Women are under-represented in sport, both on and off the field – think participation, coverage and leadership. Contrary to popular belief, this cannot be attributed to boys being naturally more active. In 2016, the LOOK Longitudinal Study found a 19 per cent gap in physical activity between girls and boys – girls, the research revealed, are less favourably influenced by their families, schools and communities.
Yet, equal opportunity and support when it comes to playing sport not only positively impacts girls’ health and development, it counters privilege and bias – which is why I was particularly excited to interview North Melbourne Tasmania Kangaroos forward and mum-of-two Sophie Abbatangelo. Even the unversed like me can see how the AFLW and its counterparts across codes are starting to change attitudes and norms, a welcome development for my generation and those to come. Wishing Sophie and the team the best of luck for the season’s final month!
Your son Hendrix started school the day after your first AFLW game with the North Melbourne Tasmanian Kangaroos, a 36-point win over Carlton. Congrats on two massive milestones, how are you both finding your new roles ?
We definitely experienced a rollercoaster of emotions leading up to our big days, with Meika also starting kinder. It was always going to be a challenge for the three of us, as we’re a really tight unit, and Hendrix and Meika are still adjusting to me being away. I think Hendrix nailed his first day with less nerves than I had going into my first game!
But it never stops for us. Coming out of my first game, I was sore and exhausted, but the kids still wake up in the night and crawl into bed with me, so I function on very little sleep. There’s a lot more responsibility when your child starts school, so dealing with him being tired from longer hours and having to do homework takes patience and time.
Hendrix is having so much fun at school, I can’t wait to see what this chapter brings for him. As for me, I’m absolutely loving my new role as a player, I just wish the kids would let me sleep more!
You grew up watching your dad and uncle play AFL, but pursued inline (Sophie represented Australia) and ice hockey as, up until recently, there was no national women’s game (though the VFLW was founded in 1981, and Sophie played with Diamond Creek until this year). Libby Birch of the Western Bulldogs has said that sport has the power to effect cultural change and advance gender equity. What does it mean to you, and your daughter Meika, to be a part of this?
I grew up watching men in my family play football, from my Dad and brother to my uncles and cousins. Even though I preferred to kick with the boys, I was still supported when I wanted to play competition.
I have always been passionate about equal rights and recognition, not just for athletes but for women in general. If Meika grows up to love sport as much as I do, I feel confident that she’ll be encouraged and accepted within any sport she chooses to play. And if she does aspire to play football, it excites me to think how amazing she could be with the talent and growth that is coming through now. I just hope she uses her strength and ferocity in competitive sport rather than on Hendrix and me!
As for following in my footsteps, I hope she feels empowered to challenge herself with things she might find difficult and if she does choose a sporting pathway, listens to her coaches and finds herself a great group of friends.
Entering the 2017 AFLW draft, you were overlooked by all eight clubs – a disappointment that ultimately afforded you more time with your mum, who passed last year. Can you tell us a bit about your mum? I can only imagine how proud she’d be of you today.
Being overlooked in the second draft was a blessing in disguise, though it was upsetting, that feeling of letting my Mum down. I knew not being drafted meant I had a lot more to learn – I needed to touch the footy a little bit longer. But it was hard seeing her sad for me.
She was always my biggest supporter in everything I did. I played a lot of sport at a high level growing up, from tennis to basketball and then hockey. It was always mum who was beside me during the early morning, road trips, camps and late-night games.
Mum was all about connection and conversation, and she loved to dance. She was witty and feisty, a bit of a know-all, intelligent, fabulous and fun. A really beautiful woman. I see a lot of her in Meika.
She always made people feel important and valued. The day I became a mum was the day I realised how extraordinary she was, and that feeling grows stronger every day. The sheer magnitude of motherhood and all it encompasses, the all-consuming love and exhaustion; I don’t think I’ll survive my kids’ childhood and adolescence with the same composure as she did mine.
Towards the end, she had such strength, determination and unwavering love; her ‘get on with it’ attitude was awe-inspiring. The hardest part of my football journey is her not being here doing what Mums love to do best – watch their kids kick ass. I miss life with her.
Much has been made of AFLW players like yourself, Erin Phillips and Dana Hooker balancing footy and family (this rarely comes up in relation to dads in the AFL). You’ve said you’ve spent the last five years as a stay-at-home-mum, how have you found the transition? In what ways do you share the load with Hendrix and Meika’s Dad?
