Cuala teenager showing how to keep girls playing Gaelic Games
By John Harrington
Aisling Nig Ruairc is a shining example of how young people can be influential leaders in their own clubs and communities.
Empowered by her experience of taking part in the Dermot Earley Youth Leadership Initiative (DEYLI), she is using the tools she developed there to address what is a huge issue for underage camogie and ladies football teams up and down the country – the high drop-out rate of players.
The 17-year old has had a hugely positive sporting journey herself playing camogie and football with Cuala in Dublin, which is why she is so passionate about the benefits of team sport for teenage girls.
And her ‘Keeping Girls Playing Project’ is having such a positive impact in Cuala that it will hopefully give other clubs some really helpful food for thought as to how best to keep girls involved in team sport.
“As part of my second module in the Dermot Early Young Leadership Initiative I gave a presentation on what the GAA means to me as a female,” Nig Ruairc told GAA.ie
“When I was researching this I came across a survey saying that one of two girls will drop out of team sport by the age of 13 and are three times more likely to give it up than boys are.
“It kind of shocked me at first because I know from my own personal experience of all the benefits that come from playing team sport.
“But when I thought about it made sense because my own team lost around half of our players by the time we were 13 and struggled to field a team at that age.
“My third (DEYLI) module was a community project, and I really wanted to focus on doing something that would help our club retain girls.”
Nig Ruairc identified the three groups she felt could be most influential in keeping young girls involved in sport – coaches, parents, and older girls – and set about creating resources that would help all three groups more positively impact the 12 and 13 year old girls playing football and camogie for Cuala.
“We decided to do a Microsoft Sway presentation for the parents and coaches giving them tips on how to support the girls just that better give and give them more of an awareness of the importance of playing sport,” says Nig Ruairc.
“For coaches, we weren't going to tell them how to improve because they're obviously much more educated them myself, but just kind of give them a few different websites to look at or just collect some information that might be useful for them.
“And then the final one was the older girls because I think girls especially are influenced by their peers so we thought the girls coming in from the teams above just even showing that there is a future in sport was very important.”
The plan was that Transition Year students who played for Cuala would mentor the younger players and join them for a training session once a month.
Covid-19, unfortunately, made that impossible, but Nig Ruairc is the sort of person who makes lemonade when life gives her lemons and came up with a variety of new strategies instead.
“Last month, I went down with a box of Christmas cards with a team-member's name on each of the cards and the girls fished around the box and took a card and they basically had to write on the card a nice Christmas message, but also what that girl whose name was on the card brings to the team.
“It can be anything, because the most important thing we thought is making sure the girls feels valued on the team.
“Like, it doesn't have to be that she takes the best sideline cuts. It can be, but it can also be things like she's at every training or she always has a smile on her face or something that makes the girls feel special and that everyone recognizes that they're bringing something valuable to the group.
“We’ve been making videos every month for the coaches and the Sway presentations which are basically presentation slides with different messages, photos, videos or whatever we thought might be useful.
“We're hoping to do an awards ceremony for the girls so I have made out these badges and on each budget is listed a different kind of trait for each girl like 'best shot', 'most smiley', 'hardest working', or 'never late'.
“Each badge has something like that so the coaches have been asked to look at the list of the badges, and choose one for each girl.
“We've also asked a parent to be a team photographer and we're hoping to do a nice little slideshow of photos of the girls over the course of the year.”
The 20x20 campaign has highlighted the power of making women’s sport more visible and giving potential role-models a greater platform in order to encourage young girls to participate in sport.
Nig Ruairc has also embraced a similar approach with her own project.
“We've written to about 60 names of important female role models in Irish sport and world sport, different people who we think should have more credit given to them,” she says.
“So we're hoping these role models will do a short little video and then we're going to do a Zoom call and maybe watch through the video so the girls all get our understanding of who each person, who they can look up to, and what they have worked towards.
“We've also given the parents a list of documentaries they can watch with their girls on some of these role models. The girls seem to really enjoy these kinds of interactive bits."
Every player is an individual and has their own reasons for deciding to drop out of team sport, but quite often the causes for pushing them towards that decision are common ones.
So, what sort of advice would Nig Ruairc gave to parents and coaches who want to do all the can to keep their own children or players involved in team sport for as long as possible?
