Sport and Filmmaking

Before film and TV; before I could travel or construct and eat ridiculous cheese plates; before I could read to myself: sport was my first love.

When I was 8, I had posters of Rickey Henderson and Joe Montana on my walls. Soon followed Mia Hamm, Kyra Gracie, Brianna Scurry. As a teen I narrowed my playing focus, studying martial arts for eight years and 4year-lettering in NCAA soccer. I stopped following baseball and basketball, but continued passionately watching NFL and soccer, particularly as women’s leagues grew. Later, I fell hard for Aussie Rules (around the time NFL went Full Arsehat and our relationship was downgraded, though never neglected while players like Aaron Rodgers still exist).

As I made my career in the Arts, loving sport could be boon or bust. It created immediate common ground on film sets in Wisconsin and Portland, but has also been sneered at for all the reasons girls who love gaming, sports, and cinematography sometimes get derided and pushed aside.

Moving from the US to Australia means I watch different soccer leagues in person versus on TV. Meanwhile footy has taken equal first in my heart; I love AFLM and AFLW with the passion of a thousand suns. But I’ve found the Australian landscape fairly bifurcated: you ‘do’ arts or sport, not both. When I go to the soccer, I rarely see filmmakers. Few people on set Monday talk about the games from the weekend, and sometimes there’s open hostility towards sports ‘taking money from where it should go’ or being a different class of entertainment.

I don’t want to ignore the nastier side of sporting culture: homophobia, slurs, racism, sexism, etc. are there, and I’ve seen or experienced them as player and fan. But don’t you dare suggest that’s unique to sport, or use it as a high horse from which you declare sports uncivilised. These ills are a problem in all society, including film sets.

with key crew from The Fort, 2019 photo Scott Pope, 35mm

Hit me up over coffees or beers and I may launch into a passionate ramble about how some of my favourite things in film also manifest in sport. Underdogs! Long-running arcs! Redemption stories! Dramatic irony! Found family! Found enemies! But today I want to talk about the mental aspect of sporting and filmmaking culture, how being a part of one has helped me understand the other, and why I’m delving back into sport to better understand my role as a leader on film sets.

In Uni as a humanities major / writing minor, I had a certain number of credits to use on electives, so I took coaching soccer. I was lucky enough to be coached by several talented people, including a former US Soccer coach who is as big on leadership as footskills. But in the years between playing competitively and now, I’d let much of that slip.

In the last year I’ve led a 50-person team while producing a feature film, directed a several shortfilms and a dozen episodes of four different web series, and am looking towards my first feature. In doing this I’ve started digging back into the mental toolkit I accumulated playing sport and practicing martial arts. I pulled out my coaching notes, and realised focussing more on leadership brought me back to some of these coaching precepts. You don’t need to look further than the last month of the World Cup to see sportswomen as leaders in all realms on and off the field; many of them speaking about how specifically the mental work they’ve done in one arena informs the way they act in others.

I realised I still need to dig into precepts for being a better player and teammate, too. April’s MWFF hosted a panel on leadership; all agreed women taking bigger roles and advocating for themselves is crucial. But one thing Penny Smallacombe mentioned [I’m paraphrasing] is her philosophy around not taking a ‘leadership’ role per se, but being an effectively contributing part of a community and letting your actions speak to others. Her words brought me back to the idea of being a team player, even / especially if you are the coach or captain.

So I looked for more resources to develop that player’s mentality and flex those muscles again, including picking up the Erin Phillips-endorsed THINK PREPARE PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION along with other film and leadership books. That’s the featured image, and everything listed on the front cover is something you want in both a sports captain, and a leader on your film set.

While my philosophy is that a showrunner and director lead and the buck stops with us, we must learn to lead from within the team. Preparing to be a good teammate, studying the psychology of partnership and co-leadership, and determining where one takes the lead versus takes a supporting role, is important. Otherwise, not only are we less effective, our work and art ultimately suffers. What happens on the practice field and on set ultimately comes out in the finished product. Film requires strong leadership, but it also cannot be anything but a collaborative effort. This isn’t a contradiction, it’s a challenge, and one I’m embracing heading into my next projects.


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