6 months ago

Stay and Play: The Importance of Encouraging Girls in Sport


Encouraging girls to join a team is vital – for fun, for social connection, for exercise, for their mental health. Emily Hourican coaches her daughter’s football team and has seen the benefits in action …

When my two sons joined the local football club – aged about five – it was an entirely natural progression. Frankly, they were never not going to join. Their dad is obsessed with football, both were out with him, kicking balls, from the time they could walk. At school, they played in the yard with the other boys, outside school they went to parks, playgrounds, the shops and everywhere they went, a ball went too. Obviously they were going to join a football club just as soon as any club would take them. And so they did.

Beyond driving them to and from training and matches, and following their teams’ progress in various leagues, my husband and I haven’t had to “do” anything to further their interest. It’s there, it’s solid, it’s not going away.

My daughter is the youngest of the three, and with her the story has been different. So different, that I am now coaching her football team, a squad of eight-nine-year-old girls (I do not do this alone, I hasten to add. That would be madness!)

This is pretty drastic action for someone like me who didn’t play team sports as a kid (I grew up in Bruxelles – you try fitting happily into a hockey team composed of little Belgian girls) although I spent a few very happy years as part of a Sunday soccer team in my 20s, I am not really the “joining type” (show me a committee in need of members, and I will show you a very clean pair of heels). I am someone who really doesn’t have time (yes I know, who does?) for the extra work involved, and never, ever imagined this is how I would end up spending a growing portion of my time.

What happened? Simple really. My realisation, as my daughter reached five, and then six, that, if I wanted her to play, I was going to have to get involved. Because there was no obvious route for her to go: no cultural slipstream into which she could seamlessly move. Yes, the girls she knows do various extra-curricular activities – ballet, gymnastics, dance, cheerleading, Gaelic, hockey. But, there was nothing like the clear and inevitable route that existed for her brothers. For her, playing a team sport was going to be an active undertaking, rather than a passive allowing.

It was also clear that, unlike the boys, she didn’t have that against-all-odds inner conviction to motivate her through wet, cold, dark Monday evening training sessions and matches played in the lashing rain on a Sunday morning. Maybe it’s a personality thing, but I don’t think so; I reckon it, too, is cultural. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. If you don’t see your contemporaries playing on, drenched to the skin, against a team that are hammering you, without bursting into tears and walking off the pitch – well, it’s hard to be that dogged, determined miracle of a person yourself. Unless girls are shown the virtue of these things – battling on, taking the knocks, playing with heart and soul – they aren’t going to appreciate or replicate them. And not showing them those things plays into the idea that girls are “different” to boys: more delicate, more refined, unfit for the rough-and-tumble of competitive team sports. 

Funnily, it is exactly this same kind of cultural realisation that led Sarah Colgan, MD of Along Came A Spider, to set up 20×20, a brilliant new initiative for women in sport, with Heather Thornton. “I have two sons, and a daughter,” Colgan says, “my daughter was moaning about not wanting to go to training, and I found that I was ready to consider letting her stop; I was going to let her give up, where I never would have with the boys. The first spark came from that.”

Once she began to look harder, Colgan found “right across society, a subliminal bias when it comes to girls and boys in sport. The aim of 20×20, supported by Investec, is to increase media coverage, boost attendances and ultimately, grow involvement in female sport and physical activity by 20 per cent by the end of 2020. The bigger aim is to shift our cultural perception of girls and women in sport, change the signals we send out around it, and make girls’ sport more visible, not just in the media, but also in the community, such that it becomes part of our culture.”

To promote our daughters playing and continuing to play, Colgan thinks we need a different approach to that taken with boys. “We need greater encouragement and greater support.” As she points out, girls are coming from a much lower base; of course they need much more support. And we need to change our mindset. “Parents make an effort with boys and sport because there is the assumption that ‘he’s not going to survive socially if he doesn’t have a sport’” – which is a fair assumption, but we need to put that effort into our daughters too. We also need to see more celebration of girls looking exhausted, muddy, soaking, pushed to the limit, with bloody knees, rather than prettily dressed with perfect hair. 

So why is it so important to me that my daughter plays? Partly, it’s the simple fact that she, like all of us, needs exercise and fresh air. Partly it’s that I don’t want to foster a family of two halves, where boys do certain things, and girls do different things. I want them to do the same things.

More than that though, I felt that she, like most of us, needs what team sports bring – the amazing qualities of loyalty, belonging, determination, competitiveness, doggedness and so on that are fostered by all those hours of finding joy in collective endeavour, putting aside personal discomfort for the sake of your team mates, learning to celebrate victory and absorb defeat, finding confidence in your body and ability to learn and to improve. As Sarah O’Connor, Head of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship at Wilson Hartnell, and former CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport (whose daughter Isabelle plays with “my” team), articulates: “When I was younger I loved to play – anything. It really didn’t matter. I loved the freedom of focusing on nothing but a game, striving to better and best of all doing that as a team. It dawned on me as I got older that playing sport was just the vehicle and the rewards were those people I met and the places it took me. As I learned more and began to work to promote sport, I realised that sport is about health and community and the huge unspoken dividends it delivers to people and therefore communities right around Ireland!

Everything O’Connor discovered for herself, is backed-up by research. “Research in the US by EY,” she points out, “has established that women who play sport through university are more likely to attain senior management positions and those women who played sport are likely to be paid seven per cent more than those who didn’t. On learning this, another penny dropped. For me, girls and sport became even more than just about the friends you make and the tribe you build (although I would not swap mine for the world), it is actually about equality of opportunity – in health terms and also in professional terms. This is massive, certainly in the context of all the other equality conversations we are having as a country.” We need girls to get a sporting opportunity, she says, “because not doing so deprives them of so much more than just playing a game.”

At first, getting my daughter out there, especially during the winter, was hard going but, bit by bit, she learned the basics, and then a bit more than the basics. She won’t be troubling selectors for the Irish squad, but that’s not the point. The point is that she loves it, identifies herself as a “footballer”, has begun to follow women’s football on TV and women’s sport in general, has made new friends and learned a little about what it means to be part of a team.

And so, we have crossed the first hurdle, she and I. But there is another, maybe greater, hurdle on the way.

The percentage of girls who quit sport in their early teens in this country, is huge. The best estimates suggest it is around 50 per cent, before the age of 13. Half of all sports-playing girls simply quit by the time they start secondary school. School sports are more likely to be given up than extra-curricular sports, and team sports sooner than individual sports like swimming.

And of course other research shows exactly why this should not be happening: girls who play sports do better in school, possibly because exercise improves memory and concentration. Girls who play sports are more likely to maintain a healthy weight, less likely to smoke and have a reduced chance of getting breast cancer later in life. They report feeling less depressed, less lonely, happier and more supported. They have greater self-confidence and body-confidence. Through teamwork, they learn problem-solving, goal-setting, how to deal with disappointment and to handle social dynamics.

Could it be any clearer? And yet, only 36 per cent of women report being strongly encouraged to play sport, as compared with 56 per cent of men. “You learn to win and lose,” as 28-year-old Sinéad Goldrick, Foxrock Cabinteely & Dublin Ladies Gaelic Football three-time All-Ireland winner and six-time Ladies Gaelic Football All-Star, puts it. “You learn that life isn’t fair – and the resilience to cope with that. Everything you learn as part of a team, is transferable into your everyday and working life.” What does she think could be done to keep more girls playing past the danger point of 13? “A lot happens at that age; girls start secondary school, there are many external factors, so managers and coaches need to make sure they make the game fun. They also need to pay attention to the whole team, not just the best players. Everyone in the group needs to get the same focus.” Ten years ago, Goldrick was playing to crowds of perhaps 200 people. “Last year, 51,141 people watched the All-Ireland final in Croke Park, against Cork. That’s the highest attendance for any women’s game in Europe.”

It’s not just the crowds, as Sarah Colgan points out: women like Katie Taylor, Stephanie Roche, Louise Quinn, Sarah Rowe, Leona Maguire, Investec ambassador Stephanie Meadow, the entire Irish hockey team, Rhasidat Adeleke, Sarah Healy … there are, now, so many role models in women’s sport.

So, is the broader visibility of Irish sportswomen having a knock-on effect at grass roots level? Maybe. Anecdotally, through some of the coaching courses I’ve been on, I am hearing that women’s soccer is considered “the future;” meaning this is where the growth opportunities lie. I also hear that in football academies around the country, girls are now presenting with better coordination and motor skills than boys of the same age. They spend less time online gaming, apparently, and this is having a significant impact on the physical health of both genders.

However, from my vantage point as coach and parent, it seems to me that there are still significant differences in the approach to girls and boys soccer – and that they aren’t always what you might expect. No club will admit it but, through talking to other parents of girls and coaches of girls’ teams, the impression I get is that really, the girls game, is still something of an also-ran: under-resourced and over-looked, in terms of facilities, pitch and time allocation, and the general level of expectation. However, there are, to my mind, unexpected advantages in being slightly overlooked. What sounds like a bad thing – taking the girls’ games less seriously – could in fact have its strengths.

In my ten-odd years of standing on sidelines, I have too often seen my son’s teams – from ages as young as seven and eight – abused by the opposition team parents and even coaches. I have listened as parents and coaches have hurled abuse at their own children and players, by name – “You’re no effing good X!” “If you’re not going to play any better than that, you can just fuck off Y, and so on”. I know the FAI deals with complaints on a weekly basis about the conduct of parents and coaches towards their own and opposition players. Watching grown men – and women – shouting and jeering at a bunch of ten-year-olds is downright ugly. Sometimes, you’d swear these kids are contenders for a premier league signing, so seriously do those involved take it. Sometimes, you wonder who a particular coach is doing this for? Himself and his own ego, or the kids on his team? Sometimes, you feel like saying “it’s not about you, mate …”

I’ve never attended a girls’ game without being impressed by the generosity, sportsmanship and general dedication to the ideal that this is a game, played for enjoyment, in which everyone is a winner simply because they have played.

Yes, there is a happy medium – we don’t want a gulf to exist whereby boys’ games are serious and girls’ games are “a bit of fun” – we want both to be well-run, efficient, accountable. But, the unpleasant level of pressure that exists among some boys’ teams, that is deeply off-putting to some players, isn’t as much in evidence. This means less focus on the better players to the exclusion of less-good players; it means a more balanced attitude in terms of winning and losing, it means, at the most basic level, that everyone gets a game, everyone gets encouraged, everyone gets a chance.

Is it weird that girls’ sports needs two completely contradictory drives? On the one hand, proper resources and expectation around the elite route, and on the other, a vibrant, love-of-the-game community scene? No, because that’s what boys’ sports has: something for everyone.

As a coach, I am very clear about what my role is, and it is very simple: If these girls continue to play and love sport throughout their lives, I will have succeeded, massively.
If the ones without huge natural ability get to a place where they gain joy in their lives through their sport, confidence in their bodies, and the habit of looking at themselves, not as a collection of arms and legs and stomachs but as a magnificent machine that needs to be treated right in order to function to its best, then that is a win. I confess that I don’t love leaving the warmth of home on a Monday evening for a freezing cold, wet, windy astropitch on an exposed hillside. But the energy, the enthusiasm, the joy of the girls’ attitude, their willingness to learn, to make friends, to support and encourage each other; their cheek and sass and sheer exuberance, mean they are winners every time.

Keep Them Playing

In order to keep playing, they have to start playing. It helps if they start with friends, it helps even more if they make friends within the team/sport. By the way Mount Merrion Youths is looking for members

Don’t conclude ‘it’s not for her’ too quickly. A bit of moaning at first is to be expected. That said, if the moaning doesn’t let up, maybe it’s not the right sport. If so, change. There is a sport for everyone.

Model good behaviour: If you’re active, she is more likely to be. Consider joining your own football, Gaelic or rugby team.

Be prepared to commit your own time – giving lifts, or taking a more active role as helper, manager or coach.

Be involved. Follow her progress, engage with her coach or instructor.

Make sure it’s fun. She won’t play if she doesn’t enjoy it. If you and she feel the team is getting too serious, talk to the coach about what his/her expectations are.

Make sure she’s playing to her correct ability. There are options for those who want an
easy-going, fun time, and for those who are deadly serious.

Emily Hourican

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