How can young girls and female athletes become leaders?
“Ano na ako ngayon if I’m not a basketball player?” was the question running in Mariana Lopa’s mind when she graduated from Ateneo De Manila University several years ago. Despite being a lifelong athlete and the captain of the women’s basketball team, she knew that she wouldn’t be able to pursue basketball as a full-time career and instead looked towards law school.
“I didn't actively seek to be back in basketball. When I was in law school, parang, ‘Okay, sige.’ Nandiyan lang siya sa likod ng utak ko,” she shares. “Then when I was studying for the bar, that's when Girls Got Game started in 2015 and they invited me to be the MVP speaker to tell my story in basketball and to coach young girls.”
Back then, Girls Got Game was a fledgling non-profit organization that served underprivileged girls through sports camps that taught both the game and important life skills. “MVP Speakers” were athletes who the girls could look up to as role models.
“Akala ko nun, parang OK, turo lang and then I'm gone. One thing then I’m out,” she admits. “But in that moment, when I met those girls, it hit me: This is gonna take over my life. And so years later, I’m still here.”
From a guest speaker, Lopa is now the managing director of Girls Got Game—a different kind of captain, if you will. She is also working at sports and lifestyle brand TITAN, as well as continuing her work as a lawyer. She mentors the current crop of Ateneo women’s basketball players, as well as other athletes in her circle.
How can young girls and female athletes become a leader like her? Lopa has one piece of advice: “Take up space.”
“Be unapologetically proud of your own success. Kasi as women, lalo na as Filipina women, they don't tell you outright pero society tells you to be dalagang Pilipina. Kapag sinabi ko kasi yung achievements ko, parang nakakahiya, 'di ba?” she reflects.
“We don't tell people about our achievements because we're embarrassed. Or we feel na the moment we talk about ourselves, uh, nagyayabang tayo. Pero hindi siya ganun eh,” she tells those she mentors. “Kasi kung hindi magsisimula sa atin na magiging proud tayo sa kung ano yung ginagawa natin, how will other people advocate for you?”
Lopa also encourages young girls to take an active role in growing women’s sports—whether it’s volunteering in sports camps, advocating for safe spaces, or promoting sports and athletes in your circle. What’s important, she says, is understanding your unique strengths as a woman.
“In the game of basketball, for example, what’s amazing about women’s basketball is the team play,” Lopa continues. “We’re better shooters, we read the game better, we pass the ball quicker. Highlighting those things and putting them, putting those things at the forefront will show people that we’re a different game, and also show guys that there’s a lot to learn from the women’s game too, 'di ba?”
Whether on or off the court, Lopa says, becoming a more empowered woman starts with owning those unique strengths and celebrating them—not judging one’s self by men’s standards.
“Changing the game or improving the women’s game doesn’t mean turning it into the men’s game. So what does it mean? Number one, equal opportunities for success and growth. And once you do have those opportunities, be the best in what we do well,” she says.