‘The key is positive role models’ to ease female teenage drop-out rate from sport

Ireland's Lindsay Peat goes over to score a try during the RBS Women's Six Nations Rugby Championship against Wales in Cardiff.

There’s been progress in arresting the female teenage drop-out rate from sport, but there’s a road to travel yet. Jacqui Corcoran got the views of some of those close to the conundrum

Christmas morning, 2003. Seven-year-old Valerie O’Brien wakes with the excitement particular to children of that vintage. As herself and her brother open their presents, they see her brother has a new Waterford jersey, a book and a new hurley. Santa has brought Valerie a lovely Barbie makeup set. In another parcel there it is though — a new jersey and hurley, just like her brother’s.

“From day one that was the approach at ours,” says Valerie. “I got the girly presents alright, but I also got sportsgear and the likes. It was about being open about all options. I think one of the reasons girls drop sports in their teens is that they think they have to choose between sport and glamour. Why not both?”

As a member of Waterford’s senior camogie team, Valerie O’Brien got to this position after making the transition from teen to senior squads. Whilst many of her peers were dropping away from sport, Valerie was one of the girls who was bucking the stats. If the majority of teenage girls drop their childhood sports over the years around puberty, Valerie was in the minority. Partial credit is due to Santa. Valerie says that growing up in a house where, as a girl, she could play with dolls or swing a hurley and be respected for both, gave her the confidence to pursue her sport seriously.

Another big factor that Valerie attributes her success to, was the part played by positive female role models. She remembers the admiration she had for the members of the legendary Wildcats basketball team she grew up following. But it’s her mother who gets the credit as Valerie’s first sporting role model.

“My mother is from Mullinavat in Kilkenny, so she’s hurling mad! She had us out the back playing hurling mornin, noon, and night from an early age. She’d be running about with the hurley in her hand while my father did the admin for the local club we were involved with. I think female role models are hugely important for girls getting into competetive sport. Sadly, there aren’t enough of them being given real profile.”

Valerie puts another reason for the high teen dropout levels in female teen sport down to numbers: “There just aren’t enough teams for girls to play on. Unless you’re on the ‘A’ team there’s nowhere else to go. I had eight close friends growing up. We met through sport and we played together, but there’s only one still playing competitively. I was lucky. I had a bit of spark and I made the team. But there’s very little for the mid-range players.”

Waterford camogie ace Valerie O’Brien, who credits her hurling-obsessed mother as her first sporting role model.
Waterford camogie ace Valerie O’Brien, who credits her hurling-obsessed mother as her first sporting role model.

Freya Darcy, 12, would agree with a lot of that. She too is a young player showing that spark. As a member of the Waterford U12 football team, however, she was disappointed with aspects of her first season of training. While she was thrilled to get a place on the team, she says there wasn’t even enough coaching time for her to get to know the names of her team-mates. She summed up her views as she said: “We weren’t treated like we were on the Waterford team.”

Freya’s mother Tammy Darcy would agree about the lack of support and infrastructure for girls wanting to move up the competitive ranks. As founder director of the Shona Project, an initiative aimed at empowering girls, Tammy sees the enormous physical and mental benefits of sport. However, as mother to two talented footballers, she has first-hand experience of the disparity between girls’ and boys’ teams at a county level.

“Freya is football crazy, she takes it very seriously, but my son Sean also plays at county level and his experience has been very different to hers. I hate to be negative, I know girls’ football is on the increase and is improving, and that’s brilliant, but while Sean’s coaching is really professional and taken very seriously, Freya had just three training sessions this season.”

Besides the issues around infrastructure and support, Tammy’s work with the Shona Project has also exposed her to other difficulties and reasons around the high sports drop-out rate in teenage girls.

“Research points to factors like the way girls are raised. It can even be something as simple as how a girl speaks. Studies have shown that girls are actually shushed four times more than boys, even in the classroom. When a girl is told to be quiet and to prioritise looking and behaving elegantly, it can be disempowering.

“Negative stereotyping around girls and fitness is another problem. Girls are told that a muscular body is unattractive, whereas with the lads it’s seen as a sign of strength, fitness, determination, and staying power.

“Another issue is the lack of coverage in the media. It is improving, but look, for example, at the coverage given over to Brian O’Driscoll in recent years and compare it to say the coverage given to Lindsay Peat. Brian O’Driscoll is a household name and rightly so. But his sporting achievements are in one sport. Compare that to Peat, who is a force of nature. She is at the top of her game in rugby, and has also reached top levels in football, basketball and soccer, yet if I asked people on the street who Lindsay Peat was, I know what answer I’d get from most.”

As a world-level competitor in a sport where men and women compete on a completely equal footing, Irish eventer Ciara Power says girls involvement in equestrian sports has been changing in recent years. Ciara runs Stonehave Equestrian Centre in Waterford, with her family. Looking at the girls coming to lessons at the centre, Ciara says negative or undermining influences can make girls think they can’t do things for themselves.

Irish eventer Ciara Power, who says girls involvement in equestrian sports has been changing in recent years
Irish eventer Ciara Power, who says girls involvement in equestrian sports has been changing in recent years

“Eventing is tough, and you have to be tough to compete. Maybe boys are brought up to be tougher, but it seems girls are not so hardy these days. If girls are handed everything they don’t want to do the hard work. I have to work and have always had to work really hard for everything. Girls can be tough, but many are molly-coddled nowadays.”

At the highest levels of sport, another issue is the challenge of acquiring sponsorship. Ciara has represented Ireland twice at the world class Mondial de Lyon event, in France. And while it was a huge honour to compete for her country, she says it’s hard to get sponsors.

“I put a lot of work into producing horses. I love finding rough diamonds and turning them into something special. I’ve managed to sell some very special horses that are now competing at a serious level. The money from that keeps the rest of it going.”

“At its heart,” says Tammy Darcy, “this issue is about fairness. If high-level female competitors aren’t getting the sponsorship and support, they’re not able to rise through the ranks and get the profile and coverage they deserve.”

This situation, believes Darcy, leaves a major shortage of female role models for girls to look up to and aspire to. There are certainly improvements in facilities and support, and strides being made in a more pro-active engagement with social media and control of self-promotion in Camogie and Ladies football. The IRFU and FAI are taking similar action, but there is still disparity between the genders on the various playing fields.

“There’s a long way to go,” says Tammy. It needs to start in the home and work its way right up the sporting ladders to the highest levels of sporting achievement.”


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