FEATURE: Praise for Gaelic4Girls from the Emyvale club in County Monaghan

Success in sport can take many forms. It is most often measured by achievement, by medals, by silverware. But without participation, none of these things can happen. Without players, numbers can dwindle and teams fall away. Often amalgamations with neighbouring clubs happen, and memories of the once-strong single club retreat further and further into a distant memory.

And so, our club in Emyvale, Co. Monaghan, found ourselves looking down the line and seeing quite a bleak picture for the future. We decided to engage in the Gaelic4Girls programme in January 2018.  The future of our club was a primary focus of the new committee, and we looked at the issue of low participation in the club, with girls losing interest or taking up other sports. And while medals were being won at different levels in the club, concern was raised about lower numbers in younger age groups.

Great work is being done in the GAA sector in attracting young players, and especially in Emyvale GAA. The Nursery and GoGames models were proving to be very enjoyable for all involved, and younger girls were partaking in great numbers at u6, and u8 levels. However, as the girls moved into the older age-groups, it seemed that they were dropping off, for no obvious reason. It may have been down to self-confidence, or playing with the boys, but by the time they were the age to join the LGFA at u12 level, it seemed girls had taken up other sports or had moved on to other activities.

This committee member wondered was there a similar programme to the Nursery/GoGames for girls, while watching an u12 game. In Monaghan, these games take place over 3 “halves”, with the middle half having non-competitive football taking place. This was great for big clubs, who had large numbers of girls playing, and younger players were given the opportunity to play in a real game setting during the middle half, allowing the older girls a much-needed reprieve. However, for smaller clubs, it also meant that those playing the other two “halves” had to remain on the pitch and play the non-competitive half.  No time to rest those tired legs!

I wondered why we didn’t have enough girls to come on for the non-competitive half, and allow the other girls to rest. Why were there such low numbers at this age-group? The drop-off rate of girls in sport is well-documented during their teenage years, but it was particularly worrying at u12 level. It seemed we weren’t even getting girls to play at a young age, and were being denied an opportunity to retain them further down the line. Why were we failing?

Another club in Monaghan had undertaken Gaelic4Girls previously, and the committee contacted them and asked about it. Communication is so important at grass-roots level. They had a lot of advice for us, and so we contacted the LGFA, applied for the programme, and were overjoyed to be accepted! Now the real work began! We agreed to source parents and current players to help out, book our local pitch for Saturday mornings, and co-ordinate an extensive awareness campaign. A provincial seminar took place at St. Ciarán’s College in Co. Tyrone, where advice and guidelines were provided. This proved invaluable for the club co-ordinator and coaches, many of whom were parents that were interested in their daughter’s football, wanted to help out, but were unsure of how to get involved. This is one of the major positives of the Gaelic4Girls programme; it’s open, honest, and fully transparent, with one simple aim – to get girls playing Gaelic Football in a fun environment.

All promotional material for the programme was supplied by the LGFA, from posters to flyers, and a structured week-by-week outline of preparations until the launch. Of course, social media was invaluable, and we used Facebook and Twitter shamelessly in those weeks in the run-up to the launch! Visits to local primary schools in the catchment area took place, and we were pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm from everyone involved; principals, teachers and the girls themselves. We were well-supported by our counterparts in the men’s club, who were interested in promoting the programme on our behalf, and offered their support throughout.

There was a great buzz around the clubhouse on the morning of the launch. We had over 30 registered on the first day, with the programme running for 6 weeks. We had several of our All-Star Senior Players present on the day, and the young players were in awe as the girls showed off their skills! This was a massive bonus to us, to have older girls willing to show their appreciation for all that had been provided for them down through the years, and ‘give back’ to the club.

A weekly challenge set by the Gaelic4Girls Ambassador proved to be a brilliant addition to the extensive resources provided by the LGFA. Aimee Mackin (Armagh) would set a skills challenge for the girls, with a video uploaded to Twitter every week. The girls got a real kick out of seeing their videos! The focus on fun was reinforced through the drills and games we played every week, and the girls kept coming back. More parents stayed to watch, and future coaches were identified. Fruit and juice for the girls and tea/coffee for the parents and coaches afterwards meant new friendships were soon forged.

Locally, everyone was talking about it. People would stop the committee members in the local shop and ask about it. They praised the work being done. Feedback from parents was extremely positive. The girls that were participating in the GAA GoGames were proving themselves to be formidable opponents alongside the boys! GAA coaches remarked at how they were improving their skills, and participating in the games much more than before. Closer links were formed, with coaches from both codes discussing how they could best support each other.

It proved to be a game-changer for our club.

The Gaelic4Girls programme allowed the club to think outside the box, to become pro-active in our approach to dwindling numbers of girls playing Gaelic football in our area. It pushed us out of our comfort zone and ask hard questions about ourselves as a club. It gave us supports and resources. It allowed older players an opportunity to ‘give back’. It encouraged parents and new coaches to participate and get involved. It raised the profile of our club in the community and beyond. It gave girls in our community a sense of belonging. It altered the focus of our club and made us more open and inclusive to new ideas and people willing to help.

Without a doubt, the greatest measurement of success for our club is the number of girls in our area that are now playing Gaelic Football. Of those girls that registered on the first day of the programme, twenty-six girls completed the programme with a provincial blitz in Tyrone in July 2018. Every single one of them are still playing in July 2020, with an additional two players that joined last year, now at u14 level. There are over twenty girls at u12 level, and another twenty-five girls at a newly-formed team at u10 level. That’s almost 70 girls, aged 9-14 playing football with Emyvale Ladies.

These numbers show the benefits of an initiative like the Gaelic4Girls programme. It gave our club a huge head-start in prioritising participation and making sure we keep building on its success. The future of our club looks a lot brighter, with coaches willing to upskill to learn how best to keep girls playing. (We went on to host the hugely successful Gaelic4Teens last year, aimed at the retention of girls aged 13-17.) The supports and resources provided provincially and from LGFA headquarters were invaluable in delivering the programme successfully, and equipped us with the skills to keep striving for participation, development and (hopefully) some medals and cups.

This isn’t the priority for our club at the minute, however. The mantra is: “Keep the girls playing. The silverware will come.”

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