27-year-old Grace McCatty is an elite footballer. Playing for Bristol City Women in the Women’s Super League 2, she trains and plays with all the commitment of a professional athlete.
All except the lucrative contract.
As such, she holds down a full time job with British Gymnastics, as well as training up to seven days a week with Bristol City Women.
Whilst she hasn’t had the option of turning full time, the increased professionalism within women’s football and women’s sport means the game is heading in that direction.
Nonetheless, Grace is not satisfied solely with sport and is striving to better her prospects both on and off the pitch.
Pivotal too this was her time spent at Bath University, where she was provided with a structure to become a better footballer, but also a better person and gave her one opportunity that ignited a burning desire to achieve great things away from the football field.
She tells Switch the Play about her difficult balancing act, how she is using sport to develop her outside career prospects and the advice she gives her teammates and others just starting in the game…
Grace, how do you manage to train as a full time athlete and hold down a full time job?
In the last couple of years, there’s been a substantial growth in the game. It’s brilliant. If you’re a young player coming through now, the opportunities are ever increasing. We’re deemed to be semi professional. We train up to seven times a week and I also work a full time job, 37-hours a week. The biggest challenge is committing to being a full time football player without the financial backing. It’s committing to two full times roles within one week.
I sometimes work evenings and weekend to allow me to train. We train daytimes, some evenings and most weekends as well. There are sessions I have do in my own time such as gym sessions because I have to spend my time working.
I’m one of only four players at Bristol City Women who has a full time job. The rest of our squad are between 18 and 22. It’s great as they’re earning money but I’m in a place where my thoughts are in developing myself off the pitch. I’m not willing to do a part time bar job when I know that’s not the career I want to go into and my manager has been very understanding.
How did you get into sport development?
Ever since a young age, sport has always been part of my life. After going to college and doing my A-Levels, it only made sense to go to university. It was a time when nobody got paid to play. As much as I love and still love football, it was an intense hobby but only a hobby as there was no way of making a living from it.
I needed to develop myself off the pitch and that came through my undergraduate degree at Bath and postgraduate degree at Southampton.
The biggest eye opener was in 2010, whilst at university, I was given the opportunity to go to Zambia for six weeks to coach as a volunteer. I’d only ever experienced the elite end of sport, where you get given so much. I went to the extreme opposite in a developing country where kids walk around with no shoes on, covered in dirt. Giving them a football gave them so much joy and it made me realise the power of sport. I wasn’t naive but I’d only every seen the elite end. That moment made me realise that there’s so much more to sport than playing it, there’s more to my love for sport. It made me realise that I could use this passion I have for sport to achieve something greater. Football is great and I’ll play as long as I can, but there’s so much more I can do with this passion.
What part did your time in education play in your drive to succeed outside the sporting field?
Not only did it provide the chance for me to excel on the pitch and get good coaching, it gave me the chance to develop myself off it. I didn’t have to stop playing football to focus on my career. I could train in the morning and develop as a player and in the afternoon I could develop myself academically, which then led to other opportunities.
When you’re in education, you meet an array of people from different backgrounds. You can be so indulged in what you do; you just spend your life with footballers. That’s not a bad thing but it’s nice to meet people from different walks of life, with different experiences. You learn as much from them as they do from you. Education has opened doors, particularly in international development. It was a great chance to meet different people which spurred my motivation. It was a great atmosphere to be involved in.
What doors were opened?
Prior to going to university I’d never had much understand of the sport development world, particularly internationally. Whilst I was at Bath University, I met some people who ran a volunteering project where they sent students out to Zambia to volunteer and do a six-week project with the IDEALS project to coach and teach at the end of my second year. It sparked this passion for international development and using sport as a tool. I delivered a physical education and coaching programme in local communities. You’d often have 80 kids and two footballs. The focus wasn’t on making better player; it was using sport to educate them on HIV, AIDS, equality and their rights as individual.. It engaged communities through sport and I’m a firm believer in that. If it wasn’t for university, I would never have got into that realm. I have a lot to thank for my time in education. It provided these wider volunteering opportunities that opened my eyes to other areas of sport I could excel in.
