Picture this: A young girl is in the front row of the Black Ferns world cup semi-final against France. The final whistle has blown and the crowd around her erupts in celebration – New Zealand are through to the final!. She turns to her parents as the crowd dies down and lets them know that she wants to give rugby a go. She wants to be a Black Fern. They smile at her as they quietly navigate their own internal dialogue: Where? How? They haven’t seen any girls' rugby teams in their small, rural town. 

It’s no secret that it has been an exciting and historic period for women’s sport in New Zealand. We are at the half-way mark of four major events focused on women and sport, and what we have seen so far has been an incredible display of female athleticism, underpinned by widespread enthusiasm, pride and, dare I say it, surprise.  

While the opinions and resourcing of women’s sport may have changed over the years, there is always an element of surprise in announcements of outstanding performance, skill, execution, and sold-out stadiums. Sarah Cowley Ross recently wrote in a piece for LockerRoom that: “For a long time women’s rugby has not been given the investment opportunity, with the argument the ‘product’ is not entertaining or commercially valuable.” This statement is applicable to all women’s high performance sport. 

The surprise is two-fold. Female athletes are still fighting for equitable pay, resourcing, viewership, playing opportunities, and sponsorship. It is well documented that those females who do make it to the top tier of the sporting world have had to fight hard to get there, and the challenges don’t end once they have ‘made it’ either. But if these are the experiences of the world’s best, what does that mean for the experiences of the everyday female participant? 

It's fantastic to see females on the world stage, but the opportunities from the grassroots up are hugely lacking. Women and girls are inspired by the White Ferns, Black Ferns, and Football Ferns. However, there is a definite uncertainty about how they go about participating in sport, whether they want to pursue national representation or not.

We often talk about pathways in sport, and with this I picture a road with a final destination. Instead, I strongly advocate for a reshaping of this narrative, and suggest that a tree be used to embody participation. With many branches that allow females to climb as high as they feel comfortable, provide multiple options for participation, encourage flexibility in the face of external influences, and support development in the season that feels right for the individual, the tree symbolises retention and growth – for both females and the sport. 

If we want the next generation of female athletes to be just that, we need to provide women and girls with quality opportunities to participate in all codes at all levels. We need to meet them where they are and forget about how our sports have traditionally been played or what ‘the rules’ are. We need to think creatively about how we engage women and girls so that they cling hard to a branch on that tree because they love participating and how it makes them feel.  

Sport’s existence should not be dependent on finding the next All Blacks or White Ferns. It hinges on cultivating enjoyment at the grassroots level. That is how we will grow sport and female participation; by leveraging the strength of our roots to respond to the needs of the environment, just like a tree. 

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Dr Roxanna Holdsworth is passionate about championing women and seizes every opportunity to put her skills and knowledge to use in this space to encourage, support and celebrate women and girls getting active their way, as part of Sport Waikato’s women and girls initiative, This is ME. Roxanna completed her PHD in 2021, which specifically focused on the lives of 21st Century New Zealand women and their unique differences and experiences, as they navigated the constraints of choice and an ingrained narrative of progression in Aotearoa.

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