‘The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another.’
A small piece of advice with the potential to change the world, uttered by the voice of 23-time Grand Slam winner – Serena Williams.
Such enlightenment has encouraged so many to break barriers, challenge perceptions and ultimately, achieve greatness on professional and personal levels.
It is no surprise that Williams is a role model to so many across the globe, having accomplished so much both on and off the court, championing women’s sport.
One young girl, inspired by the greatest tennis player ever to grace the court, was Nikita Parris.
Born into a sport-loving family in Toxteth, Liverpool, Parris was encouraged from a young age to pursue outdoor ventures. Thankfully for the sporting world, she fell in love with football and now stands proudly as Manchester City and the FA Women’s Super League’s all-time female record goalscorer – and she’s still only 24.
Her passion for the game is her best trait – evident for all to see from the second she steps onto the pitch – and her dedication is second to none, but for Parris, playing the game at the highest level is not solely about silverware. It’s about providing a pathway for more women and girls to play the beautiful game, without experiencing the hardships she and the others before her once had.
A League Champion, Continental Cup winner, FA Cup winner, Champions League semi-finalist and regular senior England international, Parris herself now stands as a role model – and it’s a role she takes very seriously.
Despite her youth, the free-scoring forward has already changed lives for the better back in her own community, setting up the NP17 Academy in Toxteth for deprived girls in the area – a subject close to her heart.
“What inspired me to start it was seeing the lack of opportunities I had in my local area in Liverpool,” she explains.
“I grew up in an area of inner-city Liverpool. There were plenty of opportunities but also plenty of challenges – you could go down the right or wrong path, depending on one moment.
“For me, I had to stay concentrated. I knew what I wanted to do and I had people around me who kept me on the straight and narrow.
“I felt like I saw way too many young people on the streets doing nothing when they can be doing something so I wanted to set up the academy – particularly football because it’s our national sport and give everyone equal opportunities.
“I thought it could help people if they chose to do it. I’m not saying that every single child who came to the academy has stayed, but a good 70% have and that’s massive for me!
“As long as I can keep one child off the streets or change one child’s life for the better then that’s enough for me.
“Being a role model is surreal because everyone tells me: ‘I want to follow in your footsteps!’
“That’s mad because I’m only 24 years old! I’ve still got a lot to learn but hopefully, I can be a role model to them and I can grow the sport as well as help them have an opportunity in life – even if it’s just trying something new or gaining friendships.”
With women’s football now earning improved media coverage, increased attendances and financial backing the profile of the game is finally back in the spotlight.
Sadly, women’s sport has not always received the respect it deserves and although there is still a long way to go, Parris admits steps are heading in the right direction.
“I feel like it’s because a lot of people haven’t come to actually watch us play,” she opines.
“When I first started playing, it was so different and the introduction of professionalism has been massive over the years.
“Before, you could’ve probably gone out to the pub with your mates after a game and you wouldn’t see an effect the next week, whereas now you wouldn’t get away with it!
“It’s a big change with the audiences and the pressures that come with the media, but the media is a great source to have – particularly if you want to grow the game – although then there comes criticism as well so you’ve got to take both sides of it.
“The marketing of the game has grown over last five years – especially, with BT Sport, BBC and Channel 4 getting involved.
“Getting more people watching it helps us gain more respect for the work we do, which means it can continue.
“Pioneers of the game – the likes of Casey Stoney and Faye White – played in a time that was tough and they never got the respect I felt they deserved, but if we continue to push on and be better each day and each game, hopefully, it means the next generation can!
“Just the overall impact that women’s football is having on women’s sport as well – we are the driving force to make women’s sport more accessible.
“I think our audience over the past three seasons has been massive and grown every time, we have new people at each and every game who send me messages on Twitter and Instagram, saying it was their first game and that they will definitely be coming back.
“They’re the type of messages you want to get and the type of people that you want to continue to bring back. Hopefully, we can continue to grow that.
In terms of her own advice for budding athletes – male or female – Parris simply advises: “You’ve got to have dedication because there’s a lot of sacrifice which goes into it – a lot of your time is minimal with friends and family especially in the past 10 years.
“I don’t feel like it’s any different whether it’s a male or female athlete. You put in the same amount of hard work each and every day same as the men.
“When the sport became elite my time with friends and family is reduced, plus I’ve had to move to Manchester.
“So, I think massively the sacrifices is the main one, but if you love what you do each day then the sacrifices aren’t as intense as you think – you just have to enjoy each day.
“Some say there’s a glass ceiling, but I don’t believe that. I think the game has got so much more potential to grow.
“There are so many more teams to be added and the gap in quality has to close between top and bottom. There’s a lot of growth to go.
“I hope other teams give the support and put in the resources which Manchester City have given to us because you can see the results with us over the past five years.
“We’ve won trophies, got to finals and we will continue to do that. I just hope the FA and other clubs continue to fund the game the way they should.
“The girls take the responsibility to make themselves better each and every day so that the young girls trying to come through will have to try even harder to make it into the teams.
“Being the best is: applying yourself to your potential, putting out the best version of yourself.
“There will always be challenges – equality both in and outside football is quite hard to achieve. It’s difficult for women to progress to the top in any sport.
“I’m sure as time goes on and we continue to prove ourselves, showing how good and effective we can be, that things will change.
“I always wanted to help develop the next generation of people involved in women's sport and I’m really proud of it. I've always wanted to give back to women's sport because it's played a massive part in my life.
“I hope women’s sport grows even more.”
If the key to reducing the gender gap is smashing perceptions, setting new standards and making a racket for change, more should follow in ace Parris’ footsteps…