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Jess Cole — AFL player and marketing manager specialising in investments — on “just try it” and being the only women in AFL HK

Jess Cole — AFL player and marketing manager specialising in investments — on “just try it” and being the only women in AFL HK

Originally from Melbourne – the home of Australian Rules Football (AFL) — Jess has been living in Hong Kong for the past two and a half years. Currently, Jess is the only regular female player on the Hong Kong Dragons team, the only AFL Club in Hong Kong, participating in both a local South China AFL league and international tours. She is often one of very few women competing in the league.

Jess started playing AFL from a young age through Auskick (which is also available here), but stopped at age 12 when the sport was no longer available as a mixed gender sport to those older. Instead, she played other sports including netball, softball, tennis, volleyball, and athletics, primarily because she didn’t see AFL as being an option for her as a teenager. It wasn’t until her mid 20s that Jess started to play AFL again, when she joined friends in a mixed league in Melbourne called the Pub Footy League. She participated in mixed AFL for two years and absolutely loved the exercise, the socializing, the atmosphere, the culture of her club the SVM Easybeats, and how casual the league was.

When she moved to Hong Kong, Jess sought out AFL, found the Dragons’ website, emailed the team, told them she loved the sport and asked if she could join training. She’s still with the team and actively recruiting more women to play, as well as looking to field an all-women’s HK team to attend the 2018 Asian Championships in October. They are hosting their first Women’s AFL Give it a Go training on 3 February.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for length)

When you first arrived you were the only women who played AFL on your team and in the South China AFL. Did you find the team in HK quite receptive to you as a women-player?

The men who were happy for me to join tended to be younger, and for them participation mattered more. To them it was less about gender. That being said, I’ve received great support from some of the older guys who have so much knowledge and experience. Of course, because AFL is so small in HK compared to rugby, netball, cricket, running and plenty of other sports, the team is always keen to have new members.

There’s a perception that AFL is quite rough and tough, and not so much a women’s sport. What do you think about this?

I would counter that because AFL is not as rough as rugby and many other sports. It’s a game involving running, ball skills and endurance. There are all kinds of fitness and experience levels, just like with other social sports. When you give it a try, that you realize it’s a lot of running, and that makes it easier for people to conceptualize how the contact element works.

Photo from Jess ColeWhy do you think there are fewer women who play the sport? What do you think are the barriers to women playing AFL?

It is true that there is a perception that AFL is very rough. But, as someone who’s played netball, I can say that AFL is no rougher! I think contact scares a lot of women; there are many “women’s sport” that don’t involve contact, so there’s this idea that women are fragile, that we can’t get hurt, which is bizarre. Playing netball I got hurt a lot, playing other team sports I got hurt, just as you would with anything. I think if women are afraid of getting hurt, they need to be more secure with their physicality. You can get hurt from running, you can get hurt walking down the street, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing it. If you don’t like something because it doesn’t make you feel good, that’s a different question, but to me, the physicality is not something that I worry about.

There has also been more knowledge and a change in perception of what men and women can do. Obviously, there are differences depending on your physiological makeup but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give something a try simply because of your gender and size. You see amazing feats of success from people you would never have guessed could do half the things they achieve. I think there are many cultural reasons across the world around why women are discouraged from exploring their physicality.

How did you get so passionate about playing AFL?

Playing mixed for two years in Australia helped because it showed me there was a place for men and women to play AFL together and that it didn’t always have to be this super serious thing. That men have all this amazing knowledge about the sport they could impart to women who are interested – and there are many women who are interested. I think this perception especially in Australia that AFL is a man’s game and women don’t want to play has now been debunked, especially with the AFLW. It also gave me the confidence coming to HK that it can exist. Since being in HK, it’s been insightful that there are women out here who want to get involved (albeit with other sports), who want to be part of a team and turn up regularly, and want the social side of sports too.

At first you were the only women in the entire South China AFL playing regularly. What were some of the challenges that you faced? What were some of the advantages and disadvantages? And what has been the progress in terms of women playing AFL?

There definitely were challenges and disadvantages. For example, some players didn’t understand why I was there, they questioned the physicality of it, particularly with some of the older men as it wasn’t something they grew up with in Australia where the sport used to be male dominated and the women who came to the sport were either the wives or the mothers.

When I first played on the team against Guangzhou, I don’t think the guys on that team knew how to take me because I was there on the field and had no issues tackling them. I was even bigger than a few of them … so it was quite an interesting dynamic. They’ve learned! At first I was able to grab the ball and run away with it, but now they tackle me just as hard and I would say it’s very equal. It’s been great getting to know them through that lens. The team in Guangzhou has a lot of support from women and interestingly in China, women there have told me that it’s great and have asked me how to get involved … they’re really interested to see a woman playing a sport such as AFL. I think more so than in HK where women can play other sports such as rugby, netball, hockey, running and so much more. I think that physicality in China is even further behind … but they’re interested, particularly younger women.

