- Written by Switch the Play
Switch the Play has featured many elite sportspeople who have been there, done that, got the trophies, medals and short sleeve garments. They learn from the experiences and pass on expertise to help the younger generation transition out of sport. Sunderland AFC Women’s footballer Grace McCatty hasn’t made the transition yet but is a living, breathing example of how to make the most out of life after sport before she’s finished playing…
30-year-old Grace McCatty is a part-time footballer. Playing for Sunderland AFC Ladies in the Women’s National League (Northern Premier Division), 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 the Prince’s Trust International, as well as training a number of times a week, vying to help her team gain promotion back to the top tier.
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 and play with Sunderland Ladies whilst holding down a full-time job?
In the last couple of years, there’s been a substantial growth in the game and that’s a fantastic thing. If you’re a young player coming through now, the opportunities are ever increasing. The top tier of women’s football is deemed to be professional, with the second-tier semi-professional and then below the support and level is increasing. As a team we train twice a week, with gym sessions and our own pitch sessions outside of this. However, on top of that the majority of the squad either work a full-time job, 37-hours a week or study. The biggest challenge is committing to your sport, giving it the time it requires to excel but also balancing life outside of it, especially when the sport comes without the financial backing. It can often result in committing to two full times roles within one week.
I am often up at 6am to fit in a gym session before work, and regularly head straight from a day working in London to training in the evening. It’s the only way I can manage both, giving football the time it requires to allow me to continue to play, whilst progressing in my career off the pitch.
At my previous club Bristol City Women, I was only one of only four players who had a full-time job alongside training full time. I often had to work evenings and weekends to allow me to train, making up hours elsewhere. At that time most of our squad were between 18 and 22, and therefore for them it was great as they earned money playing football but didn’t have to worry too much about life post-football. During my time at Bristol City Women, and more so now, I am in a place where my thoughts are focused on developing myself off the pitch. I want to ensure I commit to a job which is going to help me progress into the career I want, and thankfully my managers at both Bristol City Women and now at Sunderland Ladies are understanding of that.
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 and therefore you had to develop a career for yourself. As much as I loved 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, my postgraduate degree at Southampton and now my PhD at Durham University.
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. But with this project I went to the extreme opposite in a developing country, right into the heart of the community, where kids live in poverty, yet 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 ever seen the elite end as a player and coach. 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 (and my body allows me too), 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 afternoons, 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 that you just end up spending 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 broadened my horizons, challenged and developed me, and allow me to experience things outside of football. 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 for 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 placement with the IDEALS project. I signed up to be part of this project at the end of my second year, which sparked an unknown passion for international development and a desire to be involved in a career which allowed me to use sport as a tool for development. During my time in Zambia I delivered a physical education and coaching programme in local communities. You’d often have 80 kids, two footballs and a sandy area to play on. The focus wasn’t on making better player, although that often did happen as a result, it was about 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 field. 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 and supported me to excel both on and off the pitch. In preparing for Zambia, we arranged a schedule that complimented my training. In education, you don’t have to put sport to one side to focus on your career. You can do both together and I came away from university still competing at the highest level.
With the women’s game becoming more professional, are you not tempted to turn professional should the opportunity arise?
If you had asked me back in 2011 when the Women’s Super League first started, I would have jumped at the opportunity to turn professional. The chance to earn a living from playing the sport I love would have been too good an opportunity to turn, but I am now at a point where I know I am not going to play forever. The opportunities to play full time are increasing, with more teams investing in an infrastructure to allow that. But whether it be through a serious injury, or not getting signed for a team, I can’t put my eggs all in one basket and have always been conscious not to do so. There is more to life than playing, and I think it is vital players consider both the here and now, but also what the future holds.
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, and I hope by developing myself off the pitch I can do just that.
What advice do you give to your teammates?
Whilst I would always encourage my teammates to chase after the dream of playing professionally, I would also remind them to think further ahead. There is a good chance, that a number of our younger players coming through will progress on to play full time football and that is amazing for them. But it is key that they also consider what else they want to do, and spend time developing that alongside football. Football is great, and if you’re lucky enough to make it to the elite end, it could provide you with a living for the next few years but what about the 20-30 years after that? For young players coming through now, 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, and therefore now is the time to do it, not when football stops or that chapter ends. 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 of sport.
How easy is it to find the time to do all this?
I would love to say it is easy but unfortunately it really isn’t easy and there’s not enough hours in the week. I do struggle, and have done so juggling both my sport and career for years. 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, and as hard as it is, I have to accept that friendships and relationships take a hit.
Sport can become a full-time hobby, but it’s about being aware of other opportunities and about where your life is going. A number of my teammates work challenging jobs, and struggle to balance the day-to-day demands of their career alongside training, and I can appreciate how tiring and challenging that.
Sport has an expiry date and at some point, you’ll have to address what comes next and if you can do that 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. For as long as I can remember, being paid to play football was never an option and it was only since the inception of the Women’s Super League in 2011 that this become a possibility. For me playing football has only ever been about my love for the game. The higher the level, the more time it demands and more tiring it is. It can get frustrating when you see the disparity between the men’s and women’s game across all tiers, and I would love to see a day where the women’s game gets the same support as the men’s game. But until then players need to learn to balance both, ensuring they can earn a living and become financial stable without relying on football.
Because there are only so many hours, you’re driven by the love of the game. It is tough, and you do question why you’re giving up all this time, but you have to 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 £0 a year, love has to be the driving force. Money makes it easier at the higher level but ultimately 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 to find something that interests you alongside sport. It may be coaching or sports development, marketing or sports science. Or for some it may be a non-sporting careers such as business or fashion or media. Whatever it is, find something that interests you and pursue that. And whilst football or sport may dominate large parts of your life, take the opportunities it does provide off the pitch to get involved in other areas of the sport.
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 have done were I not a player. Sport for me has opened doors, particularly with Zambia, and has allowed me to develop myself in an area I am passionate about and want to work in, whilst enjoying the game at the same time. I have sport, and particularly 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 or in any sporting arena. You’re more than a player, you are person. Develop yourself as a player and give time to training but develop yourself as a person so when the time comes to transition out, you give yourself the best opportunity to do. Developing yourself will be the best investment you will ever make.
What if you don’t have A-Levels or a degree?
It doesn’t matter whether you have no education, or education to the highest level. Some people are not academic whereas others thrive in that area. Nowadays there are so many alternative routes to develop yourself after school. For example, colleges offer so many different forms of education including apprenticeships and vocational qualifications, that there are so many different routes to choose from. My parents left school at 16, and I am now at University studying my third degree, but it is about you as a person finding the route you want to follow.
Where possible, seek help. Whether that is through your club, your NGB, your local careers centre or speaking to somebody in the game, if in doubt, ask for help. There are plenty of people who will help with that transition and help you develop opportunities outside of your sport, you just need to start today