'The confidence girls get from being part of something that's bigger than themselves is great'
Niamh dwyer - Basketball player/coach
Niamh Dwyer's basketball career trajectory began when she took up the sport in secondary school. Still playing at the highest level at the age of 35, today she has come full circle coaching young girls in her sport.
It was the mid 1990s when Niamh Dwyer first found herself on a basketball court at the Presentation Convent in Thurles, Co Tipperary. While she had played camogie and Gaelic football when she was younger, basketball stole her heart.
She moved up the under-age rankings playing for Ireland at under-16 and under-18. In 2001 she left Ireland to take up a scholarship to play basketball in Illinois and later New Jersey. Because the basketball season in the US and here are different, she found that she was able to come home from college each May to play with the Irish women's basketball team.
In 2003 she got the opportunity to play in the World University Games - like the Olympics for third level students - travelling to Korea that year and in 2005 to Turkey.
Today she is still playing basketball at international level. In 2015 she began playing 3x3 basketball, which differs from the traditional five a side basketball in that it's played on a half court and is an incredibly fast-paced high energy game. Says Niamh: "3X3 has given me a new lease of life. It's very intense and I love the version of the sport. I've been very fortunate with the timing and I've been able to play basketball at the highest level for 20 years."
It's now as a teacher that Niamh realises the full benefits of her years in sport. She feels her confidence, her own feeling of being happy in her own skin and love of fitness come down to her involvement in sport and she tries to impart this to the girls she coaches.
She recalls getting on the plane to take up her scholarship in the US not knowing a soul but within the shortest period of time being made part of a family with her basketball team mates.
It's a lesson she never forgets and she is keen to pass on the benefits of team sports for girls. While she teaches business and geography at Glanmire Community College in Cork, if she's not playing basketball, she's coaching it.
"The confidence girls get from being part of something that's bigger than themselves is great. When you go into the workplace you can draw on the experiences you have because people rely on you. You do get that sense of empowerment from sport. It is what bonds people together," says Niamh.
As a teacher she knows that for young people, everything is just one click away in the world of social media but when you get kids involved in sport, they are communicating on a deeper level.
"When you're in sport the phones are left in the bags when you go training. It's just you guys on the court together. You feel that real face-to-face connection then," she says.
Niamh is now coaching girls from first year to sixth year and finds that she is learning from the experience in ways she could never have imagined. "It's helping me so much in the classroom. It can be hard to reach out to students. Getting their attention and showing your commitment - coaching is another avenue to do that," she says.
Having played elite basketball, coaching also helps keep her grounded. "At the levels I've played at winning drives me a lot. When you're coaching a first year who just wants to catch a ball, that keeps me grounded and reminds me what's important about the sport," says Niamh.
She recalls meeting a former student a few months ago who told her that her days playing basketball and going off on the bus to matches were her best memories of school. "When I look back at my school days it's not the maths I remember. It's the bus journeys and the bonds I formed with the people I met," says Niamh.
For her students, she believes learning to be responsible to your team mates is one of the important things sport can teach them.
"In training you learn about being committed to others, you learn that you are just a cog in a wheel. That will follow you through life. Even with a third level degree, if you have sport on your CV an employer knows you're a team player. They already know about your commitment.
"In school I was quite insecure. It was sport that helped me find my feet and find the right group of friends. I'm still a very driven person and I still want to be the best teacher I can be.
"The confidence I found in sport I was able to translate into being a student and now into being a teacher," she says.
* For more info see www.basketballireland.ie
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