Wednesday 21 February 2018

'You learn to accept yourself and build confidence'

With the rise in social media, peer pressure on young girls has increased. Successful sports and career women Sinead Goldrick and Sharon Courtney believe team sport can provide a space away from it all

Five-time Dublin All-Star Sinead Goldrick is an ambassador for young women in sport
Five-time Dublin All-Star Sinead Goldrick is an ambassador for young women in sport
Senior county footballer for Monaghan, Sharon Courtney

Kathy Donaghy

As role models go, they don't come much more positive than Dublin's Sinead Goldrick. Preparing to play in her fourth All-Ireland ladies Gaelic Football final on September 24 against Mayo, Sinead (26) is focusing on training and keeping a cool head in the face of a big game.

Being an ambassador for young women in sport and as one of Lidl's high-profile Gaelic footballers fronting the research campaign showing the benefits of sports for young women, Sinead is all too aware of the reasons young women leave sport.

The study carried out by Lidl found that a lack of encouragement was a big reason for girls quitting sport by the time they hit the age of 13. And it found almost two out of three girls report experiencing peer pressure every day, and that pressure to look a certain way accounts for almost three-quarters of all peer pressure. But the research also showed that girls who play sport have better tools to cope with this pressure, and girls who play sport report having better body confidence and mental well-being than girls who don't.

Girls participating in sport and doing something they love is an issue Sinead, from Dublin's Cabinteely, is passionate about, but she also keenly understands the pressures that can make girls quit.

"At that age you're going through puberty and you're getting self-conscious about your body. Social life and boys can change things, too," she says.

However, Sinead says playing a team sport is such a healthy place to embrace these changing times in a girl's life. "Team sport is a positive space to be in. The team doesn't judge you on anything except on how hard you work.

"It's hard growing up. You feel self-conscious. I was one of the smallest girls in my class. It's not that I was this confident girl the whole time. I was known as 'little Sinead'. But working hard and working as part of a team gave me confidence. You do grow up and you learn to accept yourself. I don't think there's anyone out there that hasn't been self-conscious. When you're in a sport you learn to be resilient and you get satisfaction from being part of a team," says Sinead.

She believes that the perception of women in sport as 'aggressive' and 'masculine' is changing and playing sport can provide a space away from the pressures social media can put on young women. "When I was growing up I had a different focus and I wasn't so caught up with all that stuff. It is hard now with Snapchat and Instagram," she says.

"When you are playing sport it's not based on how many Instagram 'likes' you have. It's about how hard you work. If you're working hard, that's all people want you to do. You're working for the team - it's not about you. It's a way to learn to be the person you are and it builds character and confidence," she says.

From the minute she picked up a football at the age of seven, Sinead knew she wanted to play for Dublin. She was sporty from an early age and would try anything - athletics, basketball and gymnastics. "I just loved it all. My parents never pushed me - they encouraged me to partake in whatever sport I wanted to," says Sinead, now five-time Dublin All-Star.

She loved the team aspect of Gaelic football and played at all underage levels with her club Foxrock-Cabinteely before making the senior club team and being called up to represent her county.

Training with club and county is a tall order - it means four nights of training and a gym session on your own. That's on top of holding down a full-time job. Sinead works for Vodafone as part of their corporate affairs team.

While juggling her busy job at Vodafone with constant training, Sinead believes it's great to have a goal outside of work to strive for. And she is passionate about the health benefits of playing sport. "Sometimes coming out of work, I'm tired, but if I go training I feel better. The positive endorphins do help. My passion is Gaelic football - it's all about finding something you enjoy," she says.

For the last three years, Dublin reached the All-Ireland finals, only suffering heartbreak at the hands of Cork. And Sinead says while the experience was hugely disappointing, she believes it comes with the territory of being part of a team.

And the week after the Dublin men's team meet Mayo in the All-Ireland football final - which takes place this Sunday, September 17 - the Dublin ladies will meet the Mayo ladies team for their own hotly-anticipated clash.

"We've been through sad times. There have been low points. But I'd never change it. I remember all the great times too," says Sinead.

She believes that she owes a lot to sport - the friends she's made, the resilience she's learned from losing, and overall she feels incredibly lucky to be on this particular journey with club and county. "I think I'm lucky to be part of something really special. I'm very proud to represent Dublin and lucky enough to play for my club too," she says.

