What can be done to give women - who are dropping out of sport in late adolescence - a sporting chance?
Women are more likely to drop out of sport when they hit late adolescence, putting their future health at risk. So just what can be done to give them a sporting chance, asks Kathy Donaghy
When it comes to girls and women playing sports, females are still being left in the starting blocks. While the gap between male and female participation in sport has closed from 15.7pc to 4.5pc in the decade between 2007 and 2017, it's still a game of catch-up.
By the time they reach fourth year in secondary school, girls are on average 42 pc less fit than their male counterparts. The national picture is of girls' physical activity falling off a cliff after they do their Junior Certs.
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Research shows that the sharpest decrease in females' sports participation occurs during the transition from late adolescence to early adulthood. But experts say other junctions in life like exams, going to college, starting work and motherhood can all precipitate a drop in sporting activity for women. So how do we keep playing past the pinch points?
Moving from primary to second level
This is the period when girls' activity levels fall most sharply. According to Sarah O'Connor, former CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport, research shows that the gender gap in sports participation begins at the age of three or four putting us in constant catch up mode for girls. However she says the transition from primary school to second level is a key area to be targeted to ensure girls don't fall away from sport.
O'Connor, who now heads up sports marketing and sponsorship with Wilson Hartnell Communications says it's crucial to look at the range of activities and facilities on offer throughout the early teenage years. Providing a range of diverse sports, offering 'taster programmes' for different sports and ensuring that there are individual shower cubicles are things that could make a big difference, she believes.
One of those game changers could be coaching and it's something that's on the radar of newly appointed Women in Sport lead with Sport Ireland, Nora Stapleton. "We need to look at how we get more female coaches because of the positive effects they have. There's a tendency for more male coaches involved in most sports. What we see is when females are coaching teams, they provide a different role model. There's more we can do to help all coaches as to how they address culture within their teams and what they need to provide in training sessions to make sure girls are enjoying themselves," says Stapleton, a former Irish rugby international.
"We're not saying we go out and change all the coaching courses for coaching girls but we need to accept that there are differences when you coach boys and girls. Girls coming through the teenage years, making that transition from primary to secondary school with all the lack of confidence and self-image issues that come with it - we need to find practical ways to support them and they are more likely to open up to a female coach," she says.
In her new role with Sport Ireland, Nora Stapleton has set herself the goal in her tenure to not only narrow the gap between men and women's sports participation, but to see women become more active than men.
She believes that a key focus on getting and keeping girls and young women active is to target the mums. "There's lots of research to show the influence of mothers on their kids. If we don't encourage the mothers to be active, we've lost all that influence. If we can support the active lifestyles of parents - particularly the mums - the knock-on effect is going to be huge," says Stapleton.
She says exams can present challenges and something that's often heard is 'Mum says I can't play because I have to study'. "If you have active parents who understand the benefits of exercise to exam results, it changes everything," she says.
Becoming a mum
According to Dr Ciara Losty, lecturer in applied sport and exercise psychology at Waterford Institute of Technology, studies show that when women become mothers their activity levels fall and often fail to return to previous levels.
However she says having mothers engaged in activities like parent and toddler swims, buggy fit classes and classes where mums can bring their baby along all provide opportunities for mums to socialise, be active and support their child's development. Dr Losty points out that in an ideal world there would be some crèche or child care facilities at gyms.
Nora Stapleton will also focus on ways to bring the mums with babies and toddlers together to exercise. She points to the "I will if you will" campaign being run by Sport England designed to get more women playing sport as something we could emulate.
The idea of the campaign is to get school-run mums meeting up to play rounders or take part in group runs. It also aims to encourage older women to try new activities like pilates. Stapleton says things like this are already happening at sports clubs when mums drop their kids to the GAA club, with some offering a session aimed at mums. Some clubs have put in a track around the perimeter of the fields so parents can walk or jog while their kids train. All of these ideas need to be developed further to keep women at every age involved in sporting activities, she believes.
Sarah O'Connor of Wilson Hartnell Communications says sport needs to adapt to the way women's lives are changing. "We need to make it easier for women to get involved. I had three kids in five years and it's something I really struggled with - it's been a long road back but the sociability makes the prize worthwhile. I do a bit of Gaelic for mothers at the local GAA pitch. There's a tribe you find and that can be a massively supportive environment for women. I also play a bit of hockey in a veteran's league and do some rebounding or trampoline-style classes. You need to be a happy mum to be a good mum," says O'Connor.
Into the workplace and beyond
As women go through the various stages of their lives, the lessons learned on the sports field from resilience to time management come in very handy, according to former Monaghan County footballer Sharon Courtney.
A lecturer in sports management and coaching at the Blanchardstown campus of the Technological University, Dublin, Courtney juggled a busy student life, then later working life, with a hectic training regime with the Monaghan squad. She credits her involvement in sport with giving her the tools to manage her time and achieve her best both on and off the field.
"If a girl misses a training session it's important you get them back in. Put the arm around them and bring them back in. Don't put pressure on them. Make the sessions fun. If you have pressure from coaches or managers, that's not going to work. Coaches need to up their game," she says.
Former Irish hockey international Lisa Jacob, who is now coaching the Irish under 18 hockey team, believes that creating opportunities for women to get involved in sport at all ages of their lives is something we need to do better. Making things fun is also important for women of all ages, she says.
"When I look at my own sporting journey - if my friends were doing something I'd feel more comfortable about doing it. Peers are huge particularly during the teenage years," says Jacob, who has amassed 139 Irish international hockey caps.
Jacob says it's also important that female coaches tell their their own story. She says this has the effect of letting women now they're not alone in feeling what they're feeling. "I love the real life stories - you can hear the authenticity. That's the story of most people. Only 2 pc of females in the country are at high performance level. The important thing is the rest; the people who struggle with body image. Sharing those stories that people can connect to is really important," she says.
Jacob says that it's not just girls playing team sports that need encouragement. She says if a woman makes the time in her work life to go to an exercise class and the teacher says something like 'it's great to see you' or 'I notice a change in you' that is really affirming. "The way we connect with women is powerful," she says.