Westfield W-League’s Class of 21 set to graduate to big things

THIS week you suspect the studying will be put on hold, at least for this finals-bound foursome. With a place in the Westfield W-League grand final at stake in the weekend’s semifinals, even the most studious of players will have to place their focus purely on the football.

But those academic studies won’t be on the backburner for long across the Westfield W-League, given the remarkable numbers of players who are studying everything from diplomas to degrees that when done part-time can stretch to eight years’ duration.

Across the four Westfield W-League finalists alone there are at least 40 players currently undertaking study, the majority enrolled at university for an undergraduate degree. Many also hold down jobs outside football, as well as being effectively full-time athletes during the Westfield W-League season.

“We are certainly cramming it in,” notes Sydney FC forward Rachel Lowe who at 20 is studying a degree in physical education at Sydney University – and doing it on a fulltime basis.

The figures relate to the numbers of players who have received grants distributed by the players’ association (PFA) towards their studies, and across the Westfield W-League as a whole 65 out of 170 players (almost 40%) are currently in the middle of a course.

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Sydney FC's Rachel Lowe is one of many Westfield W-League players combining football with study
Sydney FC's Rachel Lowe is one of many Westfield W-League players combining football with study

Add in another 61 players in the A-League and it means that more than a quarter of the “workforce” across the two competitions is studying – equating surely to one of the most educationally aspirational football leagues in the world.

The education grants come from the player welfare programme administered largely by the PFA and funded by the club-run Australian Premier Leagues through the collective agreements that cover the A-League and Westfield W-League, with all sides recognising the benefits that come from investment in the playing group.

Lowe’s only focus in the next few days is Sydney’s finals campaign, taking on Canberra on Monday in the semifinal. But even in the midst of a successful season, the studying has helped her football rather than hindered it.

“When I’m studying it gives me more perspective,” she said. “It means my identity is not all about being a footballer. The game can dominate you but this gives some distance and means you can balance things out.

“Studying and maturing go hand in hand, and that helps you across the board.”

Nor is this a case of players rushing to find an alternative career as they contemplate the end of their playing days. For good reason, many of those studying are in their early 20s, because recent research has shown that the more they study, the longer – and better – will their football careers be.

A major research project into NRL players – conducted by Abertay University in Scotland – found that increased academic study equated to being selected more, playing better and having a longer playing career. In part that may be because studying helps as a mental balm when injuries strike, helping players to manage the toll of time spent on the sidelines.

“I think for me studying has been a saviour in a sense,” said Canberra forward Nicki Flannery who will take on Sydney in Monday’s semifinal. “I’ve obviously battled a few injuries and for me to overcome those I needed to have my mind set on something else.

“Physically you’re doing your rehab and recovery and it’s draining. But having my study to fall back on in those times has definitely helped me get to the point where I am today.

“It’s so important that people have something outside of football to be focussing on because obviously football has highs and lows and I’ve experienced a bit of a mix.”

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The range of courses being studied is truly eclectic, from obvious topics including fitness, nutrition and exercise physiology to the commercial pilot’s licence being undertaken by Wellington goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic and Brisbane defender Isobel Dalton’s Bachelor of Justice.

In the latter case what will be Dalton’s second degree (after a BA in Sociology) is very much for a defined post-football vocational path – even though her aim is to play for as many seasons as possible.

“Eventually I want to go into policing, that’s definitely top of my list, so I’m studying criminology and policing at the moment,” said Dalton, whose Brisbane team host Melbourne Victory in Sunday’s semifinal. 

“Hopefully I play on for years. But in the year I did take off (from studying) I had so much spare time, and it makes sense to use that as a buffer for the future. Football won’t last forever, and I know I’ll have to support myself down the line.”

Isobel Dalton
Dalton has a future in policing on her mind as she heads into the 2020/21 Finals Series with Brisbane Roar

In many cases the course selected by the players are with an eye to staying in the game long-term. At 23, Victory defender Angie Beard already has a diploma in fitness that allows her to work in gyms and as a personal trainer.

But her current undergraduate degree in health science will underpin her hopes of finding a strength and conditioning role once her playing days are done.

“It takes a lot of hard work to manage the studying with our training and playing, but it’s also beneficial – I find your football mind can be on all the time unless you have something else to distract yourself with,” Beard said.

“The numbers of W-League players who are studying are incredible when you consider many players also have jobs elsewhere.”