'Sport has given me so many friends' - GAA star Sinead Delahunty on tackling drop-off in sport among girls
For GAA star Sinead Delahunty, one victory in particular stands out in her memory on International Women’s Day.
It goes back to a time when very few girls in her locality played gaelic football, and basketball was the de facto sport for girls. In 2008, Delahunty played at corner-back for Tipperary and they won their first ever All-Ireland intermediate final.
“I’ll never forget one of the messages from the lads, it said ‘oh we actually went down to the pub to watch it’. This was coming from the lads who were scoffing [at me playing GAA] to saying ‘oh Jesus, well done’.”
“And they wouldn’t have been able to watch it if it hadn’t been on TG4, so that’s why I think the 20x20 thing (the initiative to increase by 20 per cent by the year 2020 the media coverage, attendances and participation numbers in women’s sport) is really important.”
Delahunty, now 28, a chartered physiotherapist and cookbook author, is passionate about keeping young girls involved in sport during their teenage years.
By the time they reach the age of 14, girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate that boys are dropping out, according to research by the Women's Sports Foundation in the US. By the age of 17, over half of all girls will have given up sports.
In 2013, the Irish Sports Council and the ESRI, reported that girls give up on team sports sooner than they might give up individual sports like swimming or cycling.
“Right up until 16 or 17, is what the research would say that is the major drop off. There are so many changes at the time, going through adolescence, and girls are getting a lot of influences in school."
“The first and foremost thing is for young girls is just to be encouraged to do what they want whether it’s in terms of sport and activity, to try lots of different things. I know that’ll mean parents are ferrying their children right, left and centre, but it’s great for them to try as much as they can.”
Elite gaelic football players often report that it’s not the winning that they’re most proud of during their careers but the friendships and connections they’ve made, Sinéad says. For young girls, these friendships can help them through the inevitable bumps along life's roads.
“I was not naturally gifted at all. Coming from Tipperary, it’s better at hurling. Whereas I couldn’t swing a hurley to save my life, but I could catch a football and I kept going from there.”
“It’s the friendships you make through sport, rather than medals being the main drivers. Sport has given me so many friends.”
“Apart from the health aspect, having an hour of activity a day, there are the other aspects too. Even if something’s not going great in terms of your work life or other friendships, and I’ve had family bereavements, for me there was always a team to be involved in.”
The Gaelic4Teens initiative, an eight-week programme now in its second year, is seeking to address this drop-off and make gaelic football attractive for girls. It's about taking gaelic off the pitch and honing in on team work and ball skills.
“You do the sessions in a hall, to music that the age group would listen to, you make it fun, and you’re taking out the weather unpredictability as well. It’s all involving the ball and skills but it’s taking it off the pitch and reducing the seriousness of it, and it’s not all about scoring shots and goals.”
“It’s a really exciting project, it’s in its second year, and the demand is phenomenal. There are 50 clubs signed up to it now with seven player ambassadors, and coaching professionals as well.”
Sinéad, who will be giving a cookery demonstration at Thrive Festival in Dublin's Convention Centre Dublin on March 30 and 31, says losses make players and teams stronger and they build up resilience and life skills.
“You become quite resilient through not getting picked for teams, or having really hard losses. When I started with Cabinteely, every match we played we’d get annihilated out the door but within four years we ended up winning the county final.”
“We’ve progressed further and reached the All-Ireland club final. We lost but again that drove us on even more, and we reached an All-Ireland final again this year.”
“A lot of people I play with have serious injuries; we have three mothers on the team; there are loads of different things going on but we work as a community. The bonds you build all the time are stronger than if you were winning all the time.”