Photo from Jess ColeThe advantages of being the only women are being able to change people’s perceptions of what it means to have mixed sports, as well as perceptions about physicality. Also what it means to club culture to have women involved. As I was saying, in Australia there is still a perception that AFL is a male sport and it’s very entrenched with our idea of what is masculinity, particularly in Victoria where I am from. It’s been interesting to be part of the discussions and hear different points of view about what it means to have women playing AFL.

In terms of progress for women … well, it’s still only really in HK that we have some women who play, but not really in China or Macau. In HK we’ve had women come in and out to play which I think is a great sign because it means at least people have seen there are women who play. I want to see more regular players.

One of the challenges that AFL faces generally is that it’s fighting for a place as a regular sport in HK as opposed to being a novelty. The regularity for some players to commit to a sport with practices and competition can also be quite difficult where people travel so much for work. We’re lucky that we only play once a month in the South China AFL league so commitment is not as high as other sports. But still, players do need to come and learn once a week or at least once a fortnight to get to know people, to learn about the rules and feel comfortable running around.

As someone who’s has to break gender barriers as the only women in AFL in HK and change the perception about what women can do on the pitch, what do you think you have learned through this process?

I think the first thing I’ve learned is simply to be involved. Don’t sit back and don’t wait to see what will happen. Because that’s how you learn, and it’s by being involved that we can show that women are interested and keen to play AFL. I’ve been guilty in the past where I’ve said I’ll just watch and see what happens … but this is not how team sports work. You learn by doing, listening and asking questions. I by no means claim to be an expert in AFL; almost all the men I play with have played since they were children and continued to play throughout their lives. They have a lot of knowledge to impart so I’m always asking questions and for direction. At the same time, I’m not afraid of being wrong. For example, I’m not the strongest kicker but I’ll always give it a go. There is no harm to trying.

I think it’s not only about being involved on the pitch, but also being involved in the club as there is a strong social aspect to playing any sport and AFL is no different. You can be involved by helping to organize things, helping out to welcome teams that come over for league from elsewhere, be more interactive with people.

Have you ever felt that you needed to be more assertive on the AFL field, more so than in other situations where you might not be the only women?

I work in finance and I feel I usually have to be quite assertive in my job. It’s interesting to me that in sport I’ve been surrounded by people who are always hungry for that ball, wanting to get that goal, so if anything, it’s more about making sure I am continuing that even if I am not that confident in my skills as I would be in other sports. It is a learning curve because I feel that I am – like many other women – the type of person who likes to be very good at something before I’ll go and try it. Whereas playing AFL has been good for me because I’m not as good as I’d like to be and I have to learn, to try harder, to ask questions and read up on the rules. It’s quite different to when I play netball which is something that I grew up with from a young age, was quite competent at it, and never felt I had to ask anyone’s opinion. On the netball field I knew how I could do better whereas playing AFL I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. I would say I learned to ask for help.

What is it about AFL that keeps you going back?

I think AFL is a great sport with physical and emotional benefits. It also fills a bit of a gap in HK where there are sports like rugby, gaelic football, netball, hockey and running. AFL is a sport that sits somewhere between these sports. If you like running, you can work on fitness, if you want to be physical you can work on being as physical as you want to be. Plus it’s also played during the offseason for rugby and gaelic football. It’s great to be able to play sports year-round and it complements the skills if you are a passionate rugby or gaelic football player. Also it’s something different to get your mind learning about and thinking about the skills and coordination that you need for your main sport.

What are your aspirations for the sport? Why do you want to grow the sport for women in HK?

Since last year we have been doing a big push to get women to join us. The timing of this drive coincides with the second year of the AFLW (professional women’s League) in Australia. This is important from a role model perspective where young girls can now see there is a professional future for their participation, and broader support from the AFL body to get coaching, funds to market, and raise awareness that there are women who play AFL. In HK, we’re looking to field an all-female team for our Asian Championships in October 2018. Our goal for this year is to educate people about what is AFL and to encourage women to come and have a try. We have our first intro session on 3 February (info here) and we’ll see how it goes. Already I can see that we’ll do many more of these events. We’ve had teachers approach us and say it’s helpful to educate children about the different types of sports available. There are many angles how we can take AFL further in HK, and to take it to women and girls in HK.

What words of encouragement do you have for women who might be on the fence to try AFL and in particular, to encourage them to attend your “Give it a Go” event?

This is something that I and the club [HK Dragons] are very passionate about and I want to share my passion with other women. If you’re interested and simply want to learn more, or want to meet new people just come! It doesn’t always have to be around skills building; it can really be about meeting new people too. I think in HK particularly, one of the best ways to meet new people is to join a sport. It was the advice I was given when I first moved here. I will be running the session along with some team mates, and the day will absolutely be an introduction to the sport so no prior knowledge is needed. Come and give it a go!

Details of their event, “Women’s AFL Give it a Go” training on 3 February at Happy Valley at 9am can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/events/148158009184345/

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