When I was four years old, my dad took me to my first football session with Ashdown Rovers. Teams were a little different back then compared to how they are now. We didn’t have any girl’s teams for my age group, only boys teams or mixed, so I spent my first few footballing years training with boys. It wasn’t until around U10’s that girls teams began to form and playing with and against boys was no longer allowed.
This is when Poole Town Ladies formed and where I spent the next five years of my life playing. Whilst playing for Poole Town, I had also been selected to play for my County team from U12 up until U16. When I had to make the step into playing women’s football, I had the opportunity to train and play with Reading. Poole based, travelling back and forth to Reading three times a week was challenging. I couldn’t drive and I had to solely rely on my Dad to drive me back and forth each week. I was very lucky as a child that my parents didn’t mind taxying me around. Although they didn’t complain at the time, I’m sure they were very relieved when I learnt to drive and they no longer had to chauffeur me around.
It was around this time, 2013, that I decided to make the move to Portsmouth. A new club but still another commute. Still being Poole-based, I would drive myself back and forth three times a week and also balance a job. This is quite a common theme within women’s football at this level and I’m sure I am not the only one who had to go through late nights and midweek games, a long drive home and a 6 am start the next day. Commuting was always difficult and draining but the sport was always worth those tiring days.
When I joined Portsmouth, Perry Northeast and Jason Campbell were the coaches. I started in the development team and although always technically gifted, I lacked a lot in terms of fitness and physical ability. I didn’t really take care of myself by running and going to the gym. I think as a child, where I lacked in fitness, I made up with sharpness mentally and technical ability. It wasn’t until 2016 when Perry and Jason asked me to come to a beach soccer session, did my mindset changed.
I was very quick to learn, that technical ability only gets you so far. Although I was more than competent in terms of my touch, my understanding and my vision, playing on the sand was a whole different ball game, quite literally. Unlike grass, sand is less impact on the joints, however, it requires an element of lightness, you have to learn a whole different way of running. We often call this ‘being a sand rat’, you almost have to run with as little weight as possible. Sand requires high levels of anaerobic fitness, and ability to work hard in short stints and recover quickly. It demanded elements of strength, balance and stability. Things I was to quickly learn, I didn’t have.
I was around twenty years old at this point and pretty set in my ways. I had spent sixteen years of my footballing life, just turning up to training and games and doing very little in my own time. I didn’t quite yet know or understand what hard work or discipline was. I had never in my life set foot in a gym or gone for a run on my own accord. I was a little overweight and the idea of ‘fitness’ scared the living hell out of me. I was insecure and I would do all I could to avoid any form of group ‘fitness’ as I knew I was behind my peers and I’d fall behind. Despite this, Perry and Jason continued to show faith in me and in the summer of 2016, I attended my first tournament in Catania, Italy. It was the Euro Winners Cup, which is essentially the ‘Champions League’ of beach soccer. And without sounding dramatic, my life changed. I fell in love with the sport and everything that comes with it.
When I was given the opportunity to travel to Italy, I knew I couldn’t say no. 10 days of playing on a beach, in the baking sun, who would say no, right?
However, I was shy, a bit of an introvert, struggled with anxiety and often kept myself to myself, so the idea of going away for 10 days, with a big group of people, tormented me in the weeks leading up to it. I was scared and nervous and wondered how I would handle being around people, 24/7. I was very much a person who had a set way of living, I had created this little bubble that I lived my life, and I was untouchable here. It was comfortable. However, I knew this trip was about to burst that bubble and I was going to have to socialise in ways I never had.
This was the first big tournament for all of us, so we all had an element of apprehension and we weren’t sure what to expect. Perry and Jason had coached a few of the girls in a couple of exhibition games previously, but this was the first time, women’s beach soccer had been incorporated into one of the most prestigious beach soccer events in the world.
