Memories of attending games 60 to 70 years ago, allied to the recent perusal of old photographs of crowds at games in Croke Park, Dalymount Park, The Mardyke etc, leaves one in no doubt that any involvement in sport up to quite recently was almost the sole preserve of the male of the species.
Thankfully, this situation has changed utterly but, because of the relatively recent arrival of females on the sporting scene, much remains to be done to ensure a ‘level playing field’ for girls and women. Proper structures need to be put in place, so that whatever facilities are available locally or nationally can be accessed and used by females. After all, women in the community have facilitated and supported much of the voluntary work and fundraising involved in providing such sporting infrastructure down through the years.
Empathetic and sympathetic coaching that places participants at the centre of the process is of the essence for young girls, so that their desire to enjoy themselves and the camaraderie of their peers through the medium of sport is catered for. Coaches also need to be educated in the skills and nuances of the sport. In addition to having fun with their peers, young participants should experience a perception of competence in their sport, reducing the chance of them dropping out.
A wide range of sporting opportunities, both individual and team-based, is vital so that a young girl can decide to immerse herself in the activity that most appeals to her.
Despite the significant progress made in recent years, there is still a great need for women to support their sporting sisters by their actual presence at events. As well as the affirmation accorded to the participants, these female supporters will be a source of encouragement to their menfolk to attend. Many men are incredibly generous in their admiration of the skill, fitness, and dedication of female athletes. For various reasons, however, they may not feel entirely comfortable attending events where they may have no connection with the players or no affiliation with the teams or clubs involved.
The media has a crucial part to play in promoting sporting role models for young, and not-so-young girls and women. They need to contribute to combatting the insidious effects of the ‘celebrity culture’ that seems to ordain that girls/women must (a) have perfect bodies (b) look stunning at all times (c) always dress in the latest fashions. What an intolerable burden placed on impressionable young people, in particular. We males are so blessed not to be challenged by such unattainable expectations.
The influence of role models is captured beautifully in an anecdote about the renowned former Tipperary hurler, Jimmy Doyle. As an eight-year-old, he was bewitched by Christy Ring’s artistry in Semple Stadium and, after the game, he somehow inveigled his way into the Cork team hotel to watch his hero eating. Thenceforth, the starstruck youngster spent hours each afternoon honing his hurling skills, but also insisted on further emulating his hero by mashing up his potatoes and vegetables and finishing all his dinner like Christy did.
To combat the well-documented dropout rate in women’s sport, it is crucial that empathetic, sympathetic, player-centred coaching is at the core of all activities. Coaches who are cognisant of the ‘real’ needs of their charges will — though it may initially be difficult — gradually learn to subjugate their egos to facilitate the enjoyment and development of their athletes.
Young females need the enthusiastic and undiluted support of parents, siblings, teachers, community and even legislators to see exercise and sport in general as both a right and an integral component of one’s lifestyle.
We’re living in a country whose education system pays mere lip service to the aspiration of “mens sana in corpore sano” and that is near the bottom of the European league tables in the amount of time allocated to PE in both primary and secondary schools.
The promotion and encouragement of women’s sport should be based on the premise that a physically active person (young or old) will have an above average chance of enjoying the spin-off benefits of well-being. The correlation between physical and mental health is well established and, probably, indisputable.
The author has made a significant contribution to Gaelic games in UCC and Cork. He is a current selector with the Cork senior men’s squad. He will be awarded the Alumni Award for Voluntary Service to UCC at the UCC Alumni Achievement Awards tomorrow. It honours alumni who have achieved outstanding success in their chosen fields.