The challenges ‘elite’ female footballers face

I have played football for eight years, if you don’t count the weekends of running around on the field at half time for 20 years in Tasmania trying to prove that I can play, too.

Football is my life. I’ve planned my life around football for a long time, but even more so in the last three years with East Fremantle in the WAWFL, Western Australia’s premier women’s football competition.

Playing with the Western Bulldogs in 2015 was my dream come true; now with the proposed national league, or as I like to call it the AFL, beginning in 2017, it’s time for me to take my experience with the Bulldogs and do everything I can to make it onto the elite stage.

Unfortunately, getting the chance to prove my abilities as an elite level footballer is becoming increasingly difficult. Juggling training, playing, nutrition and physical fitness with working, studies, bills and everything life throws at you is made harder by the fact us national league aspirants have to maintain an elite standard without support.

I suffered a pretty severe back injury with some nerve-related issues when I was over playing with the Boston Lady Demons in America late last year; the injury was a result of sitting down for long periods of time while travelling around the place, and it was continually aggravated.

We have a physio that sponsors us at the club who’s generally only down on match days and she gives her services to us for $70 a session. I’ve seen her three times already this preseason and she says it’s going to take at least another two sessions to get my back right. So about five sessions all up.

With my back injury, the pain affects my hamstrings so every time I go to run or sprint they tighten up and feel as though they are going to snap. I haven’t been able run at any pace beyond 50% of my capabilities for quite a few months.

I hadn’t been able to see a physiotherapist for about two months due to lack of work when I returned, which has resulted in my inability to train at any high standard.

The injury will affect my season going into the first few rounds at least. I don’t think I could play at my highest level when I haven’t had the chance to train all preseason. I know it’s going to put stress on my body to get to where I need to be for the next AFL-level game this year.

That game is only about four months away and it’s going to be really difficult for me to make sure my fitness and game play abilities are at the same level as everyone else. To even get a look at getting selected in that WA side is going to be tough.

WA teammates surround Wuetschner
after a crucial goal in victory over Vics.

Pushing through injury to meet a deadline is a common situation for any elite level athlete in any sport, but the lack of support provided in comparison to those other athletes means just getting the opportunity to prove myself is a big ask.

I work for a company called TSA Telco Group; we work on behalf of Telstra in marketing and sales. I work five days a week and often on Saturdays as well to make a bit of extra money. I leave home at 7:30am and get home at 6:30pm, so it doesn’t leave me a whole lot of time to train and get conditioned and have my hands on the footy.

On top of working, I’m currently studying Cert 3 and 4 in Fitness online.

I pay about $350 in club fees, which is pretty standard for women playing footy across Australia, and then you have additional expenses such as camps, travel costs, gym membership and nutrition. I’d say it costs me about $1,000 a year just be given the opportunity to play.

It pains me to say it because I love football more than anything else in this world, but I have thought about giving the game away, absolutely.

I work from 9:00am until 5:30pm, plus an hour’s travel each way, so it’s mentally and physically straining just to get to training. Not all of us players are fully qualified to work the jobs where we can make big money.

Fortunately for me, I’m just grateful that I have very giving and supportive parents who generally have helped me out and allowed me to play footy this season and stay here in Perth. If I didn’t have the support of them and the Regan family here in Perth, I wouldn’t still be here with the chance to play at a high level.

The imbalance between the financial support given to talented males and females playing footy makes it nearly impossible to maintain an elite status.

I can’t put a pinpoint on whose fault the discrepancy is, but the fact that there are amateur male players around the country getting paid a couple of hundred dollars a weekend to play a game while us females – who are wanting to play in the national league and are branded as “elite” by the AFL – have no financial support is appalling, to be honest.

The whole situation becomes even harder if I do manage to make an AFL list next year.

As far as we know, the competition will span about three or four months. I’ve only been in my new job for about six weeks now and as far as I’m aware, taking three months off work with this company is not something that’s possible – you can’t take that time off and then come back. It’s certainly not a job I could continue to do and play in the national league as well.

You’ve got to be looking at earning $15,000 to $20,000 for a three or four-month period of training and playing to be in a livable situation, on top of assistance with housing, physio and other expenses that are vital for elite athletes to play in top competitions.

Wuetschner was pick 17 overall
in the 2015 AFL women’s draft.

However, how much I would need to earn to make being a national league player plausible depends on the commitment the AFL requires of us players throughout the year – it could be more or less money than that.

The AFL hasn’t been open with whether the national competition teams will be drafted or zoned so us hopeful players don’t really know what our personal situation will be in 2017.

If we are being backed financially for physio, housing and stuff like that then of course I would move interstate to play. I love this game; to move in order to play in the AFL would be an absolute honour.

But you’ve got to think financially about the future rather than just focusing on that three or four months. I would move but it would need to be plausible in the long run.

From my point of view, $20,000 for a four-month commitment is basically a genuine wage anyway, and it’s the kind of income players will need if they are going to dedicate themselves to playing football for a living.

The current situation for aspiring women’s national league players is not good enough; how can any female footballer be expected to be at an elite level when there isn’t enough support behind them?

We get injured and have to pay to fix the problem, we have to eat the right food without being told what the right food is, we have to have a strong and fit body with no strength and conditioning coaches or gym access, and we have to deal with fees, transport and uniform costs all out of our back pockets.

On the other hand, you see men with a six-pack-of-beer-belly playing amateur footy in the bush with a right foot as good as mine, and they get paid to play on a Sunday after a few beverages the night before.

It’s not fair, and it needs to change.

Jessica Wuetschner is a 23-year-old footballer for the Western Bulldogs, East Fremantle Sharks, Western Australia and most recently the Boston Lady Demons, and is widely regarded as one of Tasmania’s best female footy exports. Drafted to play for the Bulldogs in 2015 after just one full season with the Sharks since moving from Clarence in Tasmania, Wuetschner travelled to the United States just weeks after the televised Bulldogs-Demons match to coach, mentor and play in the USAFL. You can follow Jess on Twitter @JessicaWoochnar.

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