Features

Girl power in sport on the up
While research shows a continuing high drop-out rate for girls in sport, interest in female games is increasing, writes Mags Gargan

Women’s sport in Ireland has been shattering records in terms of audience viewing this year. The Ladies All-Ireland Football final between Dublin and Mayo had an attendance of over 46,000 in Croke Park and an average of 303,800 people tuned in to watch it on TG4 – the highest figure since the Irish language station started broadcasting ladies football finals in 2001.

Ireland’s hosting of the Women’s Rugby World cup this year was the best attended competition to date. It was the most viewed on television and it was also the most viewed online and most spoken about in history on social media.

This seems to point to a trend of greater interest in and recognition of women’s sports, but we still have a long way to go in terms of participation, with recent research commissioned by Lidl and the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) showing that by the age of 13, one in two girls will have given up sport completely.

Most girls that quit do so in secondary school, with 47% of those saying their main reason for quitting was that their friends weren’t playing.

“We would always have said that we felt that transition from primary school to secondary school and even secondary school to college are big transitional periods for females and there is a big drop-off level there,” says Paula Prunty, National Development Officer with LGFA. “We piloted a programme, Gaelic for Teens, last year where we were trying to look at what we could do to keep more teenage girls in particular involved in our sport and to look at the reasons why they were dropping out.”

Research

The research found that encouragement for girls in sport was low, and parents are more likely to discourage their son from giving up sport than their daughters, which Paula says surprised her. Three in four girls agreed that male sports are taken more seriously than women’s sport.

“The findings that parents were more likely to encourage their sons to stay on in sport did surprise me a bit, maybe because of my own background. I’m the only girl with three boys and my parents would have encouraged all of us to play sport,” she says.

The other finding that shocked Paula was in relation to role models. When presented with a list of female celebrities and asked who they would most like to be the most popular answer was Emma Watson followed by Kendall Jenner and Saoirse Ronan in third place. Girls who played sport rated Irish sports stars Annalise Murphy and Katie Taylor higher than those that don’t, but neither reached the top three.

“The fact that they went for the likes of Saoirse Ronan, and even the Kardashians are in there, shocked me. I thought some of them might have put a Katie Taylor in there,” she says.

Paula thinks there needs to be more recognition of the role sport in particular plays for females. “It is a massive thing for a young girl and has an impact when she is older,” she says, adding girls need to know that there are opportunities for them in sport, “which is what we are concentrating on in the LGFA, to open as many doors as possible”.

Competitive

Claire Rowley played ladies senior football for Leitrim from the age of 13 until she received an injury two years ago. She stills plays with her local club, Fenagh Ladies, which she says is just as competitive.

“I was interested in football from a young age and I was around seven when I started playing with my club,” she says. “In terms of sports for girls in my club Gaelic football was the only option. My family were also quite fond of it and my dad played football as well.”

In terms of life skills, Claire says she has reaped huge benefits from learning social skills, how to work in a team and the importance of determination, drive and a willingness to learn.

The Lidl/LGFA study also revealed that playing team sports helps women build a strong set of life skills, like better mental wellbeing, dealing with pressure and self-confidence. Girls who play sport say they are much happier, more supported and less lonely and depressed, with 68% saying they feel happy daily.

This also carries into later life, as women who play sport rate their body confidence, mental wellbeing and ability to cope with life’s pressures as much higher than those that don’t play sport.

Claire says in her experience it is easy to get girls to start playing sports when they are young, but the drop-out rate becomes significant as girls reach puberty. “I can see that with my little sister, everyone her age was playing and then they started dropping off,” she says.

Claire feels the onus is on the grassroots, the clubs, to retain players rather than leaving it to the larger organisations.

Grassroots

FAI Aviva Soccer Sisters has been one of the driving forces behind the increase in numbers in participation of grassroots soccer in girls over the past number of years.

This is an FAI Programme created under the ‘Introduction to Football’ banner, with the aim of increasing the number of girls playing soccer and utilising facilities countrywide. It is also designed to attract new volunteers into soccer, i.e. parents and guardians who it is then hoped may get involved in the game in some capacity

Played at venues countrywide girls can learn to play soccer in a fun, friendly and safe environment. The children are introduced to basic movement and soccer skills. They will learn the disciplines and fundamental rules of the game and will also be encouraged to forge new friendships and develop interpersonal skills. 

As girls’ soccer continues to grow each year, more and more clubs have developed new teams as a result of being involved in the Aviva Soccer Sisters Programme (soccersisters@fai.ie)

Sport Ireland developed a ‘Women in Sport Initiative’ in 2005 on foot of research by the ESRI showing a significant gender difference in active and social participation in sport in Ireland.

According to the latest results from the Irish Sports Monitor, since 2011 participation in sport among females has increased by 2.5%. There has been an increase in participation by females aged 25-34 years since 2013. Women aged between 16-19 years continue to be the most likely to take part among women, increasing by nearly 8% since 2011.

The gender gap with regards to volunteering has narrowed from 4% in 2013 to 1.7% in 2015. The gender gap with regards to club membership has narrowed from 18.5% in 2013 to 11.7% in 2015. 

Mothers are more likely to say that they participate in more sport since having children, and females aged 35 to 44 are now more likely to volunteer for sport than males of the same age. 

Paula Prunty agrees that the situation is improving, citing that this year was the first time since she began working with the GAA in 2003 that the upper tier in Croke Park was opened for the ladies’ football final.

“I definitely do think there is more work being done looking at women in sport and how can we drive it, but I think nearly every sport has now gotten behind their own and started doing their own promotional work as well, and it has definitely driven on women in sport,” she says. 

“Don’t get me wrong, we have a lot of work to do but at the same time it is definitely much better now than from where it has come.”