Women in sport in 2020 – Fiona McHale

As we approach international women’s day and also the culmination of the 20×20 campaign I would like to reflect and show an appreciation of the importance of this campaign both from research and my own experience as a woman who is sport and physical activity obsessed. In my own research area of physical activity and health for young people girls are behind boys in terms of levels of physical activity and sports participation. The recent CSPPA (Children’s Sports Participation and Physical Activity) report 2018 showed that only 9% of girls meet the physical activity guidelines compared to boys at 17%. At post-primary level 45% of girls never take part in community sport (Woods, 2018).


Children’s Sports Participation and Physical Activity): Report 2018

At a recent Irish Physical Activity and Research Collaboration (I-PARC) event where various organisations spoke about their current initiatives, the talk from Sharon O’Connor the campaign manager of the 20×20 campaign was the one that sparked my interest. This campaign’s aim is to create a cultural shift in our perception of girls and women in sport. An interesting comment came from the floor that created quite a bit of debate. In my opinion, the man rightly commented that women show far too much gratitude when given the spotlight to remark on overcoming barriers to equality. The example provided was that of the Cork ladies football team finally getting to play a game in the County’s main stadium Pairc Ui Chaoimh a few weeks previous. It was felt that women and those associated with women’s sport are sometimes far too forgiving and grateful in their approach. He encouraged a joint message from athletes when given their opportunities in the media. Athletes should continue to challenge and push the boundaries as many are doing in various aspects of our society and in doing so not be so thankful for something that should be a given. While the GAA are in the spotlight at the moment for the recent revelation of €30 million spent on the men’s intercountry senior teams in 2019, their female counterparts are still striving for basic standards of high performance within their setups.

It would be remiss of me not to commend the environment that UL has created for women in sport. When I reflect on my playing days, in truth the only places I felt an equal were in primary school and my experience in UL as both a coach and player. In my primary school we had an amazing principal PJ Quinn who with the culture he created in the school allowed us express ourselves freely in whatever we were passionate about and loved the fact that the girls were football crazy and embraced that with us. We didn’t know any different about gender disparities in sport until we got a little older.

My first main coaching gig was given to me by UL GAA. I was supported and encouraged and it gave me a platform in coaching and a confidence to pursue more opportunities in this area. The one club model that is used by the GAA club in 3rd level is to me the perfect example of how at club level integration can work. In UL, I have always felt that the supports were there to enable us train and play to our potential. There is nothing fancy about these supports but rather basic standards like quality coaching, S&C support, video analysis and equal access to pitch and gym availability. It is no coincidence that by empowering and enabling our athletes to be at their best they reward you back with their performances on the pitch, track and court. Just recently UL’s camogie team achieved a remarkable 5 in a row Ashbourne titles and that is something that should be celebrated. These standards boosted by the UL Sport scholarship scheme supporting 33 female athletes across 10 sports representing 41% of sports scholarships in the college are proof that UL are serious about the development and success of their female athletes and teams.

Banner celebrating women in sport, displayed on UL Sport Building, March 2020

To support the 20×20 campaign, UL Sport have also hung a banner proudly from the arena wall, and to me it is brilliant. Women and anyone associated with female sports can only but feel a sense of pride walking by it. Only those who know the barriers and struggles of being a female athlete will fully understand why campaigns and initiatives to increase participation in sport and physical activity for girls are so important. The other night while on the pitches at UL there were many young people and their parents kicking, pucking, throwing a rugby ball and just playing in general. Walking across the pitch was a mother and her daughter who could have been no more than 6 years of age. They were both beaming after coming away from an underage football session while talking football between laughter. If you could describe someone having “a pep in their step” it would have looked like this girl coming off the pitch. She was clearly a very happy child after her training session so kudos to her coach whoever they are. My mind wandered to what the future may hold for her. This is why I realised that I am grateful. I am grateful for those people who push boundaries, who make sure that women are on the agenda in a meaningful way and who know that unless you drive change and standards things will always remain the same. That for this 6 year old girl she could grow up on an even playing field to boys and men. Perhaps in the year circa 2033 when she is in college in UL she will be shown google images of this banner that donned the wall of the arena. She will hopefully laugh and be amazed at the fact that there were campaigns like this one and a wall dedicated to female sports personalities. For now however, in this year 2020 this banner is very important.

CSSPA Report 2018: https://www.sportireland.ie/sites/default/files/2019-10/csppa-2018-final-report_1.pdf

Fiona McHale is a postgraduate student in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences. She can be contacted at fiona.mchale@ul.ie or twitter: @fionamchale

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