Student, trainee AFL umpire
Criticism is always hard to take, but when it comes from a big, buff bloke who's thundering around the footy pitch yelling at you, it can be, frankly, terrifying.
Year 10 schoolgirl Bridgette Fox knows that only too well. As a trainee AFL umpire, she's been blasted by men playing in the adult leagues, team coaches, kids in the junior leagues and – possibly the worst – parents on the sidelines.
'It can be scary at times,' says Bridgette, 15. 'Everyone hates umpires. Sometimes it's really hard; even the little kids are shouting at you to change your decision. And I think parents yell at you because they are really serious about their children doing well and they get so involved in the game. I've learnt not to take their criticism too seriously, and focus on my own performance instead.'
Becoming involved in AFL on that level has been something of a baptism of fire for Bridgette. But, growing up on a sheep and cattle farm by the small Victorian town of Merton, 150 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, she became used to getting roasted early on.
She always helped out as a rouseabout or labourer on the farm at shearing time and, working alongside her brothers Xavier, 17, and Tom, 10, and their friends, was often teased as the only girl in the team.
'You have to clear wool from the board and throw the fleece on the table to be skirted by the other rouseabouts, and then get rid of the tufts of wool left where the shearer stands to keep his working space clear,' Bridgette says. 'I was always the one being picked on – everyone would make jokes about how I threw the fleece, saying I didn't do it as well as my brother or his friends. At the beginning I found that hard, but then I learnt to laugh it off or just give it back a bit.'
Bridgette loved life at the farm, especially with all her pets – dogs, cats, chickens and lambs – but decided to leave home a year ago to attend boarding school in Melbourne. The keen footy fan and netball and basketball player wanted to take advantage of the better sporting facilities in the city, as well as the greater opportunities she felt she'd find.
It was a tough decision and, at first, she wasn't sure if it was the right one. She missed her family, her nan's roast dinners, those pets, and her friends. The doubts of others only magnified her own.
'A lot of my friends didn't really understand why I was going,' she says. 'They didn't actually say, "Don't go! You can't do that!" but I know they didn't want me to. When I saw them, they said, "You should still be here!" and that kind of thing.
'It made me sad, I guess, because I would have liked to have been with them, but I'd just say, "I wish I was with you as well". I still have doubts quite a lot but now I'm in my second year, it's much easier. My parents are always really supportive of everything I do too, and they always encourage me to take every opportunity.'
It wasn't all plain sailing at the new school, either. She struggled with maths during the first semester, as she found the other students were way ahead of her, and her marks were below those in all the other subjects. She fretted that her parents were only seeing the results, not the effort she was putting into the work.
Her teacher told her she needed to practise algebra more, work harder and not doubt her own abilities. Even though the criticism stung, she knew it was intended to be constructive, and to help her, so she threw herself into the task.
'I felt a bit deflated and took it to heart a bit at first, but then I did a lot of extra study and more homework last year than I probably even needed to,' Bridgette says. 'When I came back every day after school, I'd sit down and work rather than watch TV or shoot hoops in the backyard. I've always been very determined. It's one of my stronger qualities. I wanted to prove I could do it, and in my latest exams, I did really well!'
It’s not only about determination but sport also teaches you leadership skills, about taking the initiative and teamwork
Bridgette is also enjoying sport, and planning to take up AFL too now, as more and more girls start playing. She loved watching the first AFL Women's game, seeing so many talented women in the spotlight, and feels she's definitely ready to give it a go. Already, sport has taught her so much, she believes.
'It's not only about determination but sport also teaches you leadership skills, about taking the initiative and teamwork,' she says. 'It shows you so much about life, and about how to be independent.'
These are qualities Bridgette drew on when her interest in sport offered an unexpected opportunity. Her dual passions for football and writing led to her become the successful applicant for a mentorship as part of a team developing content for the AFLW Curious website. Her previous experiences holding her own as rouseabout and umpire gave her the self-belief to give it a go.
The AFL Club Umpire program visited her school last year and asked for volunteers to learn umpiring. As a mad keen footy fan, she was one of the first to put up her hand. Since then, she's umpired Under-10 junior league games, as well as helping out with the senior men back at home. 'That was difficult, but they were mostly really respectful,' she says. 'But there were times when someone would become frustrated and question my decision.
'I always kept my calm. It's hard to think in a split second what might be wrong, but you have to be confident, step back and not respond. It took a few games for me to be confident about blowing the whistle loudly and being clear and confident in my decisions but you have to be, to make people listen.
'At one game, I had to throw the ball up in the middle of the circle and Mum was really scared the men would take me out as they were so big. She couldn't believe she'd let me do that!
When people yell and criticise, I've just learned to block it out and not take it too seriously. I focus on myself and what I'm doing.
'But as with everything, practice always helps, and I tell myself not to doubt myself. I do a lot of self-talk in my head to say, "I have control of the game and I have to keep it." When people yell and criticise, I've just learned to block it out and not take it too seriously. I focus on myself and what I'm doing. It's been a great lesson for life, too.'
Believe in the Dream Collection by
Sue Williams is an award-winning journalist and columnist who's written for all of Australia's leading newspapers and magazines. She also appears regularly on TV and on radio, and has had her own TV segment on SBS TV's popular Hotline program. Born in England, she has worked in print and TV in the UK and New Zealand, too.