Timing is everything and the 20×20 “if she can’t see it, she can’t be it” (20×20) campaign couldn’t have dreamed of a greater spotlight than the global sports performances of Irish women in the first weekend of November 2019. Along with the heroics of Katie Taylor winning the World Super Lightweight Boxing title on Saturday night, the Irish Women’s hockey team qualified in spectacular, and nerve-jangling, style for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. That the hockey team qualified in front of consecutive record attendances for any women’s international sporting event in Ireland over the two-leg qualifier speaks volumes to the increase in popularity of the sport.
The 20×20 campaign, launched in late 2018, is about creating a cultural shift in the perception of women in sport and the aims are to show an increase, by 20% by the end of 2020, in the following key areas:
- Media coverage
- Female participation – as a player, coach, referee or administrator
- Attendance at women’s games and events
There is nothing Irish people enjoy more than a good-news story. How appropriate it is that the World silver medallists from the 2018 Hockey World Cup should continue to be the providers of those stories, building on their performances from last year. The Olympic qualifier was given a prime-time TV slot on both Saturday and Sunday and showed a peak live audience of over 379,000 viewers. Both mainstream print and social media also have impressions and engagements in the hundreds of thousands. While events such as this propel sport into the short-term limelight, media outlets have pledged their support in promoting sustained coverage. The national broadcaster, RTE, has a dedicated podcast bringing insights and analysis on major women’s sporting events. The Federation of Irish Sports (FIS) has just agreed a new partnership with Pundit Arena to offer live-streaming and digital content support services to the 107 National Governing Bodies (NGBs) represented by the FIS. Limerick’s local newspaper also ran a recent feature on the trailblazing exploits of dual international Jackie McCarthy O’Brien.
The words “trailblazers” and “pioneers” have appeared many times in the last few days as the hockey team became the first Irish team to qualify for an Olympics. Sometimes these words can be a hindrance as they create an illusion of inexperience and naiveté, which may overlook the years of hard work that has been invested to get to this point. In almost every interview with an Irish player, there was acknowledgement to previous squads, teammates and coaches going back decades to recognise the influence they have had on the current incumbents.
What happens next is critical and it may be worthwhile looking across the water for direction. In the weeks leading up to the recent Rugby World Cup final in Japan, the English Rugby Football Union (RFU) sent a circular to all clubs in the country entitled “What if England Win..” in an effort to prepare clubs for the expected increase in numbers that usually follows success in major sporting events. The information aimed to ensure that clubs addressed practical areas such as making sure there was a club member present to welcome new players and their parents, suggestions to have introductory subscription and kit offers, and most importantly, making sure there were enough coaches to cater for the bounce in numbers.
Is Ireland ready for this? Going back to the aims of the 20×20 campaign, as the above figures show it would be fair to say that at least two of the three stated aims have been or are close to being achieved. The third aim, participation, is more difficult. Undoubtedly, there will be more numbers but achieving the aim can really only be measured in the retention of the increased numbers. Having enough coaches in place will play a crucial role in this aspect in the future.
In this context, overcoming barriers to getting into coaching is important. The common narratives are women aren’t as interested in coaching as men, women aren’t confident enough and women are too relational (LaVoi, 2016). At the PESS department in UL, we recently carried out a qualitative study on female rugby union coaches’ experiences in the sport. I was lucky to have a great intern on the project, Ryan Meaney (currently working as a Teaching Assistant with the department) and our initial findings concurred with the existing literature. However, the coaches provided very useful suggestions that will not only dispel the narratives but also help to recruit more female coaches into sport. Among the suggestions were to have more family-oriented club facilities, mentoring programmes and increased use of technology for administrative and organisational purposes. The implementation of these strategies will certainly help to retain coaches, enhance the likelihood of player retention and increase participation.
Women’s sport in Ireland is on the crest of a wave and it is vital that clubs ready themselves. One final note on the existing narratives, in particular the perception that “women are too relational” as a barrier in sport. The general narrative from the soon-to-be hockey Olympians was that it was because of the familial environment in which they operated that they have achieved so much. This is a value to be nurtured in all levels of sport.
Feature Image: Copyright Luke Duffy/Hockey Ireland
Dr. Ian Sherwin is a Lecturer in Coaching at the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences and is the Course Director for academic programmes relating to the National Council for Education and Fitness at the University of Limerick. Ian can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on twitter @ian_sherwin or on researchgate.