Sport is a vital outlet for teens under more pressure than ever to fit a certain image

Weight training can seem more appealing than team activities in the bid to 'look good'
Sport is a vital outlet for teens under more pressure than ever to fit a certain image

Cork ladies footballer Orlagh Farmer speaking at The GAA Games Development Conference. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

WHEN the hearse carrying Eamonn Ryan to his final resting place passed through Cork in January, a host of the Cork players stood by the roadside close to the Farm to give Ryan his final salute.

It was fitting that the hearse did a lap of the Farm, and for the players to gather in that location because the Farm was where Ryan had taught that group about much more than just football.

Watching the hearse pass that day reminded Orlagh Farmer of how Ryan had impacted so many people, how he had changed the perception of women’s sport, and the success women can have. 

“It’s motivation to empower girls and give back,” said Farmer recently to Michael Foley in The Sunday Times, “and continue that positive momentum.” 

Farmer has long been at the forefront of that drive because she did a PhD around the area of training methods that work best for young girls playing Gaelic football, and which sustained their involvement into adulthood.

Focusing on eight- to 12-year-old girls, Farmer’s findings were stark; 50% had dropped out by the age of 12. 

Those numbers were more jarring again considering Ladies Gaelic football has been the fastest growing sport in Ireland for years.

Farmer’s findings displayed all the usual trends for turning kids away from sport; lack of enjoyment; coaches being too strict; too competitive. The research also showed that young girls were more likely to drop out if their friends were packing it in too.

Orlagh Farmer of Cork in action against Jo-Hanna Maher of Westmeath. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Orlagh Farmer of Cork in action against Jo-Hanna Maher of Westmeath. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Education is the best tool in safeguarding against those figures but, like in any sport, education must begin at an early age. The evidence shows that participation levels plummet during adolescence with just 7% of girls aged 14-15 meeting the recommended physical activity levels.

During the week, Sport Ireland released their ‘Adolescent Girls Get Active Research Report’, which was undertaken to discover how to encourage teenage girls, particularly those currently disengaged with sport and exercise, to take part in regular physical activity.

The report sought to understand the motivations and attitudes of teenage girls in order to review existing programmes, revealing eight pillars aimed to engage and connect with teenage girls and to support them to embrace sport.

The eight principles are clear and concise in their aims; no judgement; invoke excitement; clear emotional reward; open eyes to what is there; build on existing habits; give girls a voice and choice; champion what’s in it for them; expand image of what ‘sporty’ looks like.

PRESSURE

That last principle has never been more important in a society increasingly focused on body image. For young girls trying to navigate their place in the world, being blitzed by social and mainstream media and often being subliminally told what to look like, young girls are bound to have insecurities when it comes to sport.

Many see building muscle as unattractive, which subsequently becomes a deterrent to playing or partaking in sport. On the other hand, girls can also see body types as unachievable if involved in team sports. 

The lack of sporting role models for girls, especially when compared to boys, can also leave a vacuum that many girls fill with influencers and models.

“With girls and sport now, a lot of the focus can be geared towards aesthetics and how they want to look,” said Bríd Stack from her base in Sydney this week. “A lot of girls maybe are focusing on weights and conditioning training because they want to look good. It’s can appear more fashionable than team sports.” 

Bríd Stack giving a coaching lesson to orphans during a visit to Sister Horgan who is an Irish missionary, originally from Cork, and third cousin to 11-time All-Ireland football winner Briege Corkery. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Bríd Stack giving a coaching lesson to orphans during a visit to Sister Horgan who is an Irish missionary, originally from Cork, and third cousin to 11-time All-Ireland football winner Briege Corkery. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

In a Teneo Sports Sentiment Index piece of research carried out in December, one of the major trends in 2020 showed that more females were participating in physical activity. Yet it was the sports with low barriers to participation where the numbers increased most; the proportion of females who said they ‘walk for exercise’ increased from 56% in 2019 to 72% in 2020. Running also saw a significant increase, from 9% to 15%, over the same time period.

The number that said they play or participate in sport and activity rose marginally by just 2%. It was harder to play team sports in 2020 but Stack believes it’s never been more important for young girls to be involved in team sports.

“There are so many more distractions now for young girls from when I was young,” says Stack. “The dropout rates for young girls is shocking, especially when being involved in a team is so crucial for building confidence and resilience going forward. It also instils that little bit of belonging. It just gives girls more of a focus.” 

Getting more girls involved in sport though, from a physical exercise, well-being, enjoyment and mental health perspective has to be the priority, whether through individual or team sports. And education, especially coach-education, is that crucial first foundation block.

When Farmer presented a webinar last year, held by Athletics Ireland in conjunction with Rowing Ireland and Sport Ireland, titled ‘Retaining Girls in Sport’, Farmer showed a slide to illustrate how girls are three times more likely than boys to drop out of sport by the age of 13.

Farmer was encouraging the coaches tuned into the workshop to be that positive difference to try and change those numbers.

“What you do with your athletes in that training session, the positive relationships, the praise, the feedback, all the positive things you can bring into your sessions can be the difference between a girl dropping out, or a girl staying on in your club,” said Farmer. “You have that power. You have that influence.” 

The key is to use it wisely.

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