“What I think is most important is making sure the player feels valued,” she says. “Just get them back to enjoying it because girls at that age, I think it's important to think of the long run, not just by the short term goals like winning matches. Enjoyment is really a key thing in the retention of players.
“So, making sure even if she's quiet or not the best player that she is still enjoying her sport and that she feels like if she can go to sport she can still get something out of it.
“Maybe if it's improving one thing or, you know, if a coach gives her a special bit of attention then she might not feel like she's not needed on the team and nobody will notice if she goes or whatever.
“I think that's the most important thing and just making sure that they, the coaches, kind of see the person behind the player, not just the player. So, you know, if you ask them about themselves, or let them have five minutes where they can talk to one another and experience the social side of sport.
“The social side of sport is so important for that age group as well as they're transitioning from primary school to secondary school they might not see their primary school friends as much so you want to give them that time to get to know other girls or better know the girls in their new school. So I think that's really important.”
The series of Covid-19 Lockdowns that have interrupted training and matches for underage players could easily act as an accelerant for player drop-out.
Not having the opportunity to play could be a handy excuse some girls to disengage mentally from their sport and then not make the effort to get involved again when it is possible to do so.
In this latest Lockdown we are now experiencing, Nig Ruairc believes coaches and parents should still make an effort to remind young players why team sport can be such a positive in their lives.
“Definitely, I think that's so important,” she says. “When you're not continuously doing your sport or training with your team once or twice a week you do tend to kind of push it to the side and maybe if your parents aren't that involved in the GAA themselves maybe it can be kind of pushed to the side or overlooked.
“So I think it's so important for coaches just to kind of keep in contact and make sure the girls know that it will be resuming, and it will be as fun as ever.
“Try to encourage the girls to think about the good times they've had in sport during the years they've been playing it and how important it is to stick with it.”
A study commissioned by Lidl Ireland for the Ladies Gaelic Football Association in 2017 found that girls that play sport have a higher body confidence and better mental wellbeing.
80 per cent of girls who played sports rated their mental wellbeing at a score of 7-10 compared to 67% of girls who didn’t play sport.
While zero per cent of girls who played sport reported feeling lonely compared to 10 per cent of girls who didn’t play sport said that they did feel lonely on a daily basis.
Personal testimonies can be even more powerful than statistics, and Nig Ruairc herself paints a very convincing picture of just how beneficial sport can be for young girls.
“I don't even know where to start, It's been amazing,” she says of her own experience of playing Gaelic Games.
“I started when I was five and I would say I was the worst player on the pitch until I was about 12. I was the sort who would volunteer to be a substitute or just sit down on the pitch and play with dandelions!
“But then, it was funny, it kind of just clicked for me when I was 12. So, it's really important to continue with it because it could click for you when you're five or it could click for you when you're 16, it varies for everyone.
“I'm shocked my parents kept bringing me to training because I was a nightmare. I'm so glad they did because it's genuinely one of the best things in my life, and I just love every minute of it.
“It's taught me discipline, it's brought me friends. It's brought me so many lifelong skills I think I’ll probably even use some day in the workplace.
“It's just been amazing and I miss it a lot now. I miss just seeing my teammates and everything. I think it's just such a good sport, but it doesn't just have to be about playing Gaelic Games, what's important is that girls continue playing sport in general whatever that sport may be.
“All sports have their benefits and I don't think there's any that will bring you one benefit. So, I would just love to make girls aware of that.
“That even maybe you don't have that much time to still give it a shot because sport has so, so many benefits that you wouldn't even think of, like teaching you to be modest and hard-working, which is very important.
“There are all sorts of skills that maybe aren't visible on the pitch but are very visible off the pitch.”
Many of those skills that Nig Ruairc developed playing team-sport have been enhanced even more by her involvement in the Dermot Earley Youth Leadership Initiative, and she believes it can have a similarly positive impact on any other young people who might be interested in taking part.
“When I first joined I was definitely a quiet enough person,” she says.
“And it was interesting because there was people from other clubs, but there was also people from my own club that I didn't really know but by the end of the project you're getting a great understanding of leadership.
“And I think the community project really in the third module is a great step to kind of show what you've learned and to help the community in any way possible..
“I'd highly recommend getting involved in the Dermot Earley Youth Leadership Initiative if you can.”
- You can view and download some of the material that Aisling Nig Ruairc has produced for her 'Keeping Girls Playing Project' below.