Valerie Mulcahy: Playing sport allows girls to grow into well rounded adults

I never enjoyed pulling on boots in January, my least favourite time of year, writes Valerie Mulcahy

Shelbourne players celebrate after winning the Women's National League following their 3-2 win over UCD Waves. Pic:Stephen McCarthy

I always associate it with cardiovascular work. Or to put it less eloquently, running in muck until you nearly got sick.

I don’t miss that aspect of the sport I spent so much time playing, but next month, the boots will be on again, only this time I will be on the sideline, setting out cones and giving instructions.

I am currently helping out with the Munster football interprovincial schools team that will take part in a competition in KInnegad.

At the ‘Teaming Up for Women’s Sport’ event in Dublin this week, a survey of attendees found that 68% felt most work is needed at schools.

The drop-off in participation in team sport among girls from 14 onwards was discussed and Minister of State for Sport Patrick O’Donovan admitted we need to be “more radical” in how we teach physical education. Access is key. We must deliver access for secondary school girls (and boys, of course) to knowledgeable coaching and competition in as many sports as possible. Firstly, it is good for their health. And it also creates the wide skillbase triangle that will deliver excellent sportspeople who can compete at the pinnacle.

The recent Gaelcholáiste Mhuire AG School awards night recognised some of our exceling athletes in the school. Males and females were equally recognised for their success and dedication.

Attending this night propelled me to reflect on my own school experience. I went to a school which didn’t provide us the opportunity to play Gaelic games, but rather hockey, basketball, and table tennis.

Table tennis was way too static for me so I tried my hand at the hockey, though basketball was my preferred choice as I already played club basketball with Blarney.

However, one sport wasn’t going to satisfy my hunger for competition, so I kept up the hockey until fourth year when I substituted it for club soccer. But not having a Gaelic football team deprived me of the opportunity to play with the Munster Schools team.

The importance of access for female teenagers is crucial to their development as players.

The more sports one plays, the more rounded a player one tends to be.

Skills like hand-eye coordination and on-the-toes reaction times transcend all sports. Spatial awareness, team play, movement, support play, closing down space, opening up when in possession, getting free; these transcend all invasion games. They are the criteria considered when you evaluate if a player has a “good football brain”.

If you can get free on the confinements of a basketball court, you can do it anywhere. Certainly on an expansive GAA pitch.

Many of the great footballers, both male and female, also played basketball. Maybe more importantly, they were coached in the tactics of the game.

The likes of Juliet Murphy, Nollaig Cleary and I gained most of our understanding from Martin Ahern, a school coach. Tricks taught and practised and executed on the basketball court.

Vision. Scanning for space, for the opposition’s set-up. Skills easily transferred to the football pitch. I added the back door move, the dummy and crossover dribble to my repertoire long before any football skill.

That is why I am a strong advocate of girls and boys playing an array of sports and not choosing one until their late teens.

I know playing more sports may broaden the scope for injury but using different muscles strengthens the body. And following different movement patterns develop muscles.

Playing a range of sports served me well and helped me develop into the footballer I was. At least basketball gave me access to coaching when I didn’t have access in football.

Such was the lack of correct coaching in ladies football, I vividly remember, aged 12, being taught to kick a penalty with the outside of my foot. I knew myself that wasn’t how it was done. I know only one player who even tried to execute that technique, Ronaldinho, and I’m not even sure he made a habit of taking penalties that way.

Ladies football has since become much more attractive to coach. Females have gained respect. It isn’t rare now to have highly regarded coaches involved with the female club in the locality. Often it’s down to the coach having a daughter involved.

However, it has opened up a new world of coaching and opportunity for both coaches and the girls.

Another reason not to specialise too early: The more memories in your bank to draw from the more options you give yourself. In the 2013 All-Ireland final against Monaghan, I drew from that memory bank and spun my defender to create an open goal in front of me into which I finished with my right foot. It was a combination of two moves I had used before and with success — one from basketball, the other from football. The football move was a skill I’d often practised, using my non-preferred foot.

Watching the girls I’m coaching now, it’s easy to tell which students had other sports available to them in school to build up their repertoire of skills which they can transfer to the football pitch.

School provides the ideal opportunity to offer access to coaching due to the availability of students at lunch or after hours. That contact time is invaluable to developing our athletes.

The importance of the teachers who voluntarily take a school team cannot be underestimated.

We must invest in our coaches and our teachers.

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