Monday 18 March 2019

Kathy Donaghy: 'Girls need more visible sport role models to be inspired'

Sports need to harness the power of their stars to light the way for others. Stock photo: Sportsfile
Sports need to harness the power of their stars to light the way for others. Stock photo: Sportsfile

Kathy Donaghy

Irish women have never achieved more in sport than in recent years, but press someone to name some of the young women excelling in their fields and many would still be hard pressed to do so.

Having a visible role model is one of the key things sports organisations and experts say is important in ensuring that girls stick with their sport into early adulthood and beyond.

Seeing young women achieving at the top, demonstrating no arena is too big, no dreams are too far-fetched is a key motivator to youngsters.

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And yet unless you're actively involved in a specific sport, the names of the young women at the top of their game in Irish sport today don't exactly trip off the tongue. Last month, it was announced that Lidl Ireland will sponsor the Ladies' Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) for the fourth year in a row. As part of the deal, the retailer will invest €250,000 in a nationwide schools campaign where 159 post-primary schools across the country will receive jerseys and equipment for their teams.

Selected schools will then go on to take part in a new #SeriousSupport programme delivered by LGFA county level players, which aims to show girls the benefits of playing sport both on and off the pitch.

This means that girls at a number of schools around the country will get to meet their sporting heroines. The benefit of this could be life changing for many young sports stars of the future.

When I interviewed Mayo's star forward Sarah Rowe in 2017, she talked about the friendships that shaped her through her involvement in the GAA.

At grassroots level this is something the GAA is very good at - tapping into the power of the positive role model and they roll it out all over the country. At our local GAA club in Donegal, Naomh Padraig, the underage awards held recently acknowledged the youngsters who had worked hard all through the year.

Other sports could do likewise in harnessing the power of their stars to light the way for others. Many women competitors talk about the difficulty they have in finding the much-needed sponsorship that can propel them into the big league. Without their visibility the likelihood of other women following in their footsteps is lessened.

And it isn't just about the high-end athletes. Ensuring that girls and young women stay in sport for the enjoyment and the health benefits is what it's really all about. There's hard evidence to show that Irish kids in general are not active enough.

When it comes to fitness levels, research shows that girls are faring worse than boys and by the time they reach their fourth year in secondary school, girls are on average 42pc less fit than their male counterparts.

In short, Irish girls' physical activity levels falls off a cliff after they do their Junior Cert. Globally, the statistics are similar with a trend showing girls turning their backs on sport. In an age of social media, when many young women fall into the trap of seeking approval through the number of likes on Instagram or Facebook, sport can provide a welcome refuge away from the pressures of the online world.

That's something that comes up time and time again when you talk to young women involved in sport. Having a community of like-minded people who have your back and who put the focus on the team or the end result, rather than the individual, is something they welcome.

Dublin footballer Sinéad Goldrick told me that when you're 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 told me in an interview for this newspaper.

Maybe it's also the time for more businesses to step up and promote women's sports.

Irish Independent

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