Erin McKinnon had two claims to fame in the inaugural AFLW season. At 18, she was the youngest player to be drafted, and at 189 centimetres, she was also the tallest.
‘Being tall, you stand out, which means you can have a bit of confidence about you,’ Erin says. ‘Being the youngest, I was the least experienced so being the tallest kind of balanced that out. If I was the youngest and a smallish midfielder, I’d have been terrified!’
Erin seemed to easily slot into playing at a professional level, rucking against some of the competition’s best, earning a Rising Star nomination in Round 3. She knew her height gave her an advantage but she also knew her skills weren’t up there with the other girls yet. She’d get nervous.
‘Once the game starts, my nerves fade away. If you take away all the hype around it, it’s just footy, the same game I’ve played for the last five years, just a bit faster with a fair bit more intensity. I do tend to get quite nervous beforehand, though, and being professional has heightened that a bit. In one game, I was playing against Collingwood’s Emma King, the best ruck in the whole competition, and I just felt like a scrawny 18-year-old … But the girls got around me, they’re all very supportive.
‘...we started with a small group of girls with Mum as our coach. She knew nothing about AFL in the beginning but she was very encouraging and supportive.’
‘With local footy, you rock up half an hour before the game and just run out and play, so when I started at the Giants I was getting a bit overwhelmed about the team plans before the game. Being professional has given me access to pre-game strategies, like focussing on just a couple of things I can do. What’s really helped me this year is talking to our midfield coach, asking, “What are two things I can focus on this quarter?” So really narrowing it down, looking for two things each quarter, each game. It might be as simple as making sure I beat my opponent in the ruck, and trying to get back and help in defence.’
Erin has never been one to blend into the crowd, and that’s not just because it’s harder for her to hide. At primary school, she was the first girl to wear the boys’ uniform. ‘I was a bit of a tomboy in school. I grew up in a sporting family; we were always very active, trying lots of different sports. I just refused to wear the girls’ uniform because I didn’t want to wear a skirt or a dress.’
As a 12-year-old, she got interested in AFL. It all started when one of her younger brothers joined Auskick, and before long she was playing footy at the park on weekends with her father and brothers, then aged nine and six.
‘I saw an article in the newspaper about how girls could actually play AFL and I got really excited. So Mum contacted the local club but they didn’t have any youth girls teams. They were great though, and said if I could get enough girls to form a team they’d pay registration, give us uniforms, and help us get started.
‘So in 2012, we started with a small group of girls with Mum as our coach. She knew nothing about AFL in the beginning but she was very encouraging and supportive. It was only the second year of the Sydney Harbour Youth Girls program so it wasn’t very competitive. We’d get smashed every week, but we had so much fun that we just keep playing. Each training session there’d be a few more girls there, and it just grew and grew. So much has happened in women’s football in the last five years.’
While the girls didn’t have an official captain, they looked towards Erin to lead the way. ‘I have a tendency to be quite bossy,’ she says. ‘Not in a mean way; I guess it comes from being the oldest and having two younger brothers – there were two of them and one of me. I’ve had a lot of girls say they started playing footy because I was there. It’s really nice to hear that, to think I had an influence on someone else’s life.’
Erin had played basketball, netball, volleyball, done some athletics and played a little bit of soccer when she was younger, yet AFL offered something different. ‘There really is no other sport like it in the world. It’s a 360-degree sport, and combines aspects of all the different sports that I played growing up. The physical aspects – the tackling and bumping – really appealed to me as it is something that wasn't part of the more traditional female sports I played. I think this physicality has helped us form really strong bonds with teammates through camaraderie, and it’s led to some great friendships.
‘I love the inclusiveness of AFL, that participation is encouraged regardless of skill level, and there’s hardly ever any animosity between teams off the field,’ Erin said.
‘I love the inclusiveness of AFL, that participation is encouraged regardless of skill level, and there’s hardly ever any animosity between teams off the field.’
