We are lucky at home to have three super young boys as neighbours.
They are interested in everything, from gardening to house renovations, from cooking to sports. They are full of questions and mad to get involved.
The little fella (aged eight) in particular is a sports nut and intrigued by greatness.
One of his first questions to anyone who picks up a hurl (my mother included) is ‘did you play county?’ and he is still talking about meeting Mayo star Fiona McHale who called for tea six months ago.
He practices sidelines relentlessly because that’s an indicator of class (Joe Canning inspired) and having lately watched some of my dad’s matches judged to his face he didn’t ‘get stuck in enough.’
So, the little guy has given me a few things to consider:
Kids are ready for heroes in their sport.
Kids don’t judge heroes based on gender.
Kids do judge heroes on their credibility to be a hero.
One of the great wonders of being a kid is having heroes. The absolute joy of Laois hurlers last weekend was expressed in their acknowledgment of the many young kids in Laois jerseys on the field after the game. I’m confident sales of Laois jerseys are at an all-time high while it is a given that more kids in the county are playing hurling until the light fades every night this week.
The people of Laois were ready for heroes and their hurlers have just stepped up and are a perfect fit to develop a love for the game amongst the next generation.
This all makes sense and in turn, research maintains that the most effective heroes or role models are those that are accessible, relevant, and local. Kids will choose role models who they feel they can emulate, who excel in areas they are interested in, and who they feel they are similar to.
The notion of a role model is that young kids will try to replicate the behaviours of their heroes, those that represent what is possible and who are inspirational.
In turn, role models can work by enhancing motivation in existing participants or inspiring engagement amongst new groups, all of which applies to work, education, and sporting contexts.
What is most commonly experienced in sport is a trickle-down effect where kids will take up a sport, sometimes swapping from another activity, for a short time only (think of the tennis craze around Wimbledon or the soccer boom after the World Cup).
But this requires a lot more factors for the participation to become more significant.
There is slightly more convincing evidence from Germany and Belgium that role models can improve the amount of engagement in already active participants.
Typically though, without any plan, action and investment, any impact of such role models is random and shortlived.
It is good to see England are now already focusing on how to capitalise on the success of the Lionesses post the World Cup.
Equally, in the US, there is a campaign set to encourage the massive fan-base to ‘keep watching’ and support the women’s game as well as the national team.
There doesn’t appear to be an equivalent plan for Ireland, which is a missed opportunity at this stage especially given thefantastic coverage of the Women’s World Cup by RTÉ and TG4.
So, at best, the link between role models and participation is tenuous. Much of the research, however, is carried out in the context of international sport, but what of Gaelic Games and role models?
For me, Gaelic Games can work well here, with the county star ticking a lot of the role model boxes. They are the kid from the local school or club who made it big, their success is replicable if similar time and effort is invested and they are succeeding in the biggest and most popular sports in the land.
The club structure and access to the county player presents a really exciting context around which to promote the local hero, and generally, if visible and pitched the right way, the process may work regardless of gender.
The influence of a role model in Gaelic Games is a topic we are studying in Athlone IT, opting for a female-specific approach given young girls, in particular, are a priority in terms of sports promotion.
While all of this works best for kids, fear not, adults can have heroes too.
The modelling of sporting behaviour is less likely when you’re a bit older, but it is not uncommon for young and old to be inspired by the offfield actions of sporting heroes.
To finish, the book the The Gendered Brain is a good read with its overall tenet being there is limited evidence of a biologically determined male and female brain, rather that the world each of us exist in determines our values, abilities, temperaments, and ambitions.
From birth, brains are social and plastic and will respond to the environment they exist in, including the social rules and stereotypes all around them.
It is, as a result, incredibly important to challenge stereotypes.
The little fella over the road is a boy’s boy but it was easy to generate wonder about a player who is easily among the best in the game and has the accolades to prove it.
Even better that SHE played a bit of ball with him.
Aoife Lane is the former Chair of the Women’s Gaelic Players Association.