In a rowing career that saw her participate in the Olympic Games, Claire Lambe learned all about competitiveness.
In her current role with Rowing Ireland, as Women in Sport lead, she’s learned about other aspects of sport: no wonder her hardest thing in Irish sport is “finding the balance between competition and fun.
“For many people who love sport, competition and fun go hand in hand, but I also think we lose a lot of people to sport because it can get too competitive too quickly.
“In my personal experience, sport was extremely competitive towards the end of my career, training for the Olympics, but it wasn’t like that when I started.
“It was all about enjoyment, and I was doing it to have a place to meet my friends or to have the opportunity to get away for a weekend for competitions.
“I wasn’t aware of who was on the Irish team or of what was going on with the Olympics — I had the chance to grow a love for the sport and to enjoy it, and that hooked me in. It was only when I went to college, and my coach prompted me to take it more seriously, that I began to treat it with that seriousness.
“But I think we often see people specialise with a sport when they’re quite young, and often they don’t seem to have the same longevity in their sport.” Balance is the key, she says: “Now that I’m doing a little coaching in my local club, Commercials in Islandbridge, I see there are over 40 teenage girls involved.
You can imagine the range of abilities across 40 girls in all sorts of boats, but they’ve been able to keep them engaged across the last few years, through the lockdown, and lost none of them.
“That comes from not putting too much pressure on them to be competitive for seats in the boat — that will come when they get back into racing.
“Generally they’re more focused on keeping them involved, and I think with that approach the competitiveness comes to the fore naturally and you’ll see those who are more interested pushing themselves a little harder in training.”
Finding the balance isn’t just a challenge for participants — it can be “a real difficulty” for coaches, too.
“Naturally they want to focus on those showing the interest and the talent, but it can be difficult when you have to cater for a mass of athletes.
“It’s something that comes up in my role (with Rowing Ireland) when I meet coaches, they often say something like ‘how do I give talented athletes the attention they deserve without losing those who are there just to chat with their friends?’
“It’s important for the sport to recognise that as well, to promote getting numbers involved and then to cater for those numbers — but at the same time a sport can achieve a lot with a successful international team, which is something we’ve seen with Irish rowing, obviously. That builds great interest, it attracts funding and numbers as well.
“That’s where the balance comes in, because that competitive element is obviously such a big part of sport.” The competitiveness-fun challenge can kick in for experienced athletes, too.
“There’s the transition from competing at a serious competitive level — a level where you’re training five days a week, minimum — and then taking a step back to find an enjoyable level of involvement.
“I can identify with that. Having transitioned out of competitive sport I wanted to stay involved and enjoy myself, but I’m also constantly comparing my times to what I used to do and so on.
“So it can be quite difficult to get back to a stage where you’re just doing it for the fun of it.”
Or to introduce people to that stage to begin with.
Lambe identifies her sport as a live option for people to ‘discover’ later in life.
“For rowing it’s vital to keep people involved in the sport who were competitive rowers — but also to introduce the sport to people who didn’t do it as a kid, to give people the opportunity to take up a sport which is great in so many ways, for people’s mental and physical health.
“It’s also important for girls and women in particular not to rule themselves out of sport because they weren’t good at ball sports or team sports they might have been exposed to at a young age. Sometimes it’s quickly established who’s good with a ball and who isn’t, and if someone isn’t then they might define themselves as ‘I’m just not sporty’ rather than looking for another sport, one they’ll enjoy and maybe make friends at.
People may not consider a whole array of other sports and activities which have little to do with competition and have everything to do with health and fun.