Girls and boys have joined forces on a Gatineau high school football field, the first in the region to have an organized coed team.
Hormisdas-Gamelin Secondary School’s Tigers football team have been league champions for the past four years, but head coach Michel Roy says they can do even better. And to do that they need to draw from the school’s entire pool of talented athletes.
“We decided to really shift this year. We’ve always been innovators in the way we work, so this year I wanted to go get the best athletes. We have 1,400 students at our school and half are boys. So instead of picking from 700 boys, we have 1,400 kids to pick (from),” said Roy, who has invited girls to play in past years on a casual basis, but this is the first season he has actively recruited and trained girls.
Contact football is traditionally a male sport, and the leagues the Tigers will be competing against from the Outaouais and Montreal area are predominantly male. But with new concussion rules and protocols that include a safer approach to tackles, the dynamics of the game have changed, Roy says, and it’s important to evolve with the sport.
He says female players tend to have good speed and dexterity and be technically stronger and more mature than some of their male counterparts, not to mention they have the motivation and drive to show they belong on the team.
“It’s a speed and strength sport, but it’s become very technical because of many rule changes, so we have to innovate … we have specific (defensive) positions that are really well suited for the girls’ abilities.”
Laurie-Ange Clément, 15, grew up watching the football on television, started playing a year ago, and tried out for the team when one of her friends convinced her to attend this year’s training session. Now, with pre-season camps underway, Clément trains on the defensive end, honing her speed, strength, and blocking skills. One of the three senior female recruits, she’s not afraid to elbow her way through aggressive plays. In fact, it’s what she loves about the game.
“I love football because I love (the) adrenalin before and during the game. I also love the contact and tactics,” said Clément, who, despite suffering a slight concussion while practising last year, was determined to play on because her fear of “never playing football” trumped her concern over potential future injuries.
“My father at first did not agree because he did not want me to hurt myself because football is a very dangerous sport, but my mother was very much in agreement and encouraged me from the beginning.”
The girls also have the support of their teammates. Quarterback Charles Turcot, 16, has played on the team for four years, says the guys are used to playing with girls given some have been subbing in over the past few years.
“It’s been great, but when (girls) first came on the team we were like, ‘Wow some girls want to play a man’s sport.’ But when we see everybody on the field, it’s just like a big family,” said Turcot. “When we put them in their position, we just tell them what they need to do and when they do it, it’s just like they were born to do it. Those girls are athletes.”
Have there been challenges? Yes but, Roy stresses, mostly because with change comes adjustment.
“Any change you do — especially a dramatic change like bringing girls or women in football — is a huge change because it’s an old boys’ club, right? And so growing pains — we know there’s going to be some, but we are going to work with the players themselves. We are learning things right off the top, but we have a really good training program and we want to make sure we recruit well and keep them. There are seven positions in football, and we are trying to find the right fit for the right person.”
The girls have their own locker rooms, but when they’re in the game it’s an even playing field. They wear the same uniforms, although the girls’ helmets and shoulder pads require slight adjustments.
Roy says all players are coached based on their roles, and with equal treatment comes equal demands.
“They don’t get special treatment because they’re girls,” said Roy. “We want to treat them equally. Are they going to be coached a little differently? You have to, like most of the players on our team, most positions on our team. We are not doing any favours. We just want to make sure that we give them the right support they need, and they are guiding us through the whole process.”