Being a stay-at-home-mum can be quite controversial. For me, it was an instinctive decision – the best way I knew to raise my kids. Though more demanding than any job I’ve had, it’s meant I’ve been able to share every moment and milestone with Hendrix and Meika.
Since AFLW season has started, the kids have spent most weekends with their Dad in Melbourne. He picks them up on a Thursday night, and I get them back on Sunday. They love being with him, and it’s always nice to switch-off and have some me time. Even though we are not together, he has been really supportive of my football career.
During the week can be difficult. Living an hour out of Melbourne with Hendrix now in school and Meika at kinder, it doesn’t give me much flexibility to find a permanent income. But we live near the beach, so we enjoy spending a lot of time down at the water, catching crabs and going on little adventures. The kids do bush kinder once a week, which is a program that helps them develop a deep connection to nature and animals. It’s their favourite day of the week.
Can you give us a glimpse into how your days start and end with Hendrix and Meika?
Mornings can be very rushed; Meika has an 8am start, so when the kids wake up between 7 and 7.30am, there’s only around 30 minutes to ensure they’re fed and dressed with lunches packed. Getting out the door is never an easy task, I generally look like I haven’t slept in six weeks straight!
Wednesday is Hendrix’s day off, and Meika starts kinder later in the day. We have swimming lessons and gymnastics, then usually spend the afternoon together, when we might take the dog for a walk and go kick the footy down the park.
Thursday and Fridays are just me and Meika until we pick Hendrix up. I’ll catch up on the housework and we usually do something fun, every day is different. I do enjoy the days we pretend I’m sick and have broken bones because she enjoys playing doctor and fixing me, it’s totally her idea!
Nights can be hard as a single parent; by 5pm I’m ready for bed. We do dinner together after we have gone for a bike ride to the park and kicked the footy. I try to have the kids in bed by 7pm and asleep by 8pm. We read books and sometimes meditate, then we have a 15-minute chat about our days, telling funny stories and looking at photos of Mum, then I tickle their backs until they fall asleep.
Moving across time, what kind of adults might you like them to grow into? How would you like them to remember you to their own families?
I hope my kids will grow up to be kind. That’s the most important trait I can teach them, whether it’s standing up to someone or opening a door for someone else, kindness goes further than anyone can imagine.
I want them to embrace self-love, something I’ve had to learn as an adult. My theory is that if you grow up loving yourself and feeling safe, you’ll grow to be happy and healthy. If the world is filled with people who share the same thinking, then we’ll see more compassion and kindness – and that’s the kind of world I want to live in.
I’ve learnt it’s not what you teach them, it’s what they see. We can tell them to do things over and over, but if they see us living in a way that contradicts our advice, they won’t take it on for themselves.
I will always try to encourage my kids to see their strengths and use them, whether it’s Hendrix’s hand-eye coordination and great ball skills that might have him playing under the mother-son rule, or Meika’s strength and determination that will make her a future leader or CEO.
The reality is, I was still much like a child myself when I had my two kids, and under the circumstances of losing my Mum the experience of motherhood has been confronting and challenging, which has nearly broken me a number of times. But the best part is I get to grow up alongside my kids, rolling with the punches and learning along the way, all to hopefully become the parent they deserve. That’s how I want them to remember me, by all the love!
Activity or outing
We love the beach and zoo, The Big Goose, swimming pools and bush walks.
Anywhere with a playground. My kids aren’t the type to sit at a restaurant in silence, so out of respect for everyone else I prefer to just stay at home.
Book, film, or show
We read a lot of books, it’s been a night-time ritual since they were babies. As much as I like to limit screen time, it’s the only peace and quiet I quiet I get, so they enjoy anything on YouTube Kids.
Place to travel
We have taken the kids to Bali, and will go again after footy season, can’t wait!
The AFLW’s undefeated North Melbourne Tasmania Kangaroos vs. Adelaide Crows is this Sunday, 4pm, at Avalon Airport Oval, Werribee. The league’s reigning best-and-fairest, Kangaroos captain Emma Kearney, as well as 2018 winner, Crows co-captain Erin Phillips, will be playing along with our girl Sophie Abbatangelo in what’s tipped to be a ‘blockbuster‘!
Find out more about gender-inclusive AFL Auskick here and further AFLW pathways (juniors, youth, and women’s seniors) here.