How to get girls interested in sport – and keep them interested

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD NOVEMBER 4

Katie Taylor just created history – as in, another bit to add to all the bits of history she’s already created – by becoming only the third Irish boxer, and first woman, to win world titles at two different weight levels.

Meanwhile the Irish women’s hockey team, fresh from their World Cup heroics last summer, have qualified for next year’s Tokyo Olympics after a nail-biting penalty shoot-out victory over Canada. Merely qualifying is a considerable achievement in itself: hockey is played seriously in over 80 countries around the world, and only 12 teams make it through to the 2020 Games. And who knows how far they can go now?

So, it’s been a very good sporting weekend for our women and girls. And speaking of 2020: the 20×20 campaign is also doing its bit these times, in encouraging journalists, teachers, family and community members to “to shift Ireland’s cultural perception of women’s sport” with a 20% rise in media coverage, female participation and attendance at women’s games and events by next year.

The all-conquering Dublin football team showed their support a few months ago, joining the county’s camogie and women’s football teams with a 20×20 “jersey takeover” during their Super 8s game against Cork.

All very admirable, and sure to help in raising the numbers of girls taking up sport – and more importantly, considering the huge drop-off rates during adolescence and young adulthood, keeping at it.

Successful female athletes, confident and articulate role models, more women’s events on telly, a greater media profile: it’s a truism that these things are useful in what we might call a deeper “normalisation” of girls doing sport. And that goes from a healthy lifelong involvement at the club or local level, right up to the highest reaches of sporting glory: making a career from it, or having grand ambitions for Taylor-esque achievements which capture the attention of the whole nation.

However, it’s also true, I believe, that the “big” stuff like this is only part of the solution. The key, as is often the case, lies more in the microscopic than macroscopic.

I was once talking to a pal – a highly intelligent nerd who never made a contention until he was absolutely sure he had all his facts in order – about how Dublin’s 1995 All-Ireland win was great for football in the capital. Sam Maguire, John O’Leary and Charlie Redmond, the Hill alive alive-oh, boom boom let me hear you say Jayo: the capital was buzzing on it and this had knock-on effects on participation in local GAA clubs.

Au contraire, my likeably nebbish friend retorted: it was shown by statistics (yes, he had them to hand) that numbers didn’t in fact go up in the wake of the All-Ireland win. That only happened once the county board, using Sam as an added driver, rolled out a legion of coaches for schools and clubs across Dublin.

As in war, so in sport: it’s mostly about boots on the ground. So I would argue that the best thing any sports fan can do for their girls, or womankind in general, is to get involved themselves, in practical ways. (It should be noted that this is also a policy cornerstone of the 20×20 campaign.)

Bring them to training. Drive them to matches. Practise with them at home. Yeah, it’s boring, waiting for little girls to hit that sliothar and missing it over and over again – suck it up. That’s your job, as their parent, to be patient and encouraging.

And don’t limit these efforts to just your own kids: become a member of your local club, volunteer to help with coaching, drive others’ girls to matches, line the pitches, paint the dressing-rooms, fundraise for new gear – whatever is needed.

That’s the thing about all this: it takes work. It takes time and effort. Our local under-8 camogie team has six or seven adults there at coaching, every single session. Then there’s the under-6s, the under-10s, the 12s and 14s. Each of those groups requires several adults too.

So get out there and be one those people. It’s easy to rant on Twitter or in a newspaper article about how society is failing girls in sport, or insisting that the government or the media do this and that. It’s easy to blare on about institutionalised sexism or the patriarchy. It’s easy to loudly demand that RTE or Sky Sports show more women’s sport.

It’s easy because talk is easy – and it’s cheap. Doing is the hard part. So what are you doing about all of this?

Clubs need volunteers. They need your time and work. Therefore, I would humbly suggest that people pee or get off the pot: if you want to get girls into sport, power down the laptop and give up two hours a week to your local club.

The 20×20 slogan runs, “She can’t be it if she can’t see it.” True. But I’d also like to add another familiar catchphrase of our times: “Be the change you want to see.”

 


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