What support network was in place to allow you to do this?
One thing that is great about education is that you don’t have to go and focus solely on education. The majority of universities have the infrastructure to support athletes on and off the pitch. They understood my training commitments. In preparing for Zambia, we arranged a schedule that complimented my training. You don’t have to put sport to one side to focus on your career. You can do both together. I came away from university still competing at the highest level. They want you to become the best person you can be.
With the women’s game becoming more professional, are you not tempted to turn professional should the opportunity arise?
It would be hard to say no. I also realise that I’m at a point where I’m not going to play forever. The opportunities to play full time are increasing. Whether through injury or not getting signed for a team, I can’t put all my eggs in one basket. It would be hard to say no but I appreciate there’s more to life than playing.
My life has more value than what I do on a football pitch. For me to reach my potential, I need to allow myself the chance to grow off the pitch. I want to know that I’ve lived a meaningful life with purpose that has offered something to someone. I believe I can offer more off the pitch.
What advice do you give to your teammates?
For them, I would always encourage to chase after the dream of playing professionally. I would always remind them to think further ahead. There is a huge chance that a majority of my younger teammates will play full time football.
One of teammates is 22 and has just started a degree. I said to her that football is great and can provide you a living for the next few years but what about the 20-30 years after that? For them, there’s a fine balance between chasing after the dream and trying to make time to develop yourself off the pitch and find something that interests you. Whether it is coaching or away from sport, finding something that interests you and develop that. At one point, you’ll need to fall back on that. Now is the time to do it. Don’t wait until you retire and have no career. Do something now that will give you the skills and allow you to make that transition out.
How easy is it to find the time to do all this?
There’s not enough hours in the week. I do struggle. I know at times that I’ve probably stretched myself to an extent that other areas of my life get neglected. I rarely see my family. You have to accept that friendships and relationships take a hit.
Sport can become a full time hobby. It’s about being aware of the opportunities and where your life is going. One of my teammates has started doing some coaching and she’s shattered. I can imagine how tired she is. I said to reduce the workload but keep the door open.
Sport has an expiry date and at some point, you’ll have to address what comes next and if you can do it now, even though it takes time and commitment and finding a work life balance, it’ll make the transition so much easier.
When you can’t solely make a living out of your sport, how do you find the pressures of having to work for a living at the same time?
I’ve never been in sport for the money. It’s never been an option. It’s only ever been about the love. The higher the level, the more time it demands and more tiring it is. It does get frustrating when you see what male players get paid and get to do it full time. I would love to play football all the time but until the financial backing is there, I’ll still need to pay my way.
Because there are so many hours, you’re driven by the love. It is tough, and you do question why you’re giving up all this time but you remember why you got into it in the first place. As long as that love is still there and it still brings you enjoyment, that has to be the driving force. Whether you get paid £50,000 a year or £5,000 a year, love has to be the driving force. Money makes it easier at the higher level but ultimate it has to come down to your passion for the game.
What advice would you give to footballers or people with ambitions to move into elite sport to help their playing career and beyond?
The biggest advice would be finding something that interests you alongside sport. It may be coaching or sports development, marketing or sports science. It may be business or fashion on media. Find something that interests you and pursue that. Take opportunities that sport gives you to get into that.
I’m thankful that through playing, doors have opened for me to develop my career. If it wasn’t for football, I wouldn’t have had the chance to travel the world or see things that that I wouldn’t have were I not a player. That has opened doors, particularly with Zambia, taking 6 months off last year with an area I’m passionate about and want to work in. I have football to thank for that.
It is challenging and daunting but try to spend time developing yourself so you are a complete package. You are more than what you do on a football pitch. You’re more than a player, you’re a person. Develop yourself as a player and give time and hours to training but develop yourself as a person so when the time comes to transition out, you give yourself the best opportunity.
What if you don’t have A-Levels or a degree?
It doesn’t matter. Some people are not academic. There’s many different routes out of school. There are apprenticeships, or vocational qualifications. My dad left school at 16, I went to university. There are other routes, you just need to look for them.