Byrne twins the perfect role-models for female coaches
By John Harrington
One of the most arresting statistics that emerged from a survey published by the GAA, LGFA, and Camogie Association in January was that just 21 per cent of the 10,400 coaches who took part were female.
Since that report was published the three Gaelic games organisations have commissioned a study to better understand the experiences of female coaches with a view to finding out how to encourage more to become involved.
Those best qualified to answer that question are the female coaches already active in Gaelic games, and there are few as highly respected as twin sisters Louise and Emma Byrne from Corduff in Monaghan.
Louise is the Education and Gaelic Games Development Officer in DCU, while Emma is Games Promotion Officer for Dublin club St. Vincent’s.
The dynamic duo were also performance analysts with Brian Cody’s Kilkenny hurlers from 2014 to 2020 and now carry out the same role with the Monaghan senior footballers. Together they're ‘Byrne Performance’, and provide fitness testing, performance analysis, video analysis, S&C, coaching, GPS analysis, and sports consultancy for teams and individuals.
Their own coaching pathway offers one obvious hint for what would encourage more females to become coaches – they benefited from having a very positive female role-model in Corduff coach Sandra McEneaney who managed many teams in the club to underage titles.
And when Louise was sidelined as a teenager by a shoulder injury, it was McEneaney who encouraged her to enrol in a foundation level coaching course which was the first important step in her coaching journey.
With that qualification under her belt, Louise began coaching the U-6, U-8, and U-10 teams in Corduff and quickly enlisted Emma to help her.
“We supported each other and it was us taking the initiative really to be honest and seeing that there was a need to do it,” says Louise.
“It's rewarding now that some of the girls we were coaching then are playing alongside us now on the senior team. That's success for us.
“There mightn't be too many trophies won across the years but it's great to feel like you made a difference to people who are playing senior now.
“There was only a four or five year age difference at the time we were coaching them and I think it developed us as coaches as well as them as players.”
They enjoyed the coaching experience so much that they both decided to enrol in a Sports Management and Coaching degree in Carlow IT after their Leaving Cert.
Out of the 90 students who enrolled, they were among just six females. When they followed up that degree with a Masters in Strength and Conditioning the ratio was a little bit better, as they were among four females in a class of 16.
“We were always outnumbered but it never felt like a barrier,” says Emma. “We just wanted to keep expanding our knowledge.
“While we were in Carlow we were given the opportunity to coach the men’s intermediate team and won an All-Ireland title which was a huge opportunity for us and a lesson in why female coaches shouldn’t be afraid to step outside their comfort zone.”
While in College they also studied a module in sports performance analysis and quickly showed such a natural aptitude for it that they caught the eye of Carlow IT’s GAA programme director, Mick Dempsey, who at the time was also Kilkenny hurling team trainer.
He asked them to do analysis for Brian Cody’s team in 2014, and they’ve been there ever since.
As in all walks of life some people can’t immediately look past gender to recognise obvious talent in the way Dempsey did, and along their coaching journey both sisters have unfortunately had to overcome some prejudices.
“You’ll sometimes get comments but you don't let them get to you at all,” says Louise. “There's misconceptions there and it can be nice to prove them wrong. You could be at a coaching course and you're trying to get a buy-in at the start and they could be looking at you like, 'Jesus, what am I going to learn here?'
“They mightn't say it out loud, but that's the vibe you would be getting from them. So it's nice then when they're nearly shocked by what they get from it.
“That can be situations too with the performance analysis side of things as well. The hardest thing sometimes is getting past stewards at matches, small things like that. Almost an attitude of, 'Why would you be involved with a senior team?'”
“It’s important to call out behaviour that maybe turns people away from coaching. Someone might have a bad experience that could be dealt with in a better way.”
Are there any barriers that currently prevent more females from becoming actively involved in their clubs as coaches? None that can’t be dismantled easily as far as Emma Byrne is concerned.
She thinks the biggest issue sometimes is a lack of confidence among women who feel because they didn’t play the game themselves to a high level they couldn’t possibly coach the next generation.
“It's important to build up the confidence of your mentors, male and female, so they feel well-supported and that they can really enhance the coaching environment,” she says.
“I think it can be a confidence issue sometimes. Maybe females think, 'oh, I haven't played the game or competed at a high level', but just because you haven't played the game, be you male or female, doesn't mean you can't be a good coach.
