Maria Bergin showing how much female coaches have to offer
By John Harrington
How someone responds to adversity tells you a lot about their character.
Take Maria Bergin, for example, who is Castleknock GAA’s Games Promotion Officer.
When she was 16 years of age, the Kildare native she was told she had to stop playing the game she loves, camogie.
'Born with a malformed valve in her heart it didn’t affect her in a sporting sense until her mid teens when she started passing out during matches when her heart rate would race.
A total break from playing was prescribed, which was a crushing blow for someone who by then was representing her county at U-16 level in camogie and was a very prominent player for her club Naas.
“When I was told I needed to stop playing for a while it was like losing a limb and I just wanted to find another way to stay involved so I did a referees course and am qualified to referee all the way up to senior," Bergin told GAA.ie
“I also did my foundation coaching course, my Award 1, because I just really wanted to stay involved. After a year and a half I got back playing, so it wasn't too bad, but at the time it felt like the end of the World.”
As tough as it was to stop playing camogie back then, ultimately it put her on a coaching pathway that has brought her a huge amount of happiness and job satisfaction.
Doing that coaching course when she was sidelined and helping out at Cúl Camps gave her an insight into what it might like to be a full-time Games Promotion Officer, which has been her role with Castleknock GAA club for the last three years
“I had done Irish and Music in College and my plan had been to go and do teaching, but then I looked into what a job like this would entail and it combined my love of teaching and my passion for sport,” she says.
“And you're working with kids and you're seeing them progress day in, day out. There is definitely a sense of pride and I just love it. There's just no other way of saying it. It's great fun and it's become a second family for me up here (in Castleknock).
“I would be up here a lot of the time taking sessions in the evening and being in schools during the day and then at weekends there are matches so it has definitely become like a second family for me, it's great.”
It’s certainly a big second family, because Maria coaches 600 children in four local primary schools from Tuesday to Friday and then every Saturday morning organises the coaching of 400 children in the club’s nursery.
She’s made a hugely positive impact in Castleknock in a short period of time where it has been very notable that the participation levels of young girls has risen significantly since she arrived.
“When it was my first year going into the schools the kids had heard a GAA coach was coming but they didn't know who it was going to be,” recalls Bergin.
“The little girls rocked in and one of the girls saw me and said, 'Oh my God, it's a girl!'
“When they heard GAA they automatically assumed it would be a boy, and I'm quite a girly girl in that I'd have my nails done and I wear make-up and stuff like that. So I think it was great for them to see you can be girly but still be tough and play GAA.
“We were even just looking at our numbers recently. Going back a few years it would have been definitely that the ratio of lads to girls would have been 60-40 whereas now it my nursery it's basically 50-50. And in one age-group we actually have more girls which is amazing to see.
“I do think the way the GAA, the LGFA, and Camogie Association are promoting the games is a factor as well because the little girls are actually seeing the older girls on the telly or on posters. I think that has definitely been a factor as well.”
Anyone who is involved with looking after a girls’ underage team will know the value of having as many women as possible helping with the coaching and mentoring.
Every coach is different and has their own particular style, but as a generalisation it’s probably true that empathy comes more easily to female coaches which is especially effective when coaching young girls and boys.
“I would agree that seeing a girl coach coming in is a big thing for young girls because it's easier for them to relate to a female coach,” says Bergin.
“A lot of the coaches that I've worked with would be older and predominantly male.
“I think that girls can find it harder to relate to them whereas they find it much easier with a girl coming in. And I suppose it tends to be that girls find it easier to interact with smaller children as well.
“I know from talking to some of the guys they find it easier to coach the fourth, fifth, and sixth classes, but they find it more challenging to coach the kids in junior infants to first class because the kids are so small and the little girls may want to be doing ballerina stuff and things like that.
“In Dublin there are six female GPOs and the rest are lads. And I think all the time we're trying to prove ourselves just to show that we can bring something different to the table.
“I think we can understand where young girls are coming from and also young boys. I think we find it easier to get things out of young children because we find it easier to be animated with them. I think we just bring something different and have a lot to offer.
“I'm not saying that lads don't, I just think that female coaches can bring a different approaches.
“Any maybe in a situation in training where a girl might prefer to do a twirl than solo the ball then I might bring it into the session that a twirl becomes part of the drill. You can show them that a twirl can actually help them get away from an opponent. So that makes it a bit fun while still relating it to Gaelic Games.
“You have to realise that they're children at the end of the day and they want to have fun but also learn new things and improve week on week.
“So being spontaneous in your approach and not being too rigid is the best way to approach coaching children.
“And boys will react just as well to empathy as girls do. Boys can be a bit more competitive than girls and it's good to reassure them that it's okay not to be the winner every single game. Again, it's about remembering they're small children and be sympathetic to that.”
Bergin isn’t just a fine role-model for the young girls in Castleknock GAA clubs, since she became the club’s GPO more mothers have gotten involved coaching and mentoring teams which surely can’t be a coincidence either.
“Yeah, I think that has made an impact because they might think they don't know much about GAA but when they see a female coach there it could convince them to try,” says Bergin.
“I think it might be easier for them to approach me too because I'm a female but also I'm young, I'm 26, so I think that makes me a bit more approachable too.
“I think also when they see their children giving feedback about what 'Coach Maria' would have said that they're seeing the influence a female coach is having and it encourages them to get involved.
“Because we have definitely had more mammies get involved and not just with our girls teams, but with our boys teams as well.
“I'm not going to take credit for that, but maybe it has given mums a different perspective and made them think they can get involved whether they have a son or a daughter.
“It's great for parents to get involved coaching their son's or daughter's team because it's so rewarding for everyone involved. Coaches can have a really positive influence on children.”
When you ask Bergin about her level of job satisfaction she describes being a Games Promotion Officer as “an absolute blessing”.
You get the feeling that Castleknock GAA club are counting their own blessings she’s now one of their own.