Five lessons from prominent Australian athlete, Tayla Harris

Five lessons from Tayla Harris on advocating for change

advocating for change

Advocating for change felt like the only option for AFL player and professional boxer, Tayla Harris, after facing bullying and abuse online.

Many Australians know Harris from an iconic and viral photo taken of her kicking a ball mid-air during an AFLW game a few years ago. The image proved inspirational for the figurative and literal heights that women can reach in sport, but also came with online trolling and abuse on social media– something that is all too common in women’s sports. 

Harris chose to speak out following the onslaught of comments from trolls. Since then, a statue has been created to immortalise her iconic kick, and she was named Victoria’s Young Australian of the Year in 2021 in recognition of her strong advocacy for preventing violence against women and gender-based online abuse.

Today, she manages an elite boxing career alongside playing in the AFLW, and her must-watch documentary, Kick Like Tayla, chronicles this experience. 

One of the most prominent female athletes in Australia, Harris is not one to back down from a fight. Her impressive sporting career on the field and advocacy for online abuse reform off the field are proof of that.

We recently profiled Harris in episode six of our podcast series, Moments That Make Us. Here, we are sharing more of the valuable insights and lessons we learned from her conversation with Shivani Gopal. 

Set your own standards

Harris first started playing footy at the age of 5 because she didn’t want to wait in the car during her brother’s practice and miss out on all the fun.

From that moment, Harris was frequently the first girl most parents and carers saw playing against their sons on the field and, unfortunately, their fear of change led to an absurd rule that attempted to ban her from playing the game at age 14. 

“No one really knew what to do and I, as a young person, never thought beyond ‘I’m just playing footy, I’m with my team, I’m trying my best.’ But now I think back and Mum, Dad, and I reflect on a few of the interactions along the way, and you kind of have to laugh because if you don’t laugh, you cry about the way things were, and I’m just so happy that now a young girl doesn’t have to have those unusual interactions where you feel quite out of place.”

Do whatever you enjoy doing

Thanks to support from her parents and an impressive amount of resilience, Harris was able to fight back against the naysayers to continue to pursue the sport she loved. 

“They [her parents] just encouraged me to do whatever it is that I enjoyed and that was the absolute underpinning thing is that I enjoyed it or that at least it gave me happiness of some sort. It was a sport for me, but it could be anything for any other child. It could be music or theatre or anything along those lines and I think the basics were just supporting, encouraging, and then helping me as a young person understand that it’s okay to do something different.”

Set your intentions

Excelling in sport and advocating for women can get busy, so Harris finds it necessary to set her intentions at the beginning of each day. Every morning, she sits down to write out her ambitions and says it’s a very private thing that’s best to do in your own time. Sceptical of the idea at first, her partner encouraged her to try the practice and now she realises just how much it helps.

“I spoke to a few other athletes and they concurred that it was something that they took on board not too long ago. It definitely helps provide a bit of clarity about what it is you’re doing and it helps to make sure that you don’t get foggy about your mindset, or what your task is for the day, or the game, or the fight.”

Be proud of yourself in challenging times

There have been some incredible highs during Harris’s career, but she’s also learned to be proud of how she handles the lows.

The year after covid first hit, her contract with the Carlton Football Club wasn’t renewed. While there was much-warped media speculation around why this was the case, Harris says that the lockdowns in Melbourne and being away from family shifted her priorities. 

“I couldn’t commit my mind to football. It was not in my interest at the time. I just wasn’t able to do that and then it was quite clear and transparent through the season, but of course, I tried my best. To be honest, no one, except for me and my loved ones, will ever agree or understand. I was actually happy with my season and not necessarily about disposals and stats and all that, that doesn’t matter to me. The fact that I even took the field in my own world– I know that was a feat in itself. I feel like that was something that I learned from. I’m stronger than I realised mentally and physically.”

Take control of your own narrative

After the photo of her iconic kick went viral and saw Harris receive much, often sexual in nature, online abuse, she chose to speak out and take control of her narrative.

Nobody would have blamed her for staying silent on the issue, but for Harris, the abuse was part of a larger conversation that propelled her to act. 

“It was about raising awareness and spreading the message that it’s not okay to be sexualized in sport. That’s how it started. Then, it obviously just ballooned into this massive thing which at the time, felt incredibly empowering. The support I received was amazing from near and far and it just seemed to have been the moment in sport, and not even just sport but in society.”

Harris felt she had a responsibility to create productive conversations around issues like online bullying and, ultimately, advance the development of women’s sport.

“It was a pretty full-on time in my life, but it was something that I learned so much from– about myself, about the world, about the way people believe in a cause that is close to them. There’s always a spokesperson and I just happened to be it.”

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