"If you are enjoying it, you will try your best. There's lot of ups and downs that come with playing football. But you're all in it together and you all have the same ultimate goal. There are choices you have to make and it involves a lot of juggling, but I'm lucky in that it's something I feel passionate about," says Sinead.

Asked what she'd say to young girls who might be veering away from sport, Sinead says her advice to them is to find something they are passionate about. And she also warns against parents pushing their daughters too hard.

"It's your child that's going to the training session. You can encourage them and give feedback, but don't be overbearing. It's their choice. They may want to quit but they may just need the time to realise they like it. They'll go back if it's something they enjoy," says Sinead.

"Kids also need lifts to training and sometimes parents might be tired. I'd say if they want to go to training and they need a lift, make the effort for them," she adds.

The societal pressures that can take girls and young women away from sport is something Sharon Courtney from Co Monaghan (pictured below) is also keenly aware of.

The senior county footballer is not only passionate about her sport, but in her work as lecturer in health and fitness at Dundalk IT and at Blanchardstown IT in Dublin, Sharon (29) knows all too well the benefits for girls of staying in sport.

"I think there's a lot of work to be done to get women involved in sport. As much as things are changing, there's still a way to go. We need to promote women in sport so that young girls can say 'this is cool' or 'I should still stay involved'. As well as the huge physical benefits, the social and mental health benefits cannot be overlooked".

Sharon has known lots of girls who never progressed in sports beyond the age of 16, but who tell her now they wish they had stuck with it. "At 16 there's so many other distractions in life. Maybe they initially missed a session and gradually drifted away. I know it's a cliché, but I always say 'listen to your coaches'. Lately though I've been dealing with coaches and I say 'don't push too hard'. I tell them to give girls some breathing space. If there's a concert on a Friday night, let them go to the concert and let them come back to the next training session.

"They need to explore other things and not feel under pressure that they have to stick with football. It's not good to feel as if it's a massive deal to miss a session," she says.

Sharon says she tells young women that having a sport could be a huge positive in their lives, something that can give them a focus and reward them with friendships and fitness.

"Having something away from work and something you can put your mind to away from the hustle and bustle of life is huge. Among the students I'm teaching I can pick out the students who are juggling other things. They are used to juggling things outside their school work and can manage their time better," she says.

As well as being a lynchpin for the Monaghan ladies football team - she was captain in 2009, 2011 and 2012 - Sharon is also a pivotal figure for her club team of Donaghmoyne and has been playing football for 20 years now.

Growing up on a farm in Broomfield, not far from Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, Sharon was one of Joan and Francis Courtney's 10 children, five girls and five boys. She started playing club football for Donaghmoyne at the age of eight, breaking into the senior county team at the age of 17. It became something of a family affair and Sharon says all her sisters played football with the club. Her two older sisters, Joanne and Fiona, also played senior county football.

As well as a deep love of football, Sharon believes it was the friendships she forged with other players at all levels that kept her coming back. "You're meeting the same girls every week and there's a great group of us together. If I hadn't had that I probably wouldn't have gone back. With my four sisters and I all playing club football together, it brought us closer too," she says.

"With the club, when things happen to someone, we all rally together. We try to make sure we are looking after one another. Making sure the other girls know you are there for them is really important. I know when the father of one of the girls passed away we were very conscious that she would come back down to the football field as quickly as possible. If something is happening, it's the same group of girls you go to - it's friendship off the field as well as on," says Sharon.

She believes that being involved in a team sport means you push your body harder than you would if you were training on your own. "You're there training away and you're struggling. If you were away from that environment you wouldn't push yourself to the same levels," she says.

And in her case, her love of football inspired her career choice. "It has definitely led to my career - it led me down that path," she says."When you are looking at a list of questions needed for a job, there's a lot you can take from the football field. In terms of training and time management - when you're training four nights a week, you need to be well prepared. It's given me confidence. When I was a teen, I was very quiet. The more I became involved in a team environment, the more I came out of my shell.

"Playing sports means you can think under pressure, you're able to deal with setbacks. When I took a degree related to all of this, it turned out it was perfect for me," says Sharon.

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