A level playing field? why 'girls in sport' is still a cause for concern
Finola Doyle: Football has brought so much into my life beyond learning how to kick a ball
On certain vantage points, it might look as though we are 'winning' the 'girls in sport' issue. Recently, a record crowd of 6,137 turned out to watch the Irish women's hockey team beat Canada. A few days later in the UK, record numbers piled into Wembley to watch England's women's football team play Germany, building nicely on the 11.7 million who watched the Women's World Cup semi-final against USA. In September, the 2019 All-Ireland Ladies Football final saw an attendance of over 56,000 - up 5,000 on 2018.
And yet, beyond the encouraging headlines, the reality is that we are still in trouble at the most fundamental grass-roots level of children's sporting participation. The recently completed Children's Sport Participation And Physical Activity Study 2018, commissioned by Sports Ireland, show that just 13pc of children met the National Physical Activity Guidelines of at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day, and these figures are lower than the 19pc and 12pc recorded in primary and post-primary schools respectively in 2010.
That's bad, but it gets worse. Within that, girls are significantly less likely to meet these guidelines than boys are. Twenty-three per cent of primary school boys meet the guidelines, and only 13pc of girls. At post-primary level, those figures are 14pc of boys, and just 7pc of girls.
Anywhere there is a significant gap between boys and girls is of concern, but the sporting gap particularly so, because of the many benefits sports brings, even well beyond the basic criteria of physical fitness.
There is now a body of research to show that girls who play sport do better in school, possibly because exercise improves memory and concentration. They are more likely to maintain a healthy weight, less likely to smoke and have a reduced chance of getting breast cancer. They feel less depressed, less lonely, happier and more supported. They have greater self-confidence and body-confidence.
Those who play team sports learn problem-solving, goal-setting, how to deal with disappointment and to handle social dynamics - all vital life skills. This, in a society in which mental health issues among children and teenagers are very much on the increase, is an area we need to pay serious attention to.
And there's more. Research in the US by Ernst & Young has established that women who play sport through university are more likely to attain senior management positions, whilst those women who played sport are likely to be paid 7pc more than those who didn't.
Clearly, it is far more than a question of having fun and getting a bit of fresh air. Not emphasising girls participating in sport ultimately deprives them of so much more than just playing a game.
This is the backdrop against which a recent debate took place: '20x20 Can/ Can't' was an unashamedly confrontational look at the current where-we're-at of women in sport, and the 20x20 campaign is now exactly halfway through the two-year time frame initially envisaged by founders Sarah Colgan and Heather Thornton; a timely moment to take stock.
Those taking part - Ryle Nugent, former head of sport at RTE; Sarah Keane, CEO Swim Ireland and president of the Olympic Federation of Ireland; Ewan MacKenna, sports journalist; Mary O'Connor, CEO Federation of Irish Sport and All-Ireland winning camogie player and footballer - debated a broad range of the issues and challenges facing girls and women, highlighting the vital need for engagement, but also counselling against the complacency that can easily set in when we look only at the 'glory' end of the spectrum - attendance at All-Ireland finals and internationals, for example.
This was a pragmatic debate, focussing on hard realities rather than goodwill. And although much of it was around the elite level of participation, every bit of the debate fed back into the most simple, grassroots applications of access and opportunity for girls to play sports.
Mary O'Connor, on the Can't side, pointed out how much education is still required, "of athletes, coaches, parents and the public". Efforts around girls and women in sport "are still in their infancy". Later, she emphasised the difference between "equality and equity. Equity can appear unfair, but actively moves everybody closer to equality, in terms of giving the extra help needed to get women in sport to where they want to go."
Also sceptical, Ewan MacKenna said, "Women's sport is growing, but can only grow so much. It will never get to the level of the Premiership." He pointed out the patronising undercurrent of 'sure aren't they great', that still exists in some media coverage of women's sports, and asked the question "is it better to grow from the grassroots up and become part of the fabric, rather than get on the bandwagon?" meaning the high-profile games that draw big crowds.
For Sarah Keane, there was a vital distinction to be drawn: "Can we? Yes. Will we? I'm not so sure." The reality, she said, "is that there isn't equality, but there is change, and I believe my children will view the world differently."
Ryle Nugent first struck a positive note - "The opportunity is there" - before spinning the debate around: "if the sporting federations do not create equal pathways for boys and girls, then why should the media and public care?", and concluded with, "this is achievable, but it's going to take a generation, and if it isn't done at a grassroots level, it isn't sustainable."
Ultimate, in the words of Henry Ford, "whether you think you can or you can't, you're right." For the sake of the physical and mental health of girls and women in this country, we need to believe we can - and act accordingly.
Finola Doyle: Football has brought so much into my life beyond learning how to kick a football
'I started playing football when I was five," says 16-year-old Finola Doyle, who plays at elite level with the DLR Under-17 Waves. "There were only a few girls' teams in the club at that stage, so I played with older girls, and I looked up to them so much. From the start, I loved every minute of it. But even so, and still now, if it's dark and wet and cold outside and it's time to leave the house for training, I think 'I don't want to go…' And yet every single time, I come home feeling amazing, and so happy that I did."
In First Year of secondary school, Finola changed clubs as her team disbanded - victim of the many girls who quit sport in aged 13/14 - "moving to a different club, deciding to keep playing, made me really realise how much I enjoyed football. How much it brought into my life. I looked around at the girls in my year who were dropping out, and I remember thinking 'why? Why would you do that?'"
Football, she says, "has brought so much into my life beyond learning how to kick a ball and where to be on the pitch. My communication skills have really improved. I would consider myself quite an introverted person, and I can be awkward. But on the pitch, there is no room for hanging back. You have to be able to speak up and speak out, and football has taught me how to do that."
During her Junior Cert, football was one of the things that kept Finola going. "I was so overwhelmed with study that there were days I said 'I can't train, I don't have time.' My parents persuaded me to go, and each time, I came back refreshed, and able to work much faster and better than before I went out."
On a social level too, football has helped. "School, particularly all-girls, can be pretty bitchy," Finola says. "In the football team, there is none of that. There is a real sense of camaraderie. I've made friends I would never have met otherwise, and any time I have a bad day at school, I go to football and it's like that disappears. I feel that because of football, school is not my whole life, and that's good."
Finola also coaches younger girls, and is doing her coaching badges with the FAI. "I would have found it hard to speak in front of people, but having to stand up in front of the kids every week and communicate clearly to them has helped with that. I'm getting better at it! And I enjoy coaching so much. I like the feeling of giving something back."
As for the future, "I'll definitely keep playing, because I enjoy it so much. I don't know if I will be able to play internationally - we'll see - but I will certainly keep training, and doing my coaching badges as I finish school and then go through college, so I always have this as part of my life."
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