Sunday 18 February 2018

'He didn't see any difference between women in sports and men in sports' - Dads' unique role in daughters' sporting careers

Irish rugby star Ailson Miller recalls how her dad's influence helped spur on her career - while Katie Byrne talks to sports presenter Darragh Maloney about his involvement in his daughter's sporting activities and how it's strengthened their bond

Sports presenter Darragh Maloney and his daughter Hannah at a training session
Sports presenter Darragh Maloney and his daughter Hannah at a training session

IRISH rugby star Alison Miller always remembers her late father, Bobby Miller, calling her into the sitting room to watch Kelly Holmes take gold in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. "Look at this woman," he said to his 19-year-old daughter. "She's amazing!"

Bobby, a former inter-county footballer and manager, was a champion of women's sports - the Laois Ladies Football team especially. "He was always talking about them and had huge admiration for what they achieved," she remembers.

"He didn't see any difference between women in sports and men in sports," she adds. "And because he never distinguished, we didn't see any difference either."

Alison, who initially trained in athletics, started playing rugby during her college years, a few months after her father died. "My mother was a PE teacher and the fact that my dad was so into sports was a big help too. I always remember him asking what kind of training we did whenever we came home from school."

Alison's childhood memories have echoes of something 15-year-old Shannon Keady said about her late father, Galway hurling legend Tony Keady, on Morning Ireland earlier this month.

"I used to go absolutely everywhere with dad. Anytime the car went out the gate, we were in it," said Shannon, who recently won an All-Ireland U-16 camogie medal. "Any match that was on, no matter who was playing, we were up and down the country going to the matches, sure it's what we loved and what we were always at."

It could be argued that fathers who live and breathe sports are of course going to raise daughters of a similar mindset, yet studies prove that the encouragement of dads - irrespective of their own level of sporting achievement - contributes to young women's participation in sports at every level.

Earlier this year, Lidl and the Ladies Gaelic Football Association commissioned nationwide research to find out why young women in Ireland are less likely to get involved in sport. The study highlighted numerous barriers to participation including the tendency for parents to encourage their sons more than their daughters.

Close to three in five mothers agreed that parents are more likely to discourage sons from giving up sport than daughters, while 67pc of girls said their mothers encouraged them not to give up sports, compared to 53pc of girls who said their fathers encouraged them to continue.

"One of the ways girls are marginalised in sports and activities is that they receive less encouragement and opportunities from their parents," says Professor Philip Morgan of the Dads And Daughters Exercising and Empowered (DADEE) program, an Australian initiative that encourages fathers to take an active role in their daughters' physical activity.

"They start organised sport two years later than boys; they receive less toys that promote sport skill development; they are less likely to be signed up for programs that support sport skill development and they also have a far limited choice beyond more traditional 'feminine' sports.

"We know that many fathers don't realise they have a unique and important role in their daughter's life or that their girls might be interested in playing sport and being physically active with them. Also, because the girls have been marginalised in many sports and activities they may not necessarily ask or be initially interested in performing these activities with dad, particularly if they have a brother in the family who has already taken up this physically active role with dad."

Philip describes fathers prioritising one-on-one time with their daughters to help them develop their sport skills as an "engagement mechanism" that promotes bonding. "One of the seminal research studies looking at turning points in a father-daughter relationship found the number one turning point in developing a close relationship, from both perspectives of fathers and daughters, was participating in sporting activities together," he explains.

However, he's quick to add that this isn't to undermine the power of a positive female influence. "Both mothers and fathers have a unique and independent influence on both sons and daughters," he continues. "Every dyad is special [i.e. mums and sons; dads and daughters; mums and daughters; and dads and sons]. The least researched dyad is the father-daughter.

"For some outcomes, the research has shown there is a differential impact based on the dyad, for example self-esteem - positive father involvement has been shown to have a very strong impact on a girl's self-esteem.

"Interestingly, it is a stronger impact than for his son or for a mother with her daughter. Part of the reason for this is when a father is part of her life it helps her to develop her physical activity, sport skill and confidence and we know these things are strongly associated with higher self-esteem and well-being and can really enhance a girl's life."

Here we meet two fathers who have strengthened their bonds with their daughters by taking an active role in their sporting lives.

Sports presenter darragh maloney coaches his daughter Hannah

Sports presenter Darragh Maloney coaches his daughter Hannah (15) in ladies Gaelic football in St Patrick's GAA Club in Stamullen, Co. Meath.

"Hannah started playing with St Patrick's GAA Club about four years ago and I was going to a lot of the matches anyway. Like a lot of these things, my involvement happened by accident. The manager suggested that I come down to look at a couple of things or help him on the sideline when the matches were going on, and it just kind of snowballed from there.

"What I do for a living is one thing, but during the team talks at half-time, the players range from 15 to 22/23 and I actually find it, at times, kind of intimidating. You have these 20 sets of eyes looking at you and waiting for you to hopefully say something that might encourage or inspire them. You get 60/90 seconds to make an impression so you have to hit the right notes. I was always very aware of not pushing too hard when I wasn't a coach. I've seen other parents do it - often with the best of intentions - but it's not something that I'm mad about, and I certainly don't want to be living my failed football career through Hannah. I might get a little excited and need to take a step away, but most of the time I would try to be relatively calm.

"I didn't push Hannah to get involved in ladies football but I was delighted when she did get involved, particularly with the structure that they have down in the club. It's really well run and kids, when they start, are trained really well and it progresses really quickly. But once I saw that she was into it, I did encourage her. I've never put pressure on her but again I was delighted that she was sticking with it.

"Of course, a lot can happen. There are many studies on the drop-out rate from the age of 15 onwards in all sports, but particularly for girls. She did her Junior Cert last year but I think she found it very helpful going to training in the run-up to the exams. It gave her a little headspace away from the books.

"It has probably [added a different dimension to our relationship]. Hannah was always active but I never thought she'd be the type of person to sit down and watch football matches or go to games. Again, I didn't push her or park her in front of the telly, so it's added an extra level through the emotions of winning and losing. When you win you're happy and when you lose you're not so happy so we're dealing with all of that and maybe she has seen a different side to me that I wouldn't have shown before.

"I'm still trying to get up to speed on ladies Gaelic football. It's a sport that is exploding in Ireland and the potential is huge and the skill levels are going up every week. It's just like when I played 100 years ago: they are all growing up together. Team sports, I feel, is so important for any child. It teaches them how to be part of a team and how to relate to other people. Plus, they are keeping fit and enjoying the experience at the same time."

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