Why 2021 will go down in history as a turning point in women’s sport.
What an amazing year 2021 has been for women in sport.
Six women featured on the eight-strong RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year shortlist this year. Never before in the history of the awards have women featured so heavily.
2021 will go down in the record books as a ground-breaking year for women in sport where female athletes displayed their incredible talents on the national and international stage.
How did we arrive at this place of triumph and prosperity you might ask. It comes down to a couple of different factors.
The coaching of kids has changed drastically in the last 10 years. In bygone years the emphasis was on winning first and foremost.
Inclusion and whether or not kids were enjoying themselves was all too often an afterthought.
There has been a complete shift in philosophy and approach and what we are seeing now, I believe, is a manifestation of that.
When I think back to my underage days playing camogie, the same image always stands out.
It’s a picture of the same 3 girls always sitting on the bench, arms folded, crest fallen.
They would look on from the fringes as their coaches applauded and praised their teammates.
The school of thought was that if you focused on the “good” players, you would win more matches, move up grades and ultimately produce the stars of the future.
This ideology fails kids who are considered to be late bloomers. It also, in more cases than not fails the so called talented kids.
The pressure that is placed on them to perform, the guilt they feel because they are receiving preferential treatment and the gradual dwindling of any sense of enjoyment eventually starts to take its toll.
That’s when you see kids, especially girls dropping out.
Thankfully, the ethos has changed from “win at all costs” to “try your best”. When an atmosphere like that is cultivated, the individual, the team and the club is strengthened.
Visibility of women in sport
It also helps that women are so much more visible in sport than they used to be. As the saying goes, you have to see it to be it and having someone to aspire to makes that path so much more accessible.
We owe that visibility to people like Katie Taylor who clawed her way to the top of boxing so that media outlets had no choice but to take notice.
Little was known about female boxing before the arrival of Katie Taylor. She helped to give not only women’s boxing, but women’s sport, a voice.
Her exploits in the Olympic games brought her world wide recognition but turning pro cranked her star power up another notch.
Next April she is due to fight Amanda Serrano in what is touted to be the biggest female boxing fight in the history of the sport.
Taylor paved the way for so many of the superb female athletes we are witnessing today.
Off the pitch and away from the ring, there are a lot more female sports pundits and commentators emerging, which is also hugely important for girls to see.
I remember seeing Joanne Cantwell for the first time on The Sunday Game as a teenager and that being my inspiration to become a sports journalist.
She modelled everything I wanted my career to look like.
As a woman, the significance of role models cannot be underestimated.
20 by 20 campaign
The 20 by 20 campaign was crucial in cultivating a cultural shift in how we as a society see women and girls in sport. The pandemic may have slowed down the progress of 20×20 but it was unable to lessen its impact.
The 3 main aims of the project were to:
1. Increase participation in sport for girls
2. Increase the number of people attending women’s games
3. Improve media coverage of women’s sport
Covid 19 presented an unprecedented challenge for the campaign as it entered its final phase in 2020.
However, because attendances at women’s games had grown significantly in 2018 and 2019, there was a cushion for the inevitable fall in numbers when things began to crumble in March 2020.
Participation increased by 13% and attendances at games had grown by 17% in the first 2 years of the campaign.
It wasn’t all good news though, as it highlighted how little exposure women’s sport gets in the media.
Online coverage of women’s sport represented just 4% of overall sports coverage before the campaign. This increased only marginally to 5% by the time 20×20 reached its conclusion.
Media coverage of women’s sport is something we need to get serious about.
Advancements in strength and conditioning and nutritional programmes has meant that sportspeople are now able to get the very best out of themselves in their chosen discipline.
Women now have more access to sports education and resources that allows them to reach peak performance levels.
The gap between men and women in sport has narrowed significantly over the last number of years and it’s thrilling to see.
The significance we place on gender in sport is diminishing.
Rachel Blackmore said it best after becoming the first woman to win the Grand National. “I don’t feel male or female right now, I just feel human”.
Here’s hoping 2022 can produce the same magic as 2021.