Every day provided a new experience. To the first day, arriving at the pitch where we would play. There was a stadium, which held a few thousand people. This was the main pitch, the pitch everyone wanted to play on. Outside of this, were two other pitches and this is where a lot of the group stages of the competition would be played. As always, in prep for these tournaments, you get allocated pitch times to incorporate a training session in the days leading up to the first game. We put our bags down and got ready for our first session in Italy. Little did we know, we’d spend the majority of our first session digging holes in the sand or running off to find shade. Never in my life had I been so grateful for the cold sand of England and of course, those socks I had in my bad. The sand was scorching hot and we were barely able to stand on it. I always remember our Captain Kempo, running out on the sand and quickly running off screaming to the nearest umbrella. I’m pretty sure other teams would have walked past us on that first session, looking at this group of pale English girls, training in there socks, wondering if we had got lost.
I don’t think I slept through a single night in the run-up to our first game. Fear of the unknown. With no leagues yet to be established in England, we had never played against another English team, let alone a European team. The only opposition we had known, was each other. We lined up for our first game, praying we wouldn’t get smashed. Praying they’d watered down the sand so we’d come out with our toes in-tact.
I think what happened next, was a surprise to us all. That little Portsmouth team from England, who no one had heard off, went through the whole group stages unbeaten. We had beaten teams, that had established leagues their own countries. We lost in the quarter-final that year, against a well-established Grasshopper Zurich of Switzerland. Of course, we were all upset, we all cried but we all knew deep down that what we had achieved, considering our experience, was amazing. And what we had created off the pitch, was even more incredible.
We had lived in each other’s pockets for 10 days straight. We woke up together, ate breakfast together, trained together, played games together, ate lunch and dinner together and spent all our free time, with each other either playing games in the hotel or watching other games at the stadium. For me personally, before I went on this trip, I never envisioned myself in a situation like this, these were the type of scenarios id run from. But by the end of the trip, I felt like a new person. I had made friends for life with these people and each day that went by, I came out of my shell more and more. I didn’t shy away from a conversation and I fully immersed myself within the team.
The biggest lesson I learnt on that trip, wasn’t about beach soccer, football, my teammates or my coaches; it was about myself.
I always remember Perry pulling me aside for a chat once the tournament had ended. ‘how have you found this tournament, Katie?’ I can’t remember my exact response but I’m pretty sure in true Katie James style it was probably something along the lines of ‘yeah, good’. It was then Perry told me how he believed id become this new person, he’d spent the week watching me grow and come out of my shell. It was at this moment I realised, that this sport could and has changed my life. When I returned to England, I noticed my mindset had shifted. I wanted to get fit, I wanted to run, I got myself a Personal coach (Lewy Blackmore), I wanted to socialise, I wanted to be all these things that I hadn’t been previously. I knew I needed to work hard and change my ways, so that I could continue playing and getting the same opportunities, to travel and play in these big events.
Since then, I have travelled across Europe and also competed in leagues and competitions, such as Spain, Italy, Tobago, USA… to name few. Some of my most proud moments are winning tournaments with England in 2017 and 2019. But if you had told me, back in 2016, ‘In 2019, you will become a World Games Silver Medalist with Team GB’ I would have laughed in your face and gone back to that little comfort bubble I had created for myself.
The experiences, the travel and the people I have met along the way have provided me with friends for life, extreme highs and moments of pure joy but what I will always cherish most is the moments of extreme un-comfortableness. Forcing myself into situations and cultures that are not my own, living with people who do not speak my language and travelling alone at times, has provided me with the most unbelievable opportunity to grow. Not only as a player, but as a person.
Four years down the line and I sit here as not only an athlete but as a changed person. I can run more than 5 meters without feeling out of breath and I have established a credible playing CV, as a beach Soccer player but I have also spent every day, of the last four years, becoming more comfortable and happy in my own skin. I will be forever thankful to Perry and Jason for inviting me to that first session and also to my personal coach, Lewy Blackmore for helping me achieve my fitness goals because those decisions have provided me with opportunities, I could never have dreamed off.