“A lot of it is about having empathy and you might even be able to relate a little bit more to a child learning a new skill than someone who played for the club's senior hurling team.
“There's a wide range of skills that coaching requires. It's not just about the skills of the game, it's how you can communicate with players, how you can build a player's confidence, and build that support structure around them.
“I think it's important that clubs support both females and males in terms of getting them involved in coaching roles.
“Maybe there's a misconception out there that females can only get involved with the nursery groups because as you go along the ranks there aren't as many females taking the U-13s, the U-14s, and U-15s, the higher levels.
“I recently did an Award 1 in the club and nearly 50 per cent of those taking part were male and 50 per cent were female so I think it's changing slowly, but we need to support the coaches in their roles and provide upskilling opportunities and workshops and create that community of practice with coaches from other teams helping each other and mentoring each other.
“It would be good if there was support from male mentors saying we want more female mentors involved in our teams, both boys and girls, because that provides the best environment for children to get involved in a really fun and safe environment that will hopefully raise standards across the board and keep kids involved in sport for life.”
Many clubs already make a great effort to recruit female coaches and support them in their roles. The Byrne sisters believe that those who do should shout about it from the roof-tops because it can lead to a positive domino effect.
“They should showcase the achievement on social media,” says Louise. “If you have testimonials from female coaches it might inspire someone else who is unsure about getting involved.
“If they can see that a path has been created for those ahead of them then I think it might help encourage more people to get involved.
“Maybe there hasn't been enough role-models in the past, but I think that's slowly changing in all aspects of the GAA across the board.
“I think it's important for both boys and girls to see female coaches. I think there's a culture change happening because it's being showcased now a lot more than it once was.
“There are so many role-models now being involved a higher level now too like Mags Darcy and Cliodhna O'Connor even in other sports.
“The exposure they get lets other people see there are females involved in sports coaching in powerful positions in terms of organising sport and hopefully that will inspire the next generation if they can see that ahead of them are females in prominent positions who are making a difference.”
The Byrne sisters are very much role-models themselves and both are making a big effort to encourage more and more females to explore the coaching pathway.
In St. Vincent’s, Emma adopts a two-pronged approach. Mothers of children in the nursery are encouraged to be just as active on the coaching front as fathers are, and she also mentors TY students from the local school, most of them female, who also help with the Saturday morning nursery.
Not only are these teenagers gaining a lot of confidence from developing as coaches, it’s also great for the younger boys and girls themselves to see other boys and girls coaching them.
A big part of Louise’s role as DCU’s Education and Gaelic Games Development Officer is to support the many coaches who are involved with the University’s 33 Gaelic games teams.
One really positive initiative saw seven female Physical Education and Biology students take charge of the University’s Lagan Cup Ladies Football team as part of an enhanced student learning experience.
“They've gained so much confidence from coaching their peers,” says Louise. “In terms of evening just dealing with players. I went to a lot of their matches and to see how they interacted with players on the pitch, and it was very specific.
“They were taking girls aside one to one and giving them a small bit of feedback and even the way they phrased that was very interesting and a little bit in contrast to maybe what the male coach would be saying.
“I think they have that different aspect in terms of their analytical skills in terms of watching a game and seeing how it's going. They tended to have their roles really well delegated in terms of someone dealing with the goalkeeper, someone dealing with the full-back line.
“There's seven of them there so the numbers helped as well in terms of giving individual feedback. Everything was organised and arranged so well and they learned lots of new skills from the experience.
“Then the players themselves, I think they gained hugely from it too. And you'd hope that having seen female role models not much older than them involved in coaching they might decide to follow that path themselves. That's the sort of circle you want to see go on and on hopefully.”
The participation of female players in Gaelic games has exploded in recent years and you’d have to hope that many of those players of the present will become coaches of the future.
It would be complacent though just to just rely on an organic shift in a positive direction, especially when the benefit of a greater gender balance in coaching is so obvious.
“Everyone has a responsibility, males and females,” says Louise. “We need to encourage each other and build one another up. Everyone has a role to play in this going forward to have more women coaches.
“But whether you're a male or female coach, once you have the player at the centre of it all and there's great support for everyone involved, then the numbers should keep growing hopefully.”