As well as making the transition from local to AFLW games, Erin made the big move from school to university. ‘I looked at a few career options in sport: physio and things like that. I’m now doing Sport and Exercise Science at Sydney University as a broad degree, then I’ll have the flexibility to choose what path I want in the sports industry. I’m studying similar things to school, like biology subjects, but it’s a lot more detailed and at a faster pace. Things we cover in a two-hour lecture would have taken two weeks at school.
‘During the AFLW season it was a real juggle, especially when we had to travel for games, so next semester I’ll drop back a unit or two. I know what to expect now, that you have to think about footy 24 hours a day. I have to make sure I get enough sleep before the game, that I eat properly. You have to think about the actions you’re taking in your daily life and how it might affect your footy life, without becoming an obsessive crazy person. I love footy so much I could easily fall into that habit. Study has been really good for balance.’
Post-AFLW, Erin played for Sydney University in the AFL Sydney Women’s Premier Division. ‘It was really weird because I was still the youngest person in the team but everyone looked up to me because I’d played at the highest level!’
She enjoyed taking on more of a leadership role, and sharing what she’d learned. On a personal level, she made the most of the local competition, using the games to build on her strengths and work on her weaknesses so she can focus on the game plan once she’s back at the Giants. And knowing how full-on her life will be once pre-season starts on 20 November, she seized the opportunity to go to Europe for four weeks in the mid-semester break.
Erin can’t wait till whole team comes together again, and has been training three times a week to a program set by the Giants strength and conditioning coach. She’s confident that 2018 will be great given how much more prepared they all are for what lies ahead.
‘Since the day I was drafted, it’s been a massive roller-coaster and it’s fun!’
What can we do to encourage girls to be more active?
I grew up in a really sporty family so this was never an issue for me, personally. But at school I had a whole bunch of friends who weren’t sporty, and yet I managed to get them to play volleyball by emphasising the social connections you make through being part of a team. And they did grow to love it and quite a few of them have gone on to try other sports too. I think we need to sell the fun aspect of sport, and the fact that it helps get rid of stress.
At school did you ever find it hard to balance your studies and sport?
Heading into Year 12, a few teachers suggested I rein in on sport a bit, but I did the complete opposite, and it worked really well for me. I had to withdraw a little bit from my social life in order to both study and play sport, but I was very social through sport so it balanced out. I found doing extracurricular activities took my mind off HSC and helped to release stress. It also really helped with time management and procrastination; when I got home, I knew I only had an hour until I had to get to training so I’d have to get homework done in that time, rather than sitting on the couch watching TV. I think the idea that you should drop sport and not do as many extracurricular things in Year 12 is unhealthy – it’s really beneficial for both physical and mental health. I don’t think my marks would be as good if I hadn’t played sport.
What did you do to remain calm, knowing the draft was going to be announced just before your HSC exams?
Again, sport and study kept me busy. On draft day, I was studying that morning for the English exam the next day! I didn’t have time to dwell on the draft because of this, but it was still pretty exciting when it happened!
Have you ever been criticised for playing football?
I haven’t been directly exposed to too much that’s negative. At competitions where boys were there too, we’d get a few funny looks for playing footy. You’d hear them saying stuff like ‘It’s not real footy’ and ‘It’s not the same level as boys’ footy’. None of it ever bothered me too much. Now with the growth and popularity of the women’s game, it’s been awesome to be able to prove them wrong. That’s really cool. You hear the comments like people calling it GAYFL, that it’s only for lesbians but I don’t let it bother me: the sport itself is so inclusive, everyone playing it is supportive and the people commenting on it don’t know what they’re talking about. So I just ignore it.
What sort of advancement have you witnessed, as one of the first females to take the field in AFL Womens?
A younger friend who is in Sydney Youth Girls has already been doing time trials and getting her fitness up so she can aim towards this year’s draft. When I was playing in Youth Girls, there was nothing to aim for – playing professionally was just a dream. I can already see that the standard will get better and better, with the all game development that’s happening. I’ve got lots of friends who don’t support AFL but they’ve been going (and not just to watch me). It’s attracting a whole new crowd, which is also great for the growth of the game.