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Coaches-mentors panel seeks to empower young women in Weyburn

A day of breakout sessions for young female athletes was held on Saturday, and it concluded with a panel discussion with mentors and coaches.

WEYBURN – A day of breakout sessions for young female athletes was held on Saturday with a team of leaders of young women, and it concluded with a panel discussion with mentors and coaches who talked about issues around women in sports today.

A trio of women formed the group, Spilling Prairie Tea, and they in turn engaged “Girls Beyond Borders” and founder Sarah Pogue, who enlisted young women from the Weyburn area to lead breakout sessions on topics like body image and nutrition. Spilling Prairie Tea is comprised of Lindsee Michel, Felecia Watson and Heidi Bousfield, with Michel taking the mike as the emcee for the panel discussion, for which they invited the public to come and hear what the panelists had to say about their own experiences.

The panel included long-time retired Phys. Ed teacher and coach Jacquie Williams; club volleyball coach Heidi Vogel; Jessie Smoliak, department head for Phys. Ed at the Estevan Comp; trainer Lydia Sanders; volleyball coach and former Team Canada player Tonya Miller; school counsellors Jasmine and Brooklyn Lund; former Gold Wings goalie and assistant coach Jane Kish; and Sarah Pogue, founder of “Girls Beyond Borders”.

Michel opened with the question as to why this initiative to reach young female athletes was important to them, Williams responded, “This is why I’m here, because I’m a woman. I was a young woman like many of you, I became a middle-aged woman, and now I am an older woman. … I attribute my life to being a woman, everything I’ve got was by being a woman. I think we need to empower you to know, it’s enough just to be a woman.”

Vogel noted that she is a mother and a daughter, and enjoys coaching young female athletes in volleyball. She added she wants to share her experiences but also to learn from the experiences of others.

Smoliak, who grew up playing sports in Fillmore before going on to be the athletic director at the Estevan Comp, said she’s passionate about females in sports.

“We’re all here to empower each other and to be better women and better role models out in our communities,” she said, noting she brought three women to take in the conference, and said of this effort, “This needs to happen in our communities, big or small. I love seeing these girls out in front of us (the team leaders) leading in the conference today with so much passion and confidence. I embrace it and thank you girls for being wonderful leaders.”

Miller said she feels it’s important for women to be supportive of other women, especially in a smaller community where people can step up and be a positive influence in the lives of young women in sports.

“I have three young girls at hom, and hopefully they can have the same opportunities that I had,” she said.

Jasmine Lund, who along with twin sister Brooklyn are both school counsellors at St. Michael School, noted a lot of the referrals they get are from girls with anxiety issues, especially for girls of the age of those attending the conference.

“We understand there’s lots of pressure, from social media, peers, teens, and it’s really important that girls get the tools they need, especially if they’re going beyond high school into university sports,” she said.

“There’s a lot of pressure we face as women in sports, so anything we can do as supports we’ll try and help the transition into higher sports.”

One question asked if any of the panelists ever felt pressure to have a certain body weight as an athlete, and if yes, what effect did that have on them.

Miller, who played for six years on Team Canada’s women’s volleyball team, shared her experience, where they had a coach who insisted players had to have under 15 per cent body fat – and on a team of 15 women, only three of them met this standard, including herself.

“I believe if you’re consistently under 15 per cent body fat, you don’t have a period any more. Genetically I was able to hit that, but there was only three of us who could,” she said, noting some athletes who tried to hit this target saw a big drop in their performance, because it wasn’t sustainable.

She said maybe if they had had a female coach it would’ve made a difference, but it definitely made the athletes count their calories every day, which wasn’t good, and didn’t realize until afterward how much this had impacted her as an athlete.

On the question of whether body image was a factor when they competed, Williams responded that, when she competed, it did not affect her.

“God blessed me with a body that did exactly what I wanted it to do,” she said, noting she grew up as a tomboy. In high school, she developed large muscles in her body, and she began to hear comments like, “Look how big her legs are.”

In university, she had body composition testing, and at five-foot-eight, the only woman heavier than her was six-foot-one, because of her muscles.

“I just never got over the fact that I wasn’t what the world wanted me to be,” she said, and said to the young women in the audience, “Do not wait until you’re 55 to be who you are. Do not wait. … Be happy just to be you.”

On the issue of the effects of social media on young female athletes, Vogel said, “It’s very hard not to have social media affect any young person’s mindset, for athletes specifically. … We all go on it with the realization that what we’re consuming is not even real, it’s been altered or edited, but it can still affect you in negative ways.”

She added what’s important for her and her daughter is to have conversations about what they’re seeing, so they’re always talking about it and to see where she’s at and what she’s feeling.

Michel noted when she designed the day of sessions for young female athletes, she acknowledged that she did not grow up with social media and doesn’t know how to parent it, but they had a group of young women as team leaders, many of whom were recent graduates from high school or are in university, and they understand and use social media.

One of the leaders, Natalie Hastings, noted that social media can be used in a positive way, but it can also be negative. As a powerlifter, she noted she could see girls on there lifting weights beyond what she was lifting, but the important thing is to realize what you see on social media is not the whole picture, or the real one.

Miller pointed out that as a coach, she has all her girls hand in their cell phones when they’re at a practice or a game, so it’s not going to distract them while they’re supposed to be playing the sport.

Vogel said she’s used it as teachable moments with her daughter, particularly after an episode of snapchat drama amongst members of her volleyball team. Her daughter learned lessons from that for being a part of it, and this will need to be ongoing, with the team and with her family.