Today is International Women’s Day, meaning we take a moment to truly celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political contributions of women all around the world. It’s a particularly important date in women’s sport with the continual push towards full-time professionalism in a male-dominated area.

It gives us a chance to appreciate those who have helped elevate the pay and status of their elite female participants and celebrate what they are willing to endure and sacrifice to achieve their dreams.

Sacrifice is a word often used in sport. Relationships, time with friends and family, social life, physical and mental wellbeing, finances. These are all things that athletes at one time or another may sacrifice to reach their goals. Almost all professional female athletes must balance their full-time work commitments with being a part-time professional athlete. As you can imagine, the balance can become very difficult at times.

Just ask Tiarna Ernst.

The Far North Queensland born and raised has a long list of achievements since she graduated University in Townsville, studying a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery in 2011. It was the same year she first picked up a footy having always been into sport and being naturally athletically gifted. Her rise both on and off the field have since been rapid, as she was selected to representative Queensland in footy, whilst also completing her medical internship and residency.

Having played against the Victoria team, who boasted Daisy Pearce, Aasta O’Connor and other players who still dominate in the AFLW, Ernst was impressed and decided she wanted to challenge herself by moving to the AFL-driven state to play VFLW.

“I was inspired by the grace, athleticism and talent of those Victorian players. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I could go and play in the competition that they play in (VFLW)’, which was the best competition for women in Australia at the time.”

Ernst was accepted into a full-time specialty program in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Melbourne which takes 6 years to complete, and she continued to play for Diamond Creek in the VFLW even while she furthered her medical career.

Then came 2016, the inaugural AFLW draft ahead of its first ever season. With no expectations and unsure about what would happen, Ernst nominated herself for the draft. She was snapped up by the Western Bulldogs in one of the most memorable moments of her life, but the same thoughts that preoccupy many female athletes at some stage were running through her mind.

“I felt a bit of fear and overwhelmed about what I was going to do about the balance. There was so much hype around the new competition but then I thought, how am I going to keep my boss happy at work?”

Despite these fears, Ernst remained transparent and honest with her bosses about the opportunity she had been given. She was lucky enough that the popularity of AFL in Victoria allowed her to pursue both as she gained support from her superiors.

Ernst tried a few different methods of maintaining both careers in medicine and football, some better than others. After playing every game in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, she was even more determined to take her game to a new level in 2019. To do so, she used up her annual leave during the season in an attempt to maximise her performance and focus solely on being an elite athlete.

This backfired in the end as when the season finished and many other players had a break, Ernst was back working full-time in the hospital. She also concedes that this is one of the biggest challenges for other AFLW players, as they take leave to better themselves as players to the detriment of other aspects of their lives.

Finally entering her last two years of her specialty training, Ernst was offered an opportunity to move to a hospital in Brisbane. Knowing how crucial the final two years are, she decided that it was the best thing to do for her career, whilst also torn about the consequences of leaving the team she’d just won an AFLW premiership with.

“It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life.”

The move to the sunshine state meant that she continued to work anywhere between 40- to 60-hour work weeks in Brisbane and balance this with her travel to the Gold Coast for training and games with the Suns. She would leave training, go straight into a night shift, go to bed, and repeat. Despite this, she is enjoying her time in Queensland and loving the new experience of adding her leadership to the Suns’ AFLW expansion team.

Ernst quickly had to learn to maintain this balance in her life and she had to become much more efficient with her energy expenditure. She practiced mindfulness to not waste energy on what she can’t control and remain present in games and work shifts.

“My head is still full of things from what was happening at work that day but I somehow had to switch on and be in a different mindset for training and to get ready for the next game.”

Ernst agrees that she is lucky to able to maintain this balance between her work and footy and acknowledges how important it is for female athletes to have interests outside of sport, allowing women to be more well-rounded compared to male athletes. But she also urges the community to not allow this to go too far and cause players to choose work and study or footy.

“We do need to be careful in not stretching that balance and stretching these players too thinly because otherwise we’ll end up seeing players have to make a decision between work and study or footy, and while it remains that part-time profession with limited resources then it becomes unsustainable.”

Ernst also struggles to understand the added pressure of the media and AFL community in wanting the best athletes and improvement in the league, whilst they also have to continue to work full-time and only be part-time professional athletes. She argues that attempting to juggle too much with not enough time in the day isn’t allowing players to play to their full potential out on the field.

Despite this, Ernst is proud of what she has achieved in thriving both in the work place and on the footy field, which will help pave a way for future AFLW players in the next generations.

“I envy them but I’m also very proud of being one of the trailblazers at the beginning to help build the foundation of what I hope to be a really successful and really rewarding competition, not only for the community but also for the players.”