Footballer Steph Houghton led the England women’s team to the semi-finals in last year’s World Cup and also captains Manchester City, but she’s had her share of knock-backs.
The 32-year-old started playing in an era where girls’ football didn’t enjoy the same attention as it does now, and she’s battled for opportunities and suffered injuries during her career.
The determined Durham-born player has won through adversity to achieve sporting success, and gives her top tips for girls who want to follow in her footballing footsteps…
1. Just play
“Get out there and play. Remember, you don’t always have to be the best at something to enjoy it. You can have fun in a game whatever level you’re at, and you’ll learn something from the experience.
“Over the last nine years, the sport has grown so quickly, and the perception of the game has totally changed. When I was a kid, women’s football didn’t have the profile it does now, so I looked up to players like David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Kevin Phillips. I watched as many matches on TV as I could.
“I’ve lost count of the number of times I watched the film Bend It Like Beckham, about two girls who wanted to follow their dream of playing professional football.”
2. Make friends
“Football is a great way of gaining confidence. You’re doing something you enjoy, you become fit and healthy, and being in a team is a fantastic way of making friends.
“I got into football first and foremost by doing activities after school, which was a brilliant way of getting involved. I knew that I was always going to play because I loved the sport, but it wasn’t until I was 18 or 19, I thought I could make it my job.
“Training and achieving together is an awesome feeling. I’ve made some brilliant mates during my years in the game and it’s truly one of the best things about sport.”
3. Have fun
“You don’t need a fancy pitch to be able to play. When I was a kid, most of my pitches were a random field or a park, or someone’s garden, and we’d put our jumpers down for goalposts.
“It’s just about making the most of every game, trying to improve yourself and having fun with your friends.
“I was inspired by my dad, who was a semi-professional player when I was younger. He was one of seven brothers and they all played and got together every weekend to do it. So, as soon as I could walk, I had a ball at my feet and I started playing aged four. Football meant family, friendship and fun to me, it was just part of my life.”
4. Work hard
“The only thing you can control is how hard you work – generally the more you practise, the better you’ll get – and you don’t need a coach or a parent to tell you that!
“You just have to be determined to keep going. At times, it’s been really hard – I’ve had injuries that have stopped me playing and I’ve struggled to get back to being fit and playing again. The set-backs have helped me become the person I am today.
“Nothing worth having comes easy. There will be ups and downs – just keep coming back fighting, don’t give up and who knows where you’ll end up.”
5. Keep learning
“Stay open-minded and realise you can learn something new, no matter how old or experienced you are.
“Hopefully, if you’re doing something you love and enjoy, those hours of training will fly by, and it won’t seem like hard work.
“Every year I go into pre-season training looking out for different things to try on the field, or new ways to train, or strategies to help my body recover quicker. I aim to be as adaptable as possible, so if I spot a new technique, I can work on it and include it.
“Do listen to your mentors and parents when they give advice, because they’re trying to help and support you.
6. Stay strong
“It can be hard when you get to 13 and 14, when a lot of girls get interested in boys, shopping, make-up or whatever, and it’s a time when you can get put off playing a sport. Of course, I was interested in those things like any girl, but I knew I still wanted to pursue my football.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned in my career is the more energy you waste on what other people think, you’re not going to have enough energy for yourself.
“My advice would be to block out what other people are thinking about you – or what you think they’re thinking about you. It doesn’t really matter and the great feeling of doing exercise in any form outweighs anything anyone can say about you.”
7. Look for goals
“If football is something that you really want to be a part of, and want to be good at, give it everything you can.
“Working in a team, learning how to overcome difficulties, and being motivated are useful in all areas of life.
“Whether it’s for the love of the game, doing something different or making it your job, there are so many opportunities you can use, but at the same time, it’s being brave enough to go to those places and make sure you push yourself. Use your family and friends for support, and continue to keep pushing and being positive.”
England football captain Steph Houghton is an ambassador for the Always #EndPeriodPoverty campaign. Always has teamed up with UK Youth, a network of youth organisations across the UK, to ensure girls have access to period products, even out of term time, so they can take part in the activities that they love.