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life of a not-quite professional athlete

Updated: Feb 24

i moved over to the UK to gain experience i haven't been able to achieve in australia. i moved over wanting to play professionally, but quickly realised that wouldn't be possible as the level i've played at in australia dictates the level i can play over here because of brexit and their rules pertaining to GBE points. although unbelievably frustrating and limiting, i am still able to play semi-professionally here. but what's the difference between professional and semi-professional? and why does it matter to acknowledge the differences?

semi-professional can easily be summarised as self-funded - you're responsible for doing everything yourself. and when you're self-employed, you don't always get paid for the work you do. prior to coming to the UK, i had to sort myself a visa, pay for a visa, and pay for the national health insurance surcharge (nearly $2000). i then had to pay for my flights, sort my accommodation, and email clubs myself. i could have had an agent do this on my behalf, but not being able to sign a professional contract (because of the point system) doesn't give much incentive for an agent to work hard for me.

okay, so i'm in the UK and i've emailed clubs - now what? now i have to wait for the clubs to get back to me. and once they get back to me, i then have to sort a way to get to these clubs - either via public transport (which doesn't allow much flexibility) or by hiring a car. hiring a car over here, without insurance, is about $60 a day (at its cheapest). but you're obviously taking a risk. to add insurance, it triples the price of hiring a car. and when i needed to hire a car at least 5 times, that quickly adds up. as does the cost of petrol which costs approximately $110 to fill up a tank ($2.70 a litre).

i was very fortunate that for the first 6 weeks i was able to set up a base at my partner's cousin's place which meant free accommodation. but i did still have to hire accommodation for trials that were beyond driving distance in one day (e.g. more than 2 hours when training finishes at 10pm). so accommodation costs are also at my own expense. but the biggest problem with being semi professional, other than the lack of financial reimbursement, is the uncertainty. i came over here having nothing organised - not from lack of effort or trying, but because i couldn't organise anything from australia. every week i was unsettled because i never knew where i was going to be - i didn't know who i was going to be trialling with and whether i would realistically be able to get there in such short notice.

i've obviously come over here mid-season, which in itself presents a lot of challenges because teams are often already established and their finances issued. there's also no real urgency to bring a player in - so i wasn't a priority to a lot of teams (which i understand). now compare this to someone who's professional - none of these issues mentioned are a thing for them. their visa gets sorted for them, flights are paid for, accommodation sorted, travel organised, potentially a car loaned to them, and they have a team. there's no uncertainty. there's no out-of-pocket financial costs. and there's also a contract waiting for them to provide income.

so how does the time commitment differ from that of a semi-professional to that of a professional? as a semi professional team, we train three times a week for two hours, with two one hour gym sessions. in addition to this, there's team analysis for an hour after training as well as a scout report, and occasionally individual meetings to discuss IDPs (individual development plan). recovery isn't mandated by the team, but it usually takes up another 1.5 hours during the week. lastly there's game days, which take up at least 5 hours. so all of this adds up to at least 15 hours, without factoring in travel. professional teams have a similar itinerary, but they might have an additional training session.

on sunday we had a friendly in liverpool - a 3.5 hour bus ride. it took me 1.5 hours to get to the club, before sitting on a bus for 3.5 hours. we then had our game, had some food, back on the bus. i left at 7:30am and got home at 10pm. all food, except for the sandwiches after the game, were at my own expense. again, this is something that differs significantly for professional and semi-professional environments - in professional environments, food expenses are covered. in semi-professional, as i first stated, it's self-funded.

i think what's really difficult is that the women's game is evidently getting stronger and more competitive. the gaps between leagues are becoming smaller, yet the gaps between professional and semi-professional aren't. there is a massive financial burden on those who are semi-professional* but one of the biggest problems is the expectations. semi-professional athletes are expected to train and behave like professionals. they're expected to prioritise their sport, even though financially they aren't getting reimbursed for it. through most of my career, it's just been accepted that you give up work for your sport - because you love the game and that's what you do when you love it, right? but where do you draw the line? it's a bit of a chicken and egg situation in regards to what comes first - player's commitment and expectations, or the environment and the pay? i think for so long women have been expected to give up their lives, their jobs, their pay to play semi-professionally but it really isn't feasible. but i also know from a coaching perspective, their hands are tied. and it's nearly impossible to build a team with half commitment. so what needs to happen? there needs to be more financial investment. there needs to be a respectful wage offered to players giving up at least 15 hours of their week (excluding travel). and there needs to be more resources available for those who are professional in their mindset, behaviour, and expectations, but aren't-quite-there-yet or haven't been gifted an opportunity to play professional. and the main reason so many of these athletes aren't professional? it's not because they're not good enough, but it's because there aren't enough fully professional teams in their sport. quite often, only the top tier of women's sporting divisions are fully professional and paid adequately. in the men's? you can play for a 6th tier soccer club over here (UK) and still earn more than what a female would in a semi-professional (tier 2 or 3) environment.

women's sport needs more investment. semi-professional shouldn't still mean self-funded.

*admittedly there is still a financial burden on many professional female players too

**please note these are based off my experiences in former professional environments and what i've heard from other players in professional environments. i acknowledge there is a large discrepancy between professional teams and their offerings.

all monetary figures are in AUD - to convert to pounds, divide by 2

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