The RTÉ sports broadcaster and author of the Girls Play Too books became the first woman to present Sunday Sport on Radio 1 in 2009. From Cork, she lives in Dublin with her family
I always wanted to do something about keeping young girls active, but never found the motivation. It was finding the right book to write that motivated me.
A lot of what my Girls Play Too books do is very simple. You’re trying to motivate kids in a way that speaks to them. There are loads of sports role models who are boys, but not so many who are girls. What I wanted to do with the first Girls Play Too book, and now with the second one, is to make it like a fairy-tale book, but the fairy tale is, say, getting to the Olympics. That’s a fairy tale too.
The great thing about the first book, which came out last year, is that some of the women in it — Rachael Blackmore, Ellen Keane, Leona Maguire, Katie-George Dunlevy — have all had such a great year since. Girls and boys have seen them and been able to say, “Oh, I know her, she’s in my book”.
When I was growing up, sport was huge in my family. We were that family with the seven-seater and everyone piled into it. I played basketball for Ireland and camogie for Cork and every weekend we were on the go. I had a lot of friends who stopped playing sport, but I would say that was because they couldn’t find an outlet to suit them.
When I was in school, there was the A-team, which got everything and did everything; and then there was the B-team, which didn’t. People would gradually get put off and stop showing up. If I could go back and change one thing, it would be to encourage access for everyone into sport.
I have so many friends now who don’t consider themselves to be ‘into sport’. They might run 5k and do some sea swimming, but they don’t think they’re sporty because they don’t play camogie on a Saturday, because there’s nowhere for them to play camogie.
For boys and men, those casual, non-competitive options were always there — like five-a-side teams or Junior B hurling. We need to keep everyone engaged. Everybody can’t be elite. It’s not about creating inter-county athletes, it’s about keeping young women active. The biggest deterrent for girls now is they need structure and B-teams that are really cared about.
The need is being met more now than when I was younger, but it could be better. If you could keep young women playing from the ages of 17 to 24, then you wouldn’t be dealing with women in their 30s who don’t play sport any more.
Sometimes it’s also about the small, subtle changes. When GAA teams changed the shorts from white to navy, because girls get periods, it made such a difference. We’ve all been there, worrying about bleeding showing on the white shorts.
It’s about recognising the issues and doing something about them. You need women in positions where they have a voice and are heard in order to make those changes.
I have a boy, Luke, and a girl, Lily. They’re seven and four. He’s mad into sports and she’s at the age where she’s into anything. Both my husband, Shane, and I think the same and we would love it if they are into sport, but we won’t push it. There’s so much out there for kids now and it’s important to give them access to try out as much as they want, but not overburden them.
We give them the message that you do as much as you can and we want them to know that it’s good for them to be active. Both of us still play sport and that’s a good message, that both Mummy and Daddy do this.
It’s very simple to inspire kids because you just show them what’s possible. ‘Can’t see it, can’t be it,’ is one way of putting it, but I prefer what [pro golfer] Leona Maguire says: “Can see, can be.”
That’s brilliant because it turns it into a positive and that’s very powerful.
In conversation with Sarah Caden