may very well read their names again in the future.