Thursday 14 December 2017

'Parents have to play their part' - Cork GAA star Briege Corkery on the importance of keeping girls in sport

The most decorated GAA player ever happens to be a woman. Football and camogie star Briege Corkery tells our reporter how team sports have shaped her character and why she wants to encourage girls to stay in the game

Ladies Gaelic Football star Briege Corkery. Photo: Liam Murphy
Ladies Gaelic Football star Briege Corkery. Photo: Liam Murphy
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

Briege Corkery is the most successful GAA player of all time.

However, it is a joint title she shares with her friend and teammate Cork dual star Rena Buckley.

Briege Corkery
Briege Corkery

Both players have individually amassed a mind-blowing trophy tally of 17 All-Ireland Senior medals - 11 in ladies football, six in camogie - all for the Rebel County.

Although the girls' GAA history leaves male equivalent, Kilkenny hurling king Henry Shefflin, with his record 10 All-Ireland medals out in the cold, Briege's modesty about her extraordinary achievements is even more remarkable.

After a few minutes chatting to the young dairy farmer, who milks a 600-cow herd in Crookstown, near Macroom, it is abundantly clear that her deep roots in team sports from the tender age of six have had a monumental impact on shaping her character.

"As far back as I can remember I took football and camogie as my number one. And the greatest thing about that is sport allows you to be yourself.

"Nobody judges you. It's all about how hard you work at training and how you perform on the pitch," she says.

With five brothers and four sisters, Briege says they were never pushed into sport. It was just something they all gravitated towards. Having honed her underage skills with local clubs Aghinagh, Cloughduv and St Val's, Briege made her inter-county debut during the 2001 season at the delicate age of just 15.

27 September 2015; Briege Corkery, left, and captain Ciara O'Sullivan, Cork, celebrate with the Brendan Martin Cup after the game. TG4 Ladies Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
27 September 2015; Briege Corkery, left, and captain Ciara O'Sullivan, Cork, celebrate with the Brendan Martin Cup after the game. TG4 Ladies Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

Throughout secondary school, and her later college years, the relentless mid-fielder says sport helped her find inner confidence. "I was just myself and I really enjoyed that. Instead of going out with the girls at the weekend I stayed in and rested myself for training the next morning; it can be hard for young people to make those sacrifices but sport gave me the confidence to do what was right for me. My friends were really good about it," she says.

The 10-time Ladies' Football All Stars winner, (2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016), who is currently taking a break to consider her inter-county future, says team sports also helped her develop mental toughness.

"When you're on the pitch and things aren't going your way you have to learn to take the game by the scruff of the neck and push on as a unit. It's all about working together as a team to get the best possible result.

"It's not just about you, you can't put the head down and start throwing toys out of the cot, you have to be disciplined and resilient and think about what is best for the team. That's a lifelong lesson that can feed into experiences in the workplace down the line," she says.

Cork captain Briege Corkery, centre, with her sister Mairead, right, and their niece Bridgín, with the Brendan Martin Cup. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Cork captain Briege Corkery, centre, with her sister Mairead, right, and their niece Bridgín, with the Brendan Martin Cup. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

The six-time Camogie All Stars winner, (2006, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2015), says playing GAA taught her to have a positive mind-set throughout her formative years.

"If something is bothering you and you're at home with nothing to do, you can have too much time to think or worry. But if you're heading off training with a group of your friends as soon as you lace your boots you just forget about everything, it makes you feel good.

"I would always go to training and train as hard as I could," she says.

During the height of her stalwart career Briege, named national female sports person of the year in 2005 following superb performances in both codes, trained every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for camogie, and every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday for football.

Cork captain Briege Corkery with the cup
Cork captain Briege Corkery with the cup

"I put my heart and soul into it, commitment was the biggest thing for me. I never missed a training session or a match. I wanted to give it absolutely everything because I didn't want to have any regrets. And to this day I can stand over that," says the 30-year-old who still plays football with St Val's in Kilmurray.

A new study conducted by Spark Market Research and commissioned by Lidl, shows that by the age of 13, one in two girls gives up sport completely. Almost 50pc say their main reason for quitting is that their friends weren't playing.

The research, which was reported in this magazine last week, also found that encouragement for girls in sport was low, with parents more likely to discourage their son from giving up sport than their daughters.

The survey which included findings from girls aged 12-17, parents, and adults (60pc female) aged 18-44, revealed that three in four girls feel men's sports are taken more seriously than women's sport.

However, the data also found that girls who play sport have significantly better body confidence, mental wellbeing and better coping mechanisms for dealing with peer pressure.

The figures struck a chord with Briege who became the sixth camogie player in history to be awarded the Texaco Player of the Year award, in 2008 - a prestigious accolade selected by national sports editors.

"I can understand that girls might pull away from sport during their teenage years, they are maturing and it can be a challenging time but when you're part of a team you are all the same age so everyone is going through the same thing and that makes it easier.

"But parents have to play their part too. You don't have to put pressure on them to keep playing but talk about it, listen and show support," says Briege who recently started a new position with Bank of Ireland working on school bank initiatives.

"My new role with the bank is another huge stepping stone in the recognition of women in sport. It's about promoting financial literacy in schools in Cork and I hope to also send a strong sporting message to girls in the classroom," she says.

She feels social media pressures can skew young women's perception of a healthy body image.

"It's not all about having the perfect body. It's about being happy. Teenagers, especially girls, are bombarded with images of beautiful famous people on Twitter and Instagram but when you're playing sport you have a different outlook on that.

"I've always focused on being fit for championship so I'd be content in building muscle to get the best out of my body. I need to be physically fit and physically strong," she says, adding that farming has always been key to her fitness regime.

All along the way Briege made great friends and these friendships were a huge part of her sporting journey.

"We all respected each other. We never took each other for granted and nobody ever felt they were better than anyone else," she says.

"The best thing for me is the memories and the friendships. You make some great friends over the years and they are very loyal friends. They're the same type of people - they don't judge you. They're used to seeing you in your shorts and jersey and you don't have that pressure of having to wear make-up or look a certain way," says Briege.

Although Briege, who married her long-term love, farmer Diarmuid Scanlon just a year-and-a-half ago, admits her priorities are changing as she starts a new chapter in her life, she will always feel a responsibility to champion women and girls in sport.

"We have some great role models out there in Katie Taylor, the Ireland Women's rugby team getting ready for the World Cup; there have been some huge changes in the last couple of years and it will only get better.

"The GAA is over 100 years old but the LGFA is just 40 years old, we still have a lot of road to go but we're getting there.

"I've seen really positive steps in my lifetime on the pitch but it's up to every association to push ahead now whether it's men or women, mainstream or minority, we all have to be in this together," she concludes.

Additional reporting from Kathy Donaghy

* For more information on the GAA go to gaa.ie and see the